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Some of the questions that have been asked here show that the OP would benefit from professional help. In some cases the questions are unspecific while in others, it's clear from reading the question that it is a cry for help.

Both of these question types have attracted answers from well-intentioned amateurs. Some of this advice has been worded in ways that could be read as hurtful or at least overly blunt:

If you have written 6 pages then it is likely not an apology it is grasping for control over the narrative.

But what really makes me uncomfortable is that any advice other than "see a professional" was given at all. Nobody on this site is a professional. If you are a professional, then because this is an anonymous Q&A site we have no way of identifying that. And without professional expertise, it's impossible to know whether your well-meaning advice is helpful. Perhaps it is helpful in 99.99% of cases. But for the remaining 0.01%, someone may suffer serious harm.

It's also important to recognise that because this is the internet, it's easy for someone to conceal the true extent of their problems. We have no way of knowing whether someone who tells us they are depressed is also suicidal. Your well meaning advice may be tailored to one situation when in fact the OP is in a worse situation, leading again to the risk that our advice may be harmful.

So, how should we respond to these questions? I think it's crucial that for a problem where the solution is for the OP to get professional help, that the only advice we give the OP is for them to receive professional help, and that this advice be communicated in a calm, respectful, empathetic manner.


Here are some examples of questions that call for professional help, not internet advice:

And here are examples where questions mention topics such as depression, but do not constitute a call for professional help.

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    Please, pay attention to this. I know it's a young site, but this is important. – heather Aug 8 '17 at 23:53
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    Anything where the situation can lead to risky and dangerous outcomes needs to be locked immediately. Mods and the CM team can always reach out privately to make sure everything is okay. We simply can't provide answers on these sorts of subjects. The risk of providing misleading information is far greater than helping anyone. FWIW, this feels like a "Case 1" or a "Case 2" situation that I described in what I wrote in this meta post: interpersonal.meta.stackexchange.com/a/1350/16 – Zizouz212 Aug 9 '17 at 1:26
  • Does anyone know of other sites with relevant custom close reasons we could consider adopting? – curiousdannii Aug 9 '17 at 3:59
  • @Zizouz212 I agree. So why hasn't that been happening? – user288 Aug 9 '17 at 8:29
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    Missing so far from this discussion are any concrete metrics or even reasonable "rules of thumb" by which one might identify such questions. It's easy on Stack Overflow - if you're talking about your feelings of despair instead of programming, you're either trolling or in a bad way; the line is much finer here. You started with only two concrete examples, one of which wasn't even asked here; we probably need more than two, but start by trying to identify specific factors in those examples that you find inappropriate and build on that. – Shog9 Aug 9 '17 at 21:48
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    @curiousdannii I suspect Medical Sciences and Psychology & Neuroscience may have been confronted with this, but I'm not familiar with either site. This isn't just about close reasons, it's about detecting problematic cases and reacting appropriately. – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Aug 9 '17 at 22:32
  • @Gilles having good close reasons so these questions can be closed quickly without rigmarole is a helpful step most other sites have taken. The more systematic and official our policies the easier it will be to react appropriately. – curiousdannii Aug 10 '17 at 3:04
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    @Hamlet thanks for raising this. I came here to raise this myself and then found your question. I was one of the ones that replied to that question - my tendency on SE is to write an answer about the question not the person, for it to be distant rather than involved/therapeutic. I think to write overly sympathetically or therapeutically invites people to turn the site into a therapy session where there are no professionals. Having read the below responses I now understand I should flag them and move on rather than risk damage. Thanks again for raising it – Kev Price Aug 10 '17 at 13:29
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We need to take this seriously.

We're dealing with people's lives. Frustrated, upset, depressed, suicidal even - we have no business dealing with that. I think Shog9 put it best when he said

I hate to sound callous about this, but... This isn't a support group; y'all probably aren't trained to deal with the outpouring of grief and despair of someone you've never met and may have absolutely nothing in common with. I'm certainly not. Indeed, there's a decent chance that leaving a post like this around could end up just making things worse.

And it's true. Please realize - one angry word, a harsh response, or well-intentioned but unfortunate advice could lead to drastic consequences. We're not professionals, and we're dealing with people who are in a dark place (often of no fault of their own; but it's the truth). We don't want to say something or do something that leads to bad things for the OP. That being said, that doesn't mean we callously downvote into oblivion and close without a comment. As SQB said in chat

While we may not be equipped to give these users the help they need, I fear that closing the question, even with encouraging words, may be yet another rejection.

