Your Unsolicited Mental Health Advice Is Not Welcome Here

Rather than dictating solutions, learn how to offer genuine support.

Dear Bystander,

Please stop. I beseech you. The unsolicited advice has got to stop.

Those of us with chronic disorders and illnesses don’t speak about them publicly (or semi-publicly, depending on how you view venues like Twitter) because we’re simply dying to hear how you would deal if you were us. This is going to be hard to hear, but not everything is about you.

Some of us speak up in an effort to connect to other people with similar struggles — to find community, resources, and strategies to mitigate what are continually or intermittently life-disruptive symptoms and conditions. Others (this is a big reason for me) hope to help those without voices who feel weird and uncomfortable realize that they are far less alone than they know.

This is going to be hard to hear, but not everything is about you.

Still others are all about the effort to #EndStigma around disability, mental illness, autism, ADHD, social anxiety, personality disorders, HIV/AIDS, and countless other conditions steeped in cultural judgements and assumptions. That means their words are for you to read, but not for you to comment and “improve” upon.

I don’t know anyone who is hoping against hope that someone without their disorder (or one related enough for real personal experience) will come along and solve all their problems. #TweetLikeANeurotypical was not created to celebrate your unsolicited advice. (Neurotypical’s a term created by autistics to describe non-autistics. As communities have developed on social media, the term has gotten wider usage.)

Unsolicited advice doesn’t just rain down upon those of us who talk about our issues publicly. The friend, family member, or co-worker who casually dropped a personal detail about their situation over lunch didn’t do that hoping you were the one they’ve been waiting for — the One with the magic solution. They likely did it to test out whether or not you’re a safe person to have around or someone they need to keep at arm’s length. If you immediately made suggestions, I have bad news: you didn’t pass the test.

I get that you were once nervous before a semi-public speech, a first date, and that one Thanksgiving where you had to deliver personal, long-hidden news to your conservative, judgemental relatives. You’ve also been sad and spent a weekend in bed with Ben & Jerry torturing yourself with The Notebook until your DVR screamed for mercy. Then there was the time you were juggling wedding planning, a new job, and packing your life into boxes for a long-distance move — distracted and raw beyond belief, completely unable to focus on any one thing.

That all happened to you. And then it all passed. You knew while it was happening that it would pass. Which means none of it qualifies you to comment on someone’s long-term mental illness or disorder. Not even a short-term mental illness diagnosis of your own qualifies you to pass judgement or advise.

And no, I’m not being harsh.

Yes, those of you who are standard-issue and able-bodied have most certainly had fleeting moments where you saw the world through neuroatypical eyes due to a mental illness. That was real and it was very likely rough going; I am not here to minimize your experience, only to put it into the perspective of a life expectancy of over 70 years. That means your fleeting condition does not equate to a life-long, or adulthood-long, illness.

Statistically — because 18.5% of us are dealing with a mental health issue at any given time according to the National Institute of Mental Health — you may have even had an extended period where you struggled with a life-disrupting condition. Only 4.2% (approximately 10 million) of us over the age of 18, however, have a long-term illness. Time, Newsweek, et al can run headlines about the one-in-five Americans with a mental illness all they want; those statistics include temporary as well as chronic conditions.

Written and read as reasons why the stigma on mental health should be something we can tackle because all of our lives have been in some way touched by it, those stats are helpful. Unfortunately, when misread and reported on, they can give those with a bout of depression or anxiety the idea that they understand what it’s like to live with long-term, life-impeding mental illness.

18.5% of us are dealing with a mental health issue at any given time.

In short: your experience with meds and/or therapy and/or a temporary debilitating condition should aid you in cultivating empathy, but should not teach you the lesson that you totes know how fix all the neuroatypical, disabled, and chronically ill folks around you.

When you offer simplistic advice like “Have you tried yoga?” or “Taking a break during the day and setting a specific time to punch out really help me stay focused!” or “Essential oils have totes saved my life!” or “When life gets you down, <insert absolutely anything and everything here>,” or “Have you tried going gluten-free?” you make what is often a daily struggle appear to be a failure to try on the part of the person you’re “helping.”

I promise you, not only has that person tried what you’re suggesting, they’ve tried every other thing there is down to the very last Google-able suggestion. They are — right now as you’re making that suggestion — trying, and they will continue to try every day just to survive.

I need you to sit with those feelings you’re having for a minute — depression, anxiety, an inability to focus, whathaveyou — and imagine you heard this exact same advice-rant every day from multiple people, friends as well as strangers, who not only expected you to be grateful and gracious for their insight, but pretend it was the very first time you’d heard it.

