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Trigger warning: depression, suicide, anxiety


What brings me to ask this question today is because I recently created a Stack Exchange proposal which scope may partially overlap the IPS scope. One of the proposal's followers raised that concern and I was dazzled by that answer to the question:

[...] When unsuspecting users wander into this site looking for help with deeply personal issues, it seems almost cruel at times when the interface itself becomes the main encumbrance when users can only "answer, but no discussion".

It is difficult at times (and often disheartening) to turn a user away when they are simply looking for someone to talk to about a personal problem that is in the title of the site itself. [...]

I've been frequently encountering this situation, where OP have issues regarding anxiety/depression/self-esteem/harassment/... in the case where I felt it might be useful, I invited them to stop by the chat to discuss it in a less official way, but so far I feel I might be the only one doing this. I'm not even sure this is the right way to help them, but sometimes, guiding them towards online help doesn't feel exactly right. Having been suicidal myself, I know how hard it is to reach those help instances, as it may appear like it's your last shot at resisting death appeal. And you fear that should the call/messages go not so well, you won't have any strength anymore to go on living. However, talking to strangers may be of real help in some situations, which is why I think offering them to stop by the chat may help.

Should we invite hurting users, whose question is off-topic, to stop by the chat and talk about it in a more casual way?

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    The first obvious barrier is: do they have 20 rep to chat? Second is, are we well equipped to support them? (further reference: interpersonal.meta.stackexchange.com/q/1348 and meta.stackexchange.com/q/243700) – Andrew T. Feb 6 '19 at 10:46
  • Don't get me wrong, your proposal is a noble act, but not all people might have the capability to do it, and what will you do if apparently the chat backfires? – Andrew T. Feb 6 '19 at 10:54
  • @AndrewT. Even if we are not that well equipped, we can still try to support them as friends would do. Also, I don't understand what you mean/are afraid of about the chat backfiring? – Ælis Feb 6 '19 at 11:01
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    @Ælis backfiring: you're trying to support them, and it begins well, until you says something that you don't even know that triggers their traumatic memory, and now they're in a worse condition than in the beginning... – Andrew T. Feb 6 '19 at 11:04
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    @AndrewT. Honestly, I don't think this will happen. I'm on several facebook group where people often post how unwell they are (because someone said a shitty thing to them, etc..). Then people often comment and invite this person to chat in private with them and there are also other people that just send their support in the comment. And, every time, I saw the person thanking the people who commented and saying that, thanks to this, they feel better now – Ælis Feb 6 '19 at 11:09
  • Of course, you raised important points here @AndrewT.! I feel the same but I really felt we could use some general guidelines on what we can do to help them. However, I'm a room owner so I'm able to moderate the chat, and I can see I could handle such backfiring. But I'm asking because I feel that it'd be beneficial to reach a global consensus here. – avazula Feb 6 '19 at 12:02
  • Long ago, I was in IRC chats with users on multiple occasions in which they were seeking help like this, and one of the people in the chat said something that triggered them. They generally recovered relatively fine. Sure, it would be less likely to go wrong if they were talking to trained, competent ,psychotherapists. But they came here. And what I learned from talking to psychologists back in the IRC days... if we turn them away, they're probably not going to go get better help, they're going to get random help, and it'll probably be worse. – Ed Grimm Feb 15 '19 at 7:05
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Should we invite hurting users, whose question is off-topic, to stop by the chat and talk about it in a more casual way?

I'd say No.

Chat isn't supposed to replace questions/answers on main or meta. New users can ask questions, but they can't chat without having 20 reputation points. Chat isn't supposed to be a way to circumvent restrictions on what is on/off-topic on a site. We've discussed e.g. the relation between non-ips solutions to problems and chat before, with a similar result: What's off-topic on main shouldn't be moved to chat.

While IPS main chat often veers off-topic (and so far that's been okay, but if it leads to misconceptions like this it may be time to be a bit stricter on what we talk about in there), each site has its main chatroom, and the purpose of that is to be an informal gathering place to discuss that site and its subject.

This main meta post is an interesting start to read a bit more about what chat is supposed to be. Also, the chat faq has something to say about this:

This site is an extension of The Stack Exchange Network, so discussion should more or less revolve around the same topics you'd find at The Stack Exchange Network — but in an interactive, less strictly Q&A focused way.

We share a lot in The Awkward Silence, we talk about our daily lives a lot, but SE chat is mainly meant to serve a purpose of supporting Q&A on both main and meta. You can drop in there to discuss a specific question, a specific answer, to get help on site policy, do a little bit of community building and bonding, that's all okay. But it's not the medium to use to move answering off-topic questions towards.

