This post was originally written for Thoughts & Ideas.
It happens every so often, usually right after I write anything related to mental health or happiness:
I get an email from a stranger who is experiencing suicidal idealization or a similar mental health crisis. Sometimes they say so explicitly, sometimes it is implicit. Sometimes they refer to outright plans to harm themselves, sometimes that too is implicit.
Every time this happens, I am floored. It feels like a punch in the gut. It’s often enough to trigger a panic attack or leave me sleepless for nights. I spent a decent chunk of my birthday completely distracted by one such, detailed, email.
At the same time, I am torn. On the one hand, I know how it feels. I’ve lived with depression on and off for the last six years and am only now at a point where it doesn’t impact my life anymore. Maybe I emailed a stranger at some point, I don’t recall.
And I want to help. I want to say the right thing or suggest the right book or do whatever I can to make someone, even if they’re a stranger, feel better. In the past, I’ve written thousands of words in response, I’ve had conversations lasting months, I’ve stayed up all night trying to support people on the phone. To alleviate someone else of the pain I know too well seems worth any amount of time and energy.
But on the other hand, I am not a mental health professional or even a medical professional of any description. I am not trained in handling crisis situations. I only recently learned to handle my own. I do not know if anything I say could make the situation worse.
On what might seem like the selfish side, these emails drain me, especially when I’ve received them during times when my own life is heavy. And dealing with the mental health crises of people I don’t know is not the most fun or energising way to spend the little free time I have. Or in blunter terms, I’m usually answering emails after working for 12-hours, at the point in the day when my battery is flashing red.
Whenever possible, I try to send a simple, yet not dismissive response. I ask the sender to seek whatever professional help is available to them, to see their doctor, contact their family, ask their employer or school for time off, then explain that I am not in a position to help. Sometimes, I do not respond to emails that include a lot of graphic details (in the same way that I typically do not respond to emails that comment on my appearance, involve presumptuous unsolicited advice, or include a 5000-word autobiography where the intent is unclear, for the record. And quite often I can’t manage to reply to emails I’d like to reply to.)
When you contact a stranger about your problems, big or small, you are asking them to carry out emotional labour for you.
You are asking them to do work you can’t or won’t do. You are externalizing your emotions and shirking responsibility for them.
If you write anything on the internet that resembles advice, people will assume you are open to also giving one-to-one advice about their specific situations. This is very flattering and the vast majority of the emails I receive are lovely, charming, and full of thought-provoking questions, delightful recommendations, helpful feedback, and pictures of people’s cute pets. These emails make my day and I’m more than happy to respond when I can. I’ve written a lot of posts in response to questions I’ve received by email.
However, emailing a stranger about your mental health crisis, or asking for detailed, personalised advice about complex situations crosses a boundary. Maybe some bloggers have the requisite expertise, time and energy to help. Most don’t.
People on the internet are not a free therapy service. They do not have limitless emotional capabilities. They do not owe you anything. I get that the act of writing the email is the therapeutic part and is likely why most people do this. But sending it is not therapeutic for the recipient.
When I write blog posts that look like advice, they always begin as notes written to myself. I.e. They are an attempt to articulate to myself how to handle something I am struggling with at that moment. They are not me swooping down from the mountain with the answers. They are not me positioning myself as an authority on anything.
If you learn something from them that you can apply to your own life, that’s awesome. But I probably don’t have any serious insight into your personal situation.
One of the best things any of us can do for our mental health is to understand that we have responsibility over our own lives and that we gain nothing from offloading it onto other people.
I am aware that, to some, writing this may make me sound callous and cold. But I don’t believe I am alone in receiving emails like this and it needs saying. And I believe that people who email strangers about their mental health are doing themselves a disservice by distracting themselves form what they need to do: get professional help. Plus: take control of their own lives.
The Hollywood narrative that it’s possible to save the life of a suicidal person by saying the right line at the right moment is far too simplistic. Yes, you might be able to provide some temporary relief. But it will do little to improve their lives long-term because it doesn’t change their underlying situation.
There is nothing I can do in an email that will be of meaningful help, beyond parroting the advice every depressed person already knows: see your doctor, call your family, go to therapy.
Ultimately, we have to save ourselves. We cannot be so entitled that we expect other people to do it for us. There is no magic bullet.
Getting over depression and keeping it in remission is a miserable, hopeless seeming slog that isn’t even possible for everyone. Nothing a stranger says in an email can change that or make a shortcut appear.