And I understand that. So please, don't vote - and if you see a downvote, upvote to keep the question at zero. There's no need for these people to feel any unnecessary further pain. You can also write a kind comment.

There's no harm in making them know that you care. Just avoid any other advice other than contacting a professional.

I know it has been said before, but read this answer!

Guidelines on determining if the OP needs professional help

Please note that many of the guidelines here are subjective, and may not even be good ones. I will be editing as I think more on the issue.

If yes to multiple of these points, follow the guidelines below.

  1. Perhaps the most obvious one - are there any explicit mentions of planned suicide, self-harm, or other such matters?
  2. Is the OP extremely self-deprecating, perhaps calling themselves names a lot?
  3. Is the OP's language full of extreme sadness, hopelessness, etc?
  4. Is the OP asking about a very difficult situation that they are having trouble dealing with (this especially should be along with the others; i.e., hints of something in response to a terrible situation)?
  5. Is the OP asking about dealing directly with depression and/or suicidal thoughts?
  6. Are there any hints or explicit questions about dealing with PTSD/remembering a terrible incident over and over?

What to do if OP needs professional help

  1. Comment
  2. Vote to close
  3. Flag for mods so they can lock, alert CMs, and eventually delete
  4. Vote to keep the question's score at zero

Above all, take it seriously. A person's life could be on the line.

Ready to use comment - general

Hi there! It sounds like you've been through a rough time. I'd love to help right now, but many of us here just aren't very skilled at providing assistance in situations like these. I just want to let you know that many of us who see this all care for you, and we all wish you all the best! Your best option is to try and find a psychiatrist or a social worker in your community. Thanks, and I really wish you the best :)

(Thanks to Zizouz212 for posting this great comment.)

Ready to use comments - depression, suicide, and/or self harm

Ready-to-use (international)

It sounds like you’re going through a hard time. I’d really like to help you, but unfortunately, we’re not well equipped to do so here. Your best option is probably to call [a suicide hotline](//suicide.org/international-suicide-hotlines.html). People are on call there to talk to people struggling with the same kind of issues you are, regardless of location. If calling is not good, you can [chat with them live online](//suicidepreventionlifeline.org/GetHelp/LifelineChat.aspx). It might not help, but what’s the harm?

Ready-to-use (US)

It sounds like you’re going through a really hard time. I’d really like to help you, but unfortunately, we’re not well-equipped to do so here. Your best option is probably to call the [National Suicide Prevention Lifeline](//suicidepreventionlifeline.org/). People are on call there to talk to people struggling with the same kind of issues you are, regardless of location. US: +1-800-273-8255. If calling is not good, they can [chat with you live online](http://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/GetHelp/LifelineChat.aspx). It might not help, but what’s the harm?

Close reason

I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because questions asking for psychological help are outside our scope. We care about you and want you to get the best possible help you can - from someone professionally trained to help you. We are not able to do this for you here.

(Thanks to Catija for the text of the reason.)


Any edits, comments, etc are welcome. I am also open to discussion in chat. I will be editing this as I continue to think about it.

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    One thing that I would mention, is that when placing comments, you need to use good judgment. Sometimes, those comments may not be needed. When they are though, it's important that you don't put a comment for the sake of putting a comment - making sure that you "personalize" it in a way that puts the information you're trying to convey in a clear, concise manner that addresses the situation. I'm not saying provide advice, but at least show that you understand what's going on. – Zizouz212 Aug 9 '17 at 4:02
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One could easily argue that everyone needs professional help...

Kidding aside, I think the more obvious cries for help should be flagged for moderator attention. They have a procedure in place to handle extreme cases.

In some cases both voting to close and flagging would be appropriate...

I'm cautious to say that we should close all mental health related questions because many if not most of our questions will contain lesser elements like self-esteem, emotional dependence, boundaries and so on.

The emergency cases are just that. Emergency cases. As you mentioned we're not in the position to help in these cases, but we can still avoid doing harm by directing these questions to the Stack Exchange Staff through our moderation team.

But keep in mind that these are rare exceptions. We shouldn't be trying to handle them the same way we would with regular off-topic or poor quality content. Closing alone isn't appropriate, these should be flagged for moderator attention.

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    No, we shouldn't close all mental health related questions. This answer summarizes it nicely. I think this question is about the more serious cases. – heather Aug 8 '17 at 23:53

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