May is Mental Health Awareness Month. It is also one year since my own dark days, when I felt overwhelmed, stressed and exhausted. I would eat crappy food, skip the gym and ditch my friends.

I was in a bad place and wasn’t the only one. Americans are working themselves to death and the stress is worse for racial minorities.

People told me to practice “self-care,” but no matter what I did, I didn’t feel whole.

It was only when my personal community showed up that I started to feel better. My sister and brother-in-law picked up my son from school; my parents visited and made our meals; and my husband took time off work for my appointments.

Self-care is taking responsibility for your own mental, physical and emotional health. You can read, meditate or exercise. It means different things to different people.

But if self-care were easy, wouldn’t everyone be doing it?

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The problem is that self-care has become work. It can make us feel like we aren’t trying hard enough. It can add to an already exhausting list of to-do’s. And, as an individual act, it can isolate the very people who need it the most.

Self-care is rooted in social justice movements of the 1960s and 1970s. It became a tool for marginalized communities to fight visible and invisible barriers. As the American writer, feminist and civil rights activist Audre Lorde wrote in an essay, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

 Self-care became popular again in 2016, and today, wellness has turned into a $10 billion industry. As we continue to face workplace stress in a time of increased dialogue, we should engage in an act proven by different cultures.

For self-care to be sustainable, we have to incorporate it into our lives.

But it’s bigger than an individual. “People were born as part of a community, and had to find their place as individuals. Now people are born as individuals, and have to find their community,” Bill Bishop wrote in his book, “The Big Sort: Why The Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart.”

Where, then, are these communities?

Some are structured, like my Ismaili community which collectively covers funerals, assists newcomers, counsels marriages and supports seniors. Some are unstructured, and eat together, exchange stories and share resources.

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This is how I built my professional community. Internally, I joined an employment resource group. Externally, I connected with women of color platforms. Additionally, I fostered my own relationships. Eventually, I found myself and others in a healthier place. It meant I had to trust my community to take care of me, the way I would take care of them.

It’s not that those, like myself, who need self-care aren’t capable of taking care of themselves; it’s that the demands on all of us mean making changes beyond an individual to a societal level.

Diya Khanna, columnist for Seattle Times Explore
Diya Khanna, columnist for Seattle Times Explore