What to do with too much advice?

We have only just begun to grapple with the pandemic's psychological fallout.
Last Updated : 28 June 2020, 06:29 IST
Last Updated : 28 June 2020, 06:29 IST

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While the jury is still out on whether the dreamy-eyed actor Sushant Singh Rajput killed himself or if it was a murder by society, social media has gone berserk with millions of messages travelling across various platforms.

Most messages echoed (and continue to do so) one aspect — ‘listen to your peers, lend your ears, offer your shoulder’, inadvertently revealing a gaping hole in the soulless transactions of fragile human communications.

But then, is it enough to ‘listen to someone’ who needs to be heard? Therapists say that the mere act of listening to someone may not help. Instead, what can work is to help aggrieved individuals find access to appropriate channels of mental health and counselling.

The most famous quote of American educator and author of many ‘how to’ books, Stephen R Covey, goes like this: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

Hence, a mere ‘lean on my shoulders’ may actually make matters worse than before, because someone may be playing the messiah, while he/she ideally shouldn’t. Given how difficult it is in the first place for the aggrieved to reach out to help, inappropriate advice, unsolicited counsel or responses that lack basic sincerity and sensitivity, may end up pushing the person further down into a black hole.

Not tangle-free

Human mind is a complex web of thoughts and experiences, which undergo a metamorphosis time and again to decide how long our date with life continues in a healthy manner. It is also important to recollect that according to psychology, the dance of eros (life instinct) and thanatos (death instinct) is a very intricate and intertwined one. So, when the mind begins to develop dark spots, thoughts are often jumbled; they do not come out tangle free.

More often than not, the person affected is unable to recognise such signs himself as he continues to walk through this lonely phase.

To assume that the person will have the clarity of thought to call/seek counsel from close friends or family is an idea that is at best, random. It is well established that the person who is sinking day by day does not have the ‘force of life’ to seek help because his mind does not list it as an option.

Hence, it is important for friends and family to keep a tab on him. It does a world of good; but, with caution.

Avinash Gangadhar (name changed) sank into depression owing to his job loss leading to economic distress. His wife Jayanthi fell ill around the same time. He had to miss some job interviews, because the doctors could not diagnose the cause for Jayanthi’s illness. “Mounting hospital bills and increased gap between my last job and the subsequent one would make me feel terribly hopeless,” he recounts days from his life a few years ago. Eventually, things got better, but Avinash has very strong memories from those days. “My friends would call and ask if I needed help. I probably did, but I couldn’t ever bring myself to ask them. Instead, I’d get irritated even if the caller made a genuine suggestion about either my wife’s health or my job,” he says. His strongest feeling was to turn himself away from every societal obligation of having to ‘use help’ or ‘share pain’.

Cultural conditioning

Our cultural conditioning always forces us to offer help whether or not we are in a position to fully accept the responsibilities of having done so. “If we can focus on actually getting help for our pals and peers rather than trying to help them with our limited knowledge, we would possibly be doing a great favour to them. Hence, if you notice your friend needs help, instead of trying to ‘drown-sorrows-in-a-drink-all-will-be-well’ kind of juvenile approach, it is time you took them to professionals. That’s the only way to help,” says neuro-linguistic programming expert, success coach and motivator Arati Lengade Patil.

To ‘listen to a friend in distress’, in some ways, could send false signals of comfort to the person who may not be able to resolve the matter, and worse, sometimes it can actually stuff more challenging intricacies into the mind of the aggrieved.

“The aggrieved may feel more desperate and anxious and sometimes consider not acting upon friendly advice also as ‘failure’; he may think it is his failure at communication and thus get entrenched further into depression or begin to have suicidal thoughts,” she adds.

There’s an old adage that madness and genius go hand in hand. Hence, we often link highly successful people or very creative minds to being restless or suffering from some kind of mental imbalance or simply swaying between extremes. This clubbing together of qualities needs to change for us to be able to address mental health issues of both geniuses and ordinary folk amongst us. “Those who often lend their ear to someone’s problems mostly have their heart in the right place. They want to help, but they often mistake ‘listening’ to being a total corrective therapy in itself. This good intention often deprives those who need further help on their mental health issues,” says clinical psychologist Dr P Marutham of Mysuru. Help must not be coercive with the fact that you ‘care for them’. If you truly do, you must know your own shortcomings of being unable to read whatever the other person is going through.

“Talks are transitory, but when the person affected is not directed to an appropriate channel of help, the results can be damaging. The issue needs to be addressed, in most cases, by a qualified mental health practitioner. Before slipping into a phase of long-standing mental challenge, the affected person may show totally contrasting behaviours, which may not be deciphered by a layperson,” she adds. Hence, it is important to increase awareness about mental health and how to reach for expert help.

Lack of awareness

Counselling has become a hackneyed word and some natural skills of listening and offering advice are often mistaken for therapy. This is why a lack of awareness regarding mental health issues can prove detrimental for the society at large as well as to individuals.

Our own limitations of understanding the challenges in someone’s mental health may prompt us to say “you’ll be fine” or “everyone goes through this” or “I had the same problem, but I overcame it with my hard work/luck/god”.

However, this may leave the affected person feeling more inadequate than before to address his challenges. Use of unconventional talk or dismissive expressions, suggesting that they listen to some random spiritual guru, offering unwarranted or unhelpful advice or gossiping about the person’s challenges with mental health turns the whole issue into a shameful journey for the one affected.

Hence, if you or someone you know, is going through a challenging time, do not just offer a shoulder to cry on. Do help them access professional help.

Published 27 June 2020, 19:41 IST

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