We regularly get questions from people who describe symptoms of depression or anxiety. These are very common mental health problems. Some askers explicitly say they are depressed or anxious and it is disrupting their lives. Others only imply it.

Often, but not always, these questions are closed as unclear. This makes sense. It's hard to ask a good question when you are distressed.

Is there a way we can direct these askers to appropriate help? I think it's pretty clear this site is not the help these askers need.

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    I think we should refer them to Reddit Academia because they provide more personal and in depth answers regarding personal opinion – SSimon Apr 25 '20 at 2:50
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    This meta question is not about "personal opinion" questions. Reddit doesn't seem like the place for mental health assistance. – Anonymous Physicist Apr 25 '20 at 8:31
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    @SSimon: No remotely similar Internet platform can provide you with personal answers because they cannot get to know you personally. They can provide personal opinions, sure, but that’s not a great feat and rather dangerous because their assumptions or experiences may not translate. For the vast majority of questions we close, it is not a good idea to ask them on any similar Internet platform. The main difference is that we acknowledge that. – Wrzlprmft Apr 25 '20 at 9:07
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    @SSimon: It’s a bit like good fairy vs. bad fairy. The bad fairy gives you what you want; the good fairy gives you what you need. – Wrzlprmft Apr 25 '20 at 10:11
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    @wrzlprmft yes that is my point we should refer them to websites that provide this. Since this website don't. – SSimon Apr 25 '20 at 11:50
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    Or we can add new tag psychological help? But will moderators approve? – SSimon Apr 25 '20 at 11:50
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    @SSimon: that is my point we should refer them to websites that provide this. Since this website don't. – My point is that those websites do not provide the help these people need. They may answer their questions as they are, but that is not a good idea. These websites certainly do not provide professional help. These websites are bad fairies, not good ones. (We at least aspire to be good fairies or no fairy at all.) — Or we can add new tag psychological help – That would be grossly irresponsible. We cannot provide psychiatric help. No open platform on the Internet can. – Wrzlprmft Apr 25 '20 at 11:58
  • Discussion about Internet support groups and psychotherapy has been moved to chat. – Wrzlprmft Apr 25 '20 at 16:33
  • @AnonymousPhysicist Could this post be modified to include some questions which bear these markers? I would like to see this topic get substantially more attention! – Dawn May 14 '20 at 20:40
  • Related: academia.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/1588/… – Dawn May 14 '20 at 20:42
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    @Dawn: Could this post be modified to include some questions which bear these markers? – I am not sure it is a good idea to give such questions that kind of attention they get when being linked on meta. I intentionally refrained from linking examples in my answer as well. – Wrzlprmft May 14 '20 at 21:31
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    @Dawn In my experience giving examples is more of a distraction than helpful. Certain users will just start a debate over the irrelevant details of the examples, or dispute that they are examples at all. – Anonymous Physicist May 15 '20 at 0:59

First of all, we should not relax our rules for these questions out of pity or fearing to fuel the crisis by our rejection. When we cannot reasonably answer a question, the asker being in a crisis won’t change that – it will only make the damage done by answers worse. For example, consider questions closed for depending on individual factors due to making life decisions for the asker: Answers to such questions (other than: “it depends”) are dangerous because they suggest that we (random people on the Internet) can make such a decision. This is exacerbated if the asker is in a mental crisis, because they may be particularly responsive to these suggestions and the stakes are even higher.

However, we should not bluntly reject the asker, but acknowledge their pain, explain why we cannot answer their question (if any), and guide them to getting help, be it on our site or elsewhere. One interaction on this site that I am most proud of is turning a mess of a question by a suicidal asker into one that could be reopened and got answers that probably actually helped the asker.

Here is a lists of points to follow with such a question:

  • Always flag for moderator attention. Even if no further action is required at the moment, this makes us moderators aware of the question so we can keep an eye on it and take swift action if necessary (e.g., when somebody posts