Your best bet is to express the feeling Robert wrote down in a comment: That the Q&A nature of SE doesn't lend itself to solving problems that people just want to talk about, and that you feel sorry you can't help more. For the really serious issues like suicide, SE guidance can be found here, note that it doesn't expect you to do more than leave a nice comment and get moderator attention.

When there are good, potentially on-topic parts of the question you can help with, then edit/comment and make an off-topic question into a good on-topic one.

Especially when it's about more serious issues, you must also keep in mind that though we'd like to have some experts here, Interpersonal Skills main site nor chat are suitable as replacements for professional help.

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I'm going to echo TinkeringBell and say No

While a laudable goal - there's nothing wrong with wanting to help, SE chat as a platform is woefully ill equipped to address serious mental health situations beyond directing the user to more suitable resources.

Many of the reasons in this meta post about why Medical Sciences SE doesn't allow questions that seek personal medical advice apply here as well.

Even if we are not that well equipped, we can still try to support them as friends would do.

No, we can't - because in the vast majority of cases we aren't this person's friend. We don't know them, we know nothing of their situation and history beyond the tiny window we've seen. Established users who have known each other for some time are perhaps a slightly different case - there are SE users that I've had extensive conversations with off-line and that I would consider friends - with these individuals I've felt more able to provide "friend" advice, but still on the unfortunate occasions where I have felt that there were more serious levels of mental health concerns I've directed them to seek more appropriate services.

Andrew T made an excellent point in his comment:

backfiring: you're trying to support them, and it begins well, until you says something that you don't even know that triggers their traumatic memory, and now they're in a worse condition than in the beginning...

Triggers in PTSD, psychosis, anxiety disorders etc are complex and an individual's triggers cannot be anticipated by untrained strangers over the internet.

I have a smattering of counseling training (I'm not qualified by any means) but one of the first things taught was the dangers of overestimating what you can handle, usually with the best of intentions of course but good intentions have never guaranteed a good outcome.

Ælis has made references to support being offered in Facebook private messages - so it's pertinent to remember that SE offers no functionality that matches even the dubious privacy of facebook PMs. All chat transcripts are public.

That said as avazula says the nature of the IPS stack is such that it will likely continue to have users/visitors that are in need of help that SE cannot (and should not) provide and just saying "Soz, not our problem" is inadequate I feel. Would it be feasible to have links to more appropriate resources in various prominent places? It would be hard to cover every eventuality and locale but a link to a page detailing suicide hotlines, mental health charities (Samaritans etc) in at least the major countries/regions that visitors come to us from would be better than nothing IMO.

  • About your suggestion, we already have some of it here: meta.stackexchange.com/a/243701/400547 – Ælis Feb 7 '19 at 13:47
  • @Ælis indeed - I was more thinking it would be useful not to have to rely on someone being around to provide the comment. It may not be feasible within the SE platform though – motosubatsu Feb 7 '19 at 13:54
  • You mean, if someone uses some trigger word (like "suicide") when writing their question, a bot detect it and automatically provide them with the appropriate link? I don't know if this is what you meant, but it would be a great idea IMO! – Ælis Feb 7 '19 at 13:57
  • @Ælis Something like that would be great - if the auto part was a problem a banner on the ask a question wizard asking whether suicide (or similar) was the topic would be a good subsitute – motosubatsu Feb 7 '19 at 13:58
  • If you want this suggestion to have any chance to be implemented, I think you should post it on main meta – Ælis Feb 7 '19 at 14:00
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However I turn this, I don't see any problem with that.


Edit: Thanks to @Tinkeringbell answer, I can now see how they might be some issue with that. However, I will leave my answer so that people can still vote on it if they want to.


If you are in chat and available to talk about this specific issue, then go ahead and invite them to chat.

Personally, I'm on multiple Facebook private groups and often a member will post a message about how unwell they are feeling.

After that, a lot of group members will comment on the post, offering support and sometimes a discussion in private message. There are even some people who send their support by comments and apologize to not having the strength to talk about this in a private message.

What I have noticed is that, after this wave of support and discussion in private messages, those users almost always report that they are feeling better (and none of them ever report feeling worst).

So yes, if you want to talk to these users and offer support to them, I say go ahead. Just make sure that you have the mental resources to talk to them. It would be unfair toward that user if you invite them to chat and then no one is willing/available to talk with them.

About the fact that you are feeling being the only one doing this, you aren't. I remember doing it once, even if the user didn't show up. I also remember not doing it once because I was too exhausted to be of any help to the user I wanted to help.

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