National Hygiene Week: Where Mental and Physical Health Collide

Written by Lauren Abrams, Contributing Writer

July 5th–11th, was National Hygiene week! This might feel like an oddly specific week to have a national designation for, and for some, maybe it even feels superficial. But there’s a difference between selling beauty products and caring about hygiene. 

First of all, hygiene and access to hygienic products are a privilege. Hygiene, or lack of it (or should I say, lack of access to it), is often connected to lacking access to resources. Looking and feeling clean is a huge source of confidence. For example, imagine you’re a middle schooler whose parents can only afford two outfits. You get made fun of for coming to school in the same clothes every day. Or, you’re a young girl who doesn’t have access to feminine products. What would that feel like for you?  While the people mentioned are not at fault, these circumstances can contribute to embarrassment, shame, and constant vulnerability as well as increased self-consciousness (“National Hygiene Week”).

Another component of hygiene is lack of hygiene as a side effect of a severe mental health condition. Often, we might think we know what we’re getting into when we say, “If you need support, I’m here for you.” There’s an understanding from media portrayals of mental health that someone might benefit from talking to a friend as a way to stabilize turbulent emotions or help uplift someone’s mood. But what we don’t get prepared for is the less marketable aspects of mental health, like a depressive episode that prevents someone from being able to shower, brush their teeth, or clean up their living environment. While hygiene may have a relationship with poverty and class, it can also relate to motivation and self-worth. Studies have shown that lack of hygiene and/or motivation to continuously practice physical upkeep are some of the first, more obvious signs of deteriorating mental health (Herzberg).

Hygiene can go beyond just the generally accepted routine: brushing your teeth, taking a shower, or doing your laundry. Unregulated anxiety and depression can lead to habits like smoking or binge drinking, that cause your body to deteriorate (for alcohol, primarily your liver, for smoking, primarily your lungs, and for both, potential periodontal issues–i.e. gum and mouth diseases). Someone who experiences eating disorders can experience enamel erosion from vomiting or decreased bone density from lack of nutrients (“Hygiene and Mental Illness”). Lack of hygiene can have long-term consequences. 

There’s also  a term called “mental hygiene,” which refers to staying on top of your mental health and maintaining it in a similar manner to maintaining your physical health. This means routinely practicing habits to keep you optimally productive and mentally well. The same way taking a shower at the end of a long day might help you feel better physically, speaking with a trusted friend or therapist (depending on the nuances and depth of the topic) might help you feel more clear-headed and refreshed mentally. While you might feel physically prepared to step outside after brushing your teeth, you might feel mentally prepared to go to work after energizing yourself with exercise to get some endorphins flowing. 

At the end of the day, hygiene can mean a lot of things. It can mean physical or mental hygiene or it can mean a resource disparity, but overall it relates to motivation and self-love, and everyone is entitled to that. 

References 

“National Hygiene Week.” The Hygiene Bank, thehygienebank.com/national-hygiene-week/. 

Herzberg, Frederick, et al. “Motivation-Hygiene Correlates of Mental Health: An Examination of Motivational Inversion in a Clinical Population.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, vol. 42, no. 3, 1974, pp. 411–419., doi:10.1037/h0036697. 

“Hygiene and Mental Illness.” NAMI Kenosha County, NAMIKenoshaCounty.org, http://www.namikenosha.org/hygiene-and-mental-illness.html. 

Published by Counseling With Leslie

Leslie Stevens, M.Ed., LCMHC is a North Carolina and Virginia board-certified licensed professional counselor. She co-owns a successful practice in Carrboro, North Carolina. Leslie specializes in helping adults navigate stress, depression, anxiety, and perfectionism. Additionally, she is a life strategist, spiritual coach, and writer.

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