The team at Psych Central’s Ask the Therapist is part of a stream of history that started almost 300 years ago.
The first recorded advice column was in 1690! For centuries, people have looked to sometimes anonymous “experts” for advice about love and romance, family relationships, social and work problems, and internal distress. Over time, the format has been much the same: People write in their questions and the advisors advise.
Every day, PsychCentral’s four-member team of psychologists and social workers answer questions from people all over the world.
There are about 270,000 page views each month by about 108,000 viewers. Why?
I’m sure that, for some, it is curiosity about other people or interest in comparing their own answers to ours. Others have not yet found the courage or think they don’t have the ability to write about their own situation. They therefore look for our responses to other people who have problems similar to their own.
But hundreds of people do write.
Our inbox contains letters from teens, young and not so young adults, every gender, and many different countries. They come from all economic, religious, and ethnic groups. Writers are people who are worried about how they are feeling or upset about interactions with people they care about or confused about how to handle a stressful situation. Some are merely curious about psychology. Some are in deep distress.
Should you send us an email too? There are many positive reasons to do so:
To organize your thinking. Just writing a problem down is often helpful. Explaining anything to someone else requires slowing down and thinking about what you need to say and how to say it. You may be surprised, when you look at what you’ve written, to see the problem in a new and sometimes solvable way. If not, we can perhaps offer another way to look at the situation or direct you to appropriate sources of support.
To dump some of your distress: Sometimes it helps just to “dump” or “vent.” Writing to us can get something off your chest and into our mailbox. Sometimes that’s enough. You don’t want to bother friends or family. You do want a place where you can express yourself freely – and anonymously. We’re here for that. We’re here to let you know you are not alone. We might even have some ideas about how you can manage the problem.
To sort information: The internet is a wonderful source of information. But it can sometimes be difficult to sort through the sheer volume of sites. What is legitimate research? What is sensationalism? What is really applicable to you? How can you reconcile contradictory opinions? If you are having difficulty making sense of what you are reading or if what you are finding online is stressing you out, we can help you sort it out.
To get a diagnosis: I’m sorry. It is unethical for us to diagnose on the basis of a short letter. But if you have been attempting self-diagnosis, you might find it reassuring or enlightening to write to us. Self-diagnosis is often incomplete, at best, and often inaccurate. Often it is anxiety-provoking. In cases where we think symptoms are consistent with a particular diagnostic category, we will encourage you to seek a mental health assessment to confirm it. On the other hand, our experience may lead us to suggest that your suffering is attributable to something besides mental illness. Feelings and behaviors that might indicate a mental illness can often be explained by medical, developmental and/or cultural issues. If that’s the case, we’ll refer you to professionals or resources who can help. Sometimes we may suggest that you are going through a perfectly normal, though uncomfortable, developmental phase. Sometimes we may remind you that being anxious or depressed is a normal response to an abnormal situation.
To spare your support people: Yes, we all can and should reach out to the people who count in our lives when we are troubled. But sometimes they have listened and listened and done their best to be helpful but you have a sense that they just can’t take in more of your stress. Sometimes they have troubles of their own. Sometimes they feel helpless to help. Writing to us spreads out your distress and expands your support circle. In addition, we may encourage you to join one of the PsychCentral forums, to explore support services in your community, and/or to make an appointment with a professional.
What the Ask the Therapist team offers:
Credentials: In my opinion, it is unfortunate that many advice columns have been written by people with no credentials in psychology or mental health, or who have advanced degrees in an irrelevant profession. In contrast, all of us are licensed psychologists or social workers. All of us have years of experience working directly with people from all walks of life and with the full range of diagnoses. For detailed information about each of us, click on the Help tab on the home page, then click on “About our Therapists.”
Respectful answers: There are advice columnists who seem more interested in using people’s letters for their entertainment value than in providing real help. Not so at PsychCentral. We think witty responses to someone’s pain aren’t funny. Blaming or shaming people may play into the negativity currently permeating our culture but we think it is disrespectful and rude. We never call people names or bully. Yes, there is sometimes a place for humor, but never at a writer’s expense. Although a glib response might be more hip or entertaining, we believe letter writers deserve better than a pop, slap dash, way cool answer. Our team has always treated serious problems seriously.
Hope. Yes, hope. As a team, we believe in the resilience and potential for recovery and growth of our writers. We do the best we can to respond to the immediate problem and to offer encouragement, support and hope. Whenever we can, we identify next steps and encourage people to take positive action.
Should you write to us?
If you are asking that question, you probably already have the answer. You have a problem you haven’t been able to solve on your own. If you could, you would have done it already.
You have nothing to lose by sharing the problem with us. There are no guarantees that our advice will be helpful but we’ll do our best. Chances are we can provide a new perspective on the situation, some practical ideas, new resources to explore, or some peace of mind.
You deserve it. You are worth it.