People do stupid things on the internet. LOTS of stupid things. I recognize that this is a fact, however despite that fact, I think we can do better. I have been on the receiving end of a fair amount of these stupid things lately, and I think it’s important to remind y’all of some basics of internet etiquette, and just general life etiquette. I don’t like to have to tolerate people aiming stupidity my way, and I really do think that if we refuse to tolerate unacceptable things, others are less likely to do unacceptable things. Today, I particularly want to discuss reactions when someone discloses to you things that they might be doing for their mental or physical health.
The biggest thing that I want to talk about is unsolicited advice. I understand. You want to feel helpful. You want the other person to feel better. If you think you have an idea, why wouldn’t you share? You could make a difference, right? And what if they’re doing something that you don’t agree with, going to an alt med place? Then it’s your DUTY to tell them they shouldn’t be going there. Right? It can only be good to offer suggestions and advice to someone who’s struggling and who’s told you that they’re doing things to try to improve their health.
Individuals who deal with physical or mental health problems, in all likelihood, have a far better understanding of their condition and the available treatments than you do. They spend a lot of time immersed in it, thinking about it, researching it. They have not made the decision to go to therapy/go to the chiropractor/take meds/etc. without some thought and without weighing the other options. They most likely have heard the suggestion you’re making before, either from other well intentioned individuals or from their doctor or from their family or from the internet. It’s likely they have a good reason that they are not currently doing what you’re suggesting.
It’s incredibly condescending when you swoop in and tell them what they should be doing, as if they had not already consulted with a doctor or therapist or family members and thought about it for themselves. It is incredibly condescending to assume that this means you know more about their body or mind, and how to treat their body and mind than they or their doctors do. It’s also incredibly condescending to assume that they have not thought through the treatment options. PARTICULARLY online, where you likely know little to nothing about this individual except the information they have just provided you, it seems incredibly offensive that you would assume you can diagnose or treat them, when they live with their own symptoms and treatment plan and understand the pros and cons of what they’re doing far more intimately than you ever will.
In addition, if you feel the need to criticize what they’re doing already, remember that you don’t know why they are doing it, and you have no idea how effective it is for them. You might not like the idea of meds. That’s wonderful for you and you don’t have to take them. But you have no idea whether or not meds have saved the life of the person you’re talking to. Keep it to yourself, because they are taking the treatment path they are for a reason. Particularly if you’re worried about something that you feel is potentially useless, remember that you’re talking to an intelligent human being who has their own agency and who may know that they’re getting a placebo effect and embrace that shit. Assuming that everyone who engages in a certain therapy or treatment needs to be educated by you is really quite vain, and assumes that everyone who does it hasn’t done their research or is stupid. If you’re really worried about someone’s actions, ask them why they feel they should go and what they get out of it, and if you’re still worried then ask if they’d be willing to hear a suggestion. I tend to find these behaviors particularly hilarious when carried out by self-proclaimed skeptics who also happen to not be doctors. If you are not qualified to give health advice, then stop giving health advice. Being a skeptic does not qualify you to give health advice.
Health and healthcare are incredibly personal choices. They belong to an individual and their doctor, and any other close friends or family they choose to share with. And IF someone is kind enough to disclose to you that they have to do xyz for their health, but they DON’T ask you for any sort of feedback on it, then the correct response is to be happy for them that they’re doing something to improve their health, or ask if there’s anything you can do to help, or perhaps ask them how it’s going.
Just because someone has spoken about a particular treatment does not mean it’s up for discussion. Particularly for people who struggle with chronic or severe disorders, their medical treatment may be a huge part of their life. It may be something that comes up often in conversation because it’s a huge part of their life. I know it’s difficult for me to go half an hour without mentioning therapy because I spend a large percentage of my life in therapy. It’s part of who I am. And I’m not interested in hiding that element of myself. Particularly because I know of the stigmas against mental illness, I often disclose strictly for increased visibility of the mentally ill. In no way does the fact that you know that I have a mental illness or that you know I go to therapy give you license to comment on whether it’s a good idea for me or not.
There are some exceptions to this. If someone actively solicits information or advice, then GO FOR IT. If someone is complaining about how horrible their treatment is and how it’s not working at all, then it might be an appropriate time to jump in with an alternative suggestion. Or if someone is doing something that might actively endanger them or another person, then gently pointing out some of the alternatives or problems with their choices is appropriate.
So with all of this said, please try to remember that when someone mentions their health, that is not an open invitation to comment or criticize. Even if they say it in a public forum. It should be fairly clear when they’re discussing their health choices in a way that opens it up to conversation, usually prefaced by something like “can we talk about my health choices?” Just because someone says something where you can hear/read it, doesn’t mean they want your feedback and doesn’t mean you’re not a condescending ass when you act like you know more about their health and life than they do. Particularly when you’re talking about what they should or should not do with their body, you can butt out until asked.
For these reasons I’m going to be updating my comment policy as follows: if you offer me unsolicited health advice, PARTICULARLY about my mental health, my meds, or my therapy, I will delete your comment. This is my own space on the internet and I have the right to keep it as safe for myself as possible. You have the right to give people as much advice as you want about health in your own forums, but this is my forum and I don’t have to listen to it.