That’s what it’s like to be advised on your condition by a neurotypical. Saying — while smiling, smiling is key — that we’ve already tried X/Y/Z suggestion is met with scorn and skepticism a solid 90% of the time. “But did you actually try it?” is a sentence that I no longer allow to be completed in my presence.

There is no correct way to respond to unsolicited advice from a neurotypical, much like there’s no correct way to respond to suggestions from older family members who are “just trying to help” by bestowing the wisdom of being older and more experienced upon the next generation. Take a solid five minutes and reflect on a handful of times you could feel the advice coming from an aunt, uncle, older cousin, or family friend.

Imagine you heard this exact same advice-rant every day from multiple people.

Did the dread wash over you immediately, or did it take a bit to build into a slow simmer right under your skin? How’d your responses go — did varying them make any difference? Exactly.

Alright. Let’s assume you have the best of intentions — AND MANY OF YOU DO. Which is why the neuroatypical in your life tries so hard to meet your advice with at least a grimace and a mumbled “Thanks.” For all of you, I bring good news! There are three very simple things you CAN do to help — should the impulse to advise be motivated by an actual empathy and desire to assist.

1: Stop

Stop everything you’re doing to “help.” Stop talking, stop typing, stop checking in constantly, stop sending them articles with the latest breakthroughs, stop asking five times a day if they’re OK, stop making suggestions, and FFS stop trying to save them.

This will be the hardest thing for you to do. You may want to find someone who is not your loved one or coworker to vent to about how frustrating it is to have someone in your life you aren’t supposed to help. I mean this genuinely. It’s OK to need help being supportive; that’s how the support chain works.

2: Listen & learn

Most of us will talk about what our daily life is actually like if we feel someone is listening and gives an actual fuck. Wait to ask questions until we bring it up, but if you have genuine questions that — this is VERY IMPORTANT — cannot be answered in a Google search, please ask them.

A little advice on asking questions: make the question about the person and not about the disorder/condition/illness. When you ask about a person you sound supportive; when you ask about the disorder you sound judge-y and a little afraid you’ll get some of it on you.

Spend time reading — on Twitter, on WebMD, on/at whatever speaks to you in a language you can consume and remember. It’s even OK to make a note in your phone while you’re talking with someone. Go so far as to ask how to spell something and say: “Thanks, I want to check that out later, but don’t want to interrupt your story, please go on.” Showing a real interest in the person without demanding that they do the emotional and intellectual labor of educating you on things you can find out on your own is huge.

This may not be true of everyone, but for me, I’m even down for someone in my life having that slightly-proud-of-themselves posture when, as I’m recounting a story or anecdote about one of my disorders, they tell me “Oh! I looked that up!” and make the remembering face while explaining a little of what they learned. Thank you, sincerely, for not making me do the 101 for you. That is exhausting and you just lightened my load tremendously.

3: Ask what they need*

“How can I support you?” is a question that works in almost every situation imaginable. It preempts judgement and assumptions while oozing humility. Often the person won’t have an immediate answer — likely because they aren’t used to being asked a question that’s about what they actually need as a unique human being. If they look stunned, I suggest something like: “It’s OK if you don’t have an answer or don’t need anything right now; the offer’s open for whenever. Just let me know.” And then use an emoji of some sort or make a face that conveys warmth so they know you mean it. (This could be a unicorn, the two señoritas dancing, or the smiling poo. Up to you.)

Here’s the fine print: you have to believe their answer, whatever it is. If they tell you they don’t need anything, you don’t get to push or pressure or demand they give you something to do so you feel less helpless. Remember, this isn’t about you.

‘How can I support you?’ is a question that works in almost every situation imaginable.

Following up a few weeks or months later (whatever equals “a while from now” with the two of you) is totally fine. Asking clarifying questions about what they need if they need something is also totally fine. Being unsure and having to ask along the way if the thing they asked for that you’re trying to provide is helping or being provided in a helpful way is also totally fine.

Telling the person you don’t know if the thing they need is something you can do is also totally fine; no one expects you to be everything they need, and we’d all rather you not promise than drop the ball. These are all honest, humble, supportive responses and, frankly, just being asked “How can I support you?” will make the person feel less alone and more cared for.

Not everyone with a condition requiring empathy will be visible or make themselves known, so while you’re at it, let’s go ahead and apply these rules to interacting with everyone. Curbing the judgements and asking more questions will keep you from being ableist and cultivate more fulfilling — and more interesting! — relationships. Remember that everyone is an individual — which is why the three steps above work: they will help you help others without assumptions and projection.

Now that you know how to support rather than project and dictate, GO FORTH and be empathetic, lovely human beings who care about those around them! I can feel the world becoming a better place already . . .

Signed,
Katie, a human being with dysthymia, disability-level ADHD, & chronic anxiety