In an atmosphere of massive mental health cuts, young people are turning to a new form of an old advice-giver – but when agony aunts experience a moment, what does it say about us?
This week (May 16-22) is Mental Health Awareness Week, with “relationships” as the theme. We’ll be running features all week about the mental health of those close to you, the mental health of the artists that inspire you and the different ways that communities and individuals deal with the issue. Slowly but surely, progress is being made in the ways in which we discuss a problem that affects each and every one of us.
It doesn’t take many clicks these days to get advice from the internet. Ask a question – shout it into the void – and sooner or later, someone is going to come to your aid, be it on social media, a loosely-organised message board, an anonymous Ask box or good old Yahoo Answers. I know because I’m hooked on them: the online agony aunts whose weekly columns arrive directly into my inbox, offering resolution or at least, a glimmer of hope.
In a time of massive mental health cuts in the UK and Ireland, we’re often told that it’s good to talk. Well then, it’s a good thing we have wifi, because while some therapies might still be free via the NHS, the most prominent one – highly structured cognitive behavioural therapy – doesn’t necessarily let us go deep. Yet talking is the foundation of most psychodynamic therapies, those ones not always available on the NHS and that can be difficult to access. Waiting lists across the board can be long, and you may find yourself referred to a podcast or an online course in the meantime. Outside of therapy, talking to friends can always bring solace, but as anyone who has grown slightly tired while a dear pal reiterates the same dilemma over and over knows, it isn’t always the best way to solve a problem.
“Even when I know what the answer should be, I wait for Polly and Prudence to write answers to girls who suffer from unpredictable panic attacks, or girls who love their boyfriend but also feel a visceral desire to avoid heteronormativity”
Is it any wonder we’d take to the internet to air it all out? The act of telling personal stories in public – often derided as ‘oversharing’ when it’s done by young women – is a way of taking some control over the narrative. And when those stories turn into questions, sometimes the wisest answers come from strangers. Check the recent popularity of the likes of The Cut’s Ask Polly and Mallory Ortberg’s Dear Prudence at Slate – advice columnists who write from personal experience and with aphoristic flourish. It’s a modern iteration of the traditional problem pages, and its sense of collective cooperation has readers rapt.
As a reader, I love the outlandish problems that seem taken from the head of a daydreaming screenwriter, but really I’m looking for the ones that seem a little more familiar. Even when I know what the answer should be, I wait for Polly and Prudence to write answers to girls who suffer from unpredictable panic attacks, or girls who love their boyfriend but also feel a visceral desire to avoid heteronormativity, or above all, girls with adult acne. Young women like me, essentially: happy on the whole, but still ill at ease with modern life in some way.
Polly, AKA Heather Havrilesky, sees a lot of letters from young people confused about their place in the world. “I think 20-somethings today put a ton of pressure on themselves to appear smooth and professional and happy to others at all times,” she explains. “They are deathly afraid to be pigeonholed as someone who isn’t on top of everything and charging forward without hesitation. Even though this generation embraces messages about being messy and making mistakes and being openly vulnerable, they often don’t allow themselves the freedom to do these things.” Havrilesky views those letters as sort of a first step towards self-acceptance, something modern therapy culture, from psychodynamic therapy through to AA, tends towards too. “I think a lot of sensitive, passionate people experience [their] traits as giant liabilities. Those are the sorts of people who tend to write me letters, and I’m happy to urge them to show their true selves to the world. They imagine that their true selves are humiliating, but they’re far from it, and in fact, showing those selves will actually set them free on many levels.”
“Even though this generation embraces messages about being messy and making mistakes and being openly vulnerable, they often don’t allow themselves the freedom to do these things.” – Heather Havrilesky (Ask Polly)
But there’s often a double whammy within those letters. Not only are we trying to ascertain their own personalities, we’re also navigating a new set of social problems. See the kind of questions dealt with in Swipe Right, the Guardian’s recent online dating advice column. Why did she ghost me? Why does everyone on Tinder only want sex? How do you meet someone IRL these days? There are no official answers to these ones, and so it’s only natural that you’d look for someone to take the role of authoritative expert. At the Guardian that’s Eva, the pseudonymous author of Swipe Right. “I think most of the time when people write to an agony aunt, they already know the answer to their question,” she says. “It's just not really an answer that they want to hear. And they also feel insecure, so they hope that their gut feeling — which is likely correct — is incorrect. Thus, they reach out to an expert in the vague hope that they will receive answers that prove the opposite to that gut feeling, but actually I think what they subconsciously want is reinforcement from an authority figure of what they already know.”
But while in the past the authority figure, found in the problem pages of magazines, generally had some sort of qualification, the internet has opened that up considerably. And it’s happening away from blogs and columns, too: essentially if you’re a young woman who projects a cool vibe on Tumblr, sooner or later your Ask box is going to fill up with probing questions, attempts to figure out what it is that makes you cool. From there it’s a tiny leap to asking: what will make me cool? Why didn’t he text back? What do you do if you fancy your co-worker? How do I deal with imposter syndrome? Will I ever be chill enough?
“If you’re a young woman who projects a cool vibe on Tumblr, sooner or later your Ask box is going to fill up with probing questions... Why didn’t he text back? How do I deal with imposter syndrome? Will I ever be chill enough?”
It was this impulse that drove Sophie* (a pseudonym) to write to an agony aunt as a student in Paris. “I wrote to Lesley Arfin, (who went on to write Netflix series Love), when she had a column on a site called Street Carnage, back in 2010. I read her advice column and her response was usually sensible and never judge-y. She’s a former addict and has had her wild days, whereas my friends at the time were quite…square? I knew these friends would first, not be able to offer advice on my problems, which was dude/sex-related, and second, would judge me for it. In the end, Lesley’s advice was really useful and now I have new friends.”
Reading today’s unofficial agony aunts, Tumblrs like annie-okay and snpsnpsnp (sample question: “Im torn between two guys. I like both of them equally. How do i decide? Because i really can't right now”) it’s clear what’s appealing about the format. The people writing are revealing something they’re afraid of, in a low-stakes environment. The cool girls they’re asking won’t know who they are, and any judgment they might deliver will be filtered through the off-hand nature of the conversation – this isn’t a proper letter, I’m just an anon in your asks, I’m not particularly invested in your answer, I swear.
“The things that our shallow culture dislikes in a person — emotional intensity, sensitivity, smarts, romantic notions about the world — are the exact things that make most of us feel truly alive and happy” – Heather Havrilesky (Ask Polly)
Compare that to asking a friend in real life, or to turning to a professional for help: methods that must involve a revealing of vulnerabilities, something not everyone is ready for. Sorting your life out is never as easy as simply starting a conversation, though, and maybe turning to an agony aunt could be the first step in embracing those vulnerabilities. Certainly that’s part of Polly’s MO, visible in the oddly soothing way she talks through problems each week. “My central aim is to urge people to embrace who they are,” she explains. “The things that our shallow culture dislikes in a person — emotional intensity, sensitivity, smarts, romantic notions about the world — are the exact things that make most of us feel truly alive and happy. You have to learn to honour what you have onboard, including some things that might look like “flaws" to people who don’t really get it.” For those of us hooked on advice columns, there’s an obvious restorative aspect to the process: it’s like eavesdropping on someone else’s most private confessions as they move from impossible to surmountable. Getting a glimpse of another person’s ‘flaws’, in all their knotty glory, may just be the best way to start accepting our own.
Interviews have been edited and condensed.