When someone opens up about their mental health difficulties, it is common for them to be met with advice about how to "fix" the problem.
This kind of reaction to a disclosure is understandable. Often, unsolicited advice comes from a good place. When we see someone we care about suffering we desperately want to be able to make things better for them. But while the intention might be noble, the outcome is seldom helpful.
Rooted in ignorance
If you’re struggling with a mental health condition, the factors that are causing or contributing to it can be varied and complex. Someone's difficulties are often deeply personal and may relate to upbringing or life experiences.
When disclosing a mental health condition it can be difficult to frame what you are experiencing in the context of all these factors. Discussing distressing symptoms without disclosing the trauma at the root of them can be a challenging path to navigate. Many living with mental illness struggle to pinpoint or articulate why exactly it is happening to them.
"Widespread ignorance leads to misconceptions which people take as gospel".
There are a vast array of mental health conditions and even within the same condition each person's experience is different, and many have symptoms that don't fit neatly into one diagnostic box. We cannot expect everyone to have a sense of what all these experiences are like.
However, a lack of awareness of the kinds of behaviour, thoughts, and feelings that may suggest distress make it more likely that someone will dismiss them as "normal" experiences we all go through. Whilst mental health difficulties are normal and experienced by many, this does not make someone's struggles any less valid.
Widespread ignorance leads to misconceptions which people take as gospel.
People may believe that their unsolicited advice is grounded in truth. Even if it is technically evidence-based, its applicability to a particular person fails to account for their individual differences, let alone the validity of the research.
Nonetheless, people living with a mental health condition are likely to already be aware of lifestyle changes that could potentially be helpful. Even people living without mental illness find it difficult to live a perfectly healthy lifestyle, let alone those who lack energy and motivation or may be plagued by thoughts that they are unworthy of being cared for, undeserving of nurture. Whilst mindfulness can be beneficial and grounding for some, lots of people with dissociative disorders find it induces rather than limits dissociation.
It's important to note that lifestyle changes are unlikely to be the panacea that many advice-givers claim them to be.
For example, if people think that a mental health issue is the result of having the wrong attitude or perspective, they might tell someone struggling that “others have it so much worse, you just need to be grateful”. While research does indicate that gratitude can lead to improvements in mental health, telling someone they have no reason to feel the way they do can diminish that person’s suffering. It may also encourage feelings of self-judgement; after all, if people are telling you that you have every reason to be happy but you're not, then you may internalise the belief that you are needlessly complaining or that you're just not trying hard enough.
We can also see that this ignorance is at the heart of other forms of unsolicited advice such as when people say “stop worrying”, “stop overthinking”, “stop beating yourself up”, “cheer up”, “focus on something else”, or “you just need to calm down”. Phrases like this assume that a mental health condition is easy to control and that anyone can simply "snap out of it".
This doesn’t match many people's experience of mental illness as being beyond their control. It can be frustrating to live with mental illness and have people tell you to just change your thoughts or emotions - as if your mental health condition is a choice, a decision you made for yourself.
Being given advice you didn’t ask for can create a situation where you think the person giving you advice is mature, high achieving, capable, while you imagine yourself as failing in comparison. In this way, unsolicited mental health advice can make people feel worse about themselves, which – of course – is counterproductive.
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Creating a power imbalance
Unsolicited mental health advice can also create a power imbalance. A study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that people with a high tendency to seek power were more likely to give advice compared to those with a low tendency. The researchers also concluded that advice-giving increases people’s sense of power. In this way, unsolicited mental health advice – while often coming from a place of kindness – may be a way for the advice-giver to reap the power they crave.
The power imbalance in this situation suggests that the person receiving the advice is in need of some knowledge or wisdom from the person giving the advice. This dynamic can make the person receiving the advice feel patronised, even if that isn’t the advice-giver’s intention. When a person opens up about their mental health issues most of the time they are not looking for someone else to provide a solution; instead, they just want to be listened to and met with attentiveness, compassion, and empathy.
Perhaps asking "how can I help you?" or "is there anything I can do for you?" is a more sensitive way to create a dialogue. Reassuring someone that you are there to support them and will be there if they need anything can make a world of difference.
Stop giving unsolicited mental health advice - we don't want it.
Sam Woolfe (@samwoolfe) is a freelance writer with a particular interest in depression, men's mental health, and mental health stigma.