The Problem with Advice Columns

I read the New York Times for exactly two reasons: the Metropolitan Diary and the Modern Love columns. Whenever there’s a new Twitter post about a new addition, I click over pretty quickly. Unfortunately, it can be hard to tell which 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.

Any advice column, including that one, is a big problem.

People write in with a variety of life issues, but they’re all pretty serious. This isn’t a matter of “Which color shoes should I wear to this event?”. This is more like “let me ask you about this complex problem I’m having with a family member” or “should I get divorced?”.

Those aren’t questions for an advice column in a newspaper. Those definitely aren’t questions for an advice column in a newspaper written by someone who is not a mental health professional.

That’s the biggest issue.

Those are questions that you maybe ask your close friends and family but are really best answered by a therapist. They’re complex questions with no easy answer – which is why they shouldn’t be dumbed down to advice with a word count designed to have mass appeal to readers.

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, yet, we all know stigma exists. Mental health stigma exists for a number 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’s all over social media. I love that people 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.

There’s a reason it requires graduate school and a license to practice as a mental health professional. It’s rarely easy to know how someone else should move forward at a critical life juncture (and spoiler: a good therapist should never tell you which direction to move in!). If it was that simple, I wouldn’t have a job, and we’d all be a lot more at peace.

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.

Remember, therapy isn’t about someone telling you what to do. It’s about having a trusted, knowledgeable support system guiding you to figure that out for yourself.

So what happens when we make it seem simple?

People feel like there’s something wrong with them if they can’t do it. 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. 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, the less the stigma exists. We wouldn’t give advice to someone about their diabetes without a medical degree (I hope!), so let’s not give advice about issues that should be handled by someone with a mental health license.

Please keep sharing your stories.

Share what worked for you and what you’ve overcome. It’s important that we’re more open with each other about our triumphs AND our struggles. But unless you’re a trained pro, you’re missing a lot of information and knowledge that’s needed to guide someone else. What works for you might not work for someone else. It might even be problematic and/or dangerous.

Personally, I get it. When you’ve had a TON of experience with something, it feels like you could teach a class on it. Thanks to life with a chronic illness, I’ve seen a lot of doctors. I have over two decades of experience attempting to manage my symptoms. And yet, I don’t have a medical degree. I share my experiences – with the disclaimer that it’s ONLY my experience and it might be the wrong 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 AND the importance of seeking out therapy. Discuss what’s worked for you, what’s helped you get through daily life, and what hasn’t been beneficial at all. Be aware, though – this should always be shared with the disclaimer that you aren’t qualified to give advice. Instead, point them in the direction of a qualified pro who can.

Speaking of, we’re accepting new clients. And yes, we’re all qualified mental health pros!

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