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The problem with advice columns… and other things.

I love the New York Times, and not for the reason most people love the New York Times. Well, I take that back. Freedom of the press and journalism in general is super important now. But, I personally love the New York Times for two reasons: the Metropolitan Diary and the Modern Love columns. If you haven’t read them, please do so immediately.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell on Twitter which posts are from Modern Love and which are from the NYT version of an advice column. And this is why I’ve read the NYT advice column.

Now let’s talk about why that advice column, and any advice column, is a problem.

People write in with a variety of life problems, but they’re all pretty serious. This isn’t a matter of “Which color shoes should I wear to this event?”. This is more along the lines of “let me ask you about this complex problem I’m having with an important family member” or “tell me whether or not I should get divorced”. Let’s just cut to the chase. Those aren’t questions for an advice column in a newspaper. Those definitely aren’t questions for an advice column in a newspaper that is being written by someone who is not a mental health professional.

Excellent motivation. And yet… how does one do that? What if you’re struggling with it?

And that’s really the biggest issue.

Those are questions that you ask your close friends and family, and if that doesn’t work, you need to seek out additional help. There’s nothing wrong with being in a place where you need more help. Life is hard. Sometimes it’s downright impossible. If you couldn’t figure out your taxes, you’d hire an accountant. When you’re stuck in life, you go to a therapist. It should be the same thing, and yet, we all know stigma exists. It exists for a lot of reasons, and never would I say that advice columns are the biggest reason that stigma around any type of mental health care exists. However…

Advice columns are a symptom of the problem.

It exists on social media also. I love that people, whoever they are and whatever they do for a living, are sharing their own mental health struggles and their own journey to wellness. We need more people to share their stories to normalize the idea that everyone struggles. But, when it starts to enter the world of advice, that’s when we have a problem.

I get that I’m biased, and I’m promise I’m not just trying to convince everyone to go to therapy (well, maybe a little… IT’S SUPER HELPFUL!). But there’s a reason why it requires graduate school and a license to practice as a mental health professional. There’s more to it than telling someone to take care of themselves or do what’s right for them. If it was that simple, I wouldn’t have a job, and we’d all be a lot more at peace in our daily lives.

That would be GREAT. But if it was that easy, wouldn’t you be doing it by now?

When someone, who isn’t a trained professional, dispenses advice it makes it seem easy or commonplace. Most of us don’t need someone to tell us to wear shoes if we’re walking outside. We just know. It’s a relatively easy rule (and self care tool) to follow. But “doing what’s right for you”, for example, isn’t an easy rule to follow. There’s so much more involved in why someone is doing something that isn’t particularly beneficial to them than just not doing it.

So what happens when we make it seem simple?

People feel like there’s something wrong with them if they can’t do it. And if you think something’s wrong with you, you’re going to feel awful about yourself. You’re also less likely to get help or speak out if you feel like it’s YOU that is the problem rather than the fact that life is a serious struggle sometimes.

It also minimizes the importance of mental health professionals if we put out the message that “just anyone” can give advice on mental health or wellness in general. Whether intentional or not, the thought of “Why do I need a therapist if I can just ask x person on (insert social media platform here)?”, enters people’s heads. The more we emphasize the importance of therapy in helping to manage what it’s supposed to manage, the less the stigma exists. We wouldn’t give advice to someone looking to manage their diabetes without a medical degree (I hope!), so let’s not give general advice about issues that should be handled by someone with a mental health license.

TRUTH. But is there anyone who doesn’t care to some extent if other people like them? No. No there is not.

Please keep sharing your stories.

Share what worked for you. Share what you’ve overcome. We still need that for all the reasons I already mentioned. It’s important that we’re more open with each other about our triumphs AND our struggles. But keep in mind, that unless you’re trained to provide mental health treatment, you’re missing a lot of information and knowledge that’s needed to guide someone else through their process. What works for you might not work for someone else. It might even be problematic and/or dangerous.

Personally, I get it. When you feel like you’ve had a TON of experience with something (like managing self care or practicing self love, for example), it starts to feel like you could teach a class on it. Thanks to chronic pain life, I’ve been to pretty much every medical professional that has anything to do with orthopedic anything. I’ve tried the supplements. I’ve bought the recovery tools. I have over a decade of experience attempting to manage pain. And yet, I don’t have a medical or a physical therapy degree. So I share my experiences, what’s worked for me, and what hasn’t – all with the disclaimer that it’s ONLY my experience and it might be the absolutely wrong thing to do for them. I’m not a substitute for a conversation with someone who is constantly learning about their field.

So what’s the best practice?

Share your experience. Share the importance of seeking out therapy. Share what’s worked for you, what’s helped you get through daily life, and what hasn’t been beneficial at all. But also share if you aren’t qualified to help someone with their struggle, and point them in the direction of someone who can.

Author: Rachel

Rachel is a licensed therapist and co-founder of Viva Wellness. She gets most of her inspiration for the blog while on the run, and if you ever need to find her, she’s probably in Central Park. If she’s not running, you’ll find her planning the next time she’s going to eat, exploring all things wellness in NYC, or raising her stress level by watching her sports teams.

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