By Susan D’Arcy
A roll call of high-profile names including Prince Harry, Professor Green and Freddie Flintoff have opened up about their struggles with conditions such as anxiety and depression in recent years. Prince Harry, with Prince William and Kate, has even launched Heads Together, a campaign with the ambitious aim of ending the stigma around mental health.
And so, finally and thankfully, we’re seeing the evolution of this difficult subject from unspeakable taboo to hot topic. And, of course, for wellness resorts, which have always had an important role to play in mental resilience, this is great news. I’m just not so convinced it’s always going to be such great news for their guests.
I understand that mental health’s new-found sexiness represents a potentially lucrative new revenue stream and I appreciate that commercial success and professional integrity are not mutually exclusive, but I’m uneasy about the sudden spike in retreats bandying about phrases such as “overcoming anxiety” and “finding emotional balance”. While I’m the first to advocate a week of wellbeing as a tonic for the over-tired, overweight or over-stressed, does anyone truly believe that seven days of group chats, soothing massages and scented candles can resolve a chronic mental condition?
More worrying still is the possibility that in offering to address such concerns in a short timeframe, spas may open a Pandora’s box of old wounds that only exacerbate a guest’s suffering. I have personal experience of this scenario. Earlier this year, someone I know booked a spa week, initially motivated by the desire to shift a few pounds. This woman is in her mid-forties and reasonably happily married but there was infidelity in the early stages of her relationship with which she’s never quite come to terms. After surfing the spa’s website, she decided not to enrol on a detox programme but a package catering to a range of emotional pinch points including loss, grief and relationship conflict.
She was on great form on her return. Her stay had been revelatory, she now understood herself and her husband much better. That was week one. But by week two, she was depressed and somewhat bewildered that she was unable to maintain her new thought patterns and habits. She and her husband started rowing a lot. She needed guidance but there was no support from the spa: no back-up literature, no possibility of follow-up Skype sessions. When she contacted the retreat leader, he suggested she book another week. She seems to be back on an even keel now, but who knows how airing a hurtful episode without time to reach any sort of resolution could have spiralled out of control and impacted on her life. I was shocked at how the spa abandoned her.
It’s not all spas’ fault, of course. When we step on the scales, there is an empirical measure that determines a weight issue, but the mind is mysterious. What will send one person over the edge is grist to the mill for another, and everyone has complex backstories and unpredictable triggers. Which is precisely why this area needs to be handled with great sensitivity. It is currently far too easy for a guest to book online without discussing their situation with staff.
In my friend’s case, the spa had no idea of the depth of her problems—admittedly, perhaps she didn’t either—but the point is that nobody did any digging before accepting her on to a programme for people who, by definition, must be feeling vulnerable. I also question how a therapist can cover anything other than generic stress management techniques effectively in a group setting where everyone has different issues and degrees of severity. In my experience, group discussions often involve other participants chipping in with advice. However well-meaning, this is as counter-productive as Dr Google—but at least you can pull the plug on the internet.
This is not an industry-wide problem. I know reputable wellness resorts and spa tour operators who take the time to ascertain a client’s needs and will refer them elsewhere if they feel ill-equipped to help. But I imagine even good spas must be feeling the pressure to have the words “mental health” prominently displayed in their marketing these days. I also suspect that some may be overestimating their capabilities. Having excellent holistic and medical services or a therapist whose intuition has proved comforting to guests in the past falls far short of the mark.
Yes, spas are invaluable in providing the space for guests to gain greater perspective on life, ergo their mental health. No, spas should not promise help for those with diagnosed mental health disorders unless they have invested in a team of trained professionals and insist guests commit to a longer stay.
It’s fantastic that famous names are speaking out and it’s even better when they do so with humour, like Ruby Wax who has talked about her clinical depression for years. In a Ted Talk, titled “What’s So Funny About Mental Illness?” she said: “One in four people suffer from some sort of mental illness, so if it was… er,” pointing at the audience, “One, two, three, four. It’s you, sir, you. You with the weird teeth and you next to him. You know who you are. In fact, this whole row isn’t right… Don’t even look at me…”
She goes on to explain that when ancient man felt threatened by a predator, a surge of adrenaline would prepare him for a fight, then return to normal when the danger had passed. Nowadays, when we feel we are in danger, we can’t kill traffic wardens or estate agents, so the adrenaline just stays in our body leaving us in a near-constant state of alarm, a nagging loop reminding us of our failings. “What once kept us safe, now drives us insane,” Wax concludes. Spas, please don’t let that be the case with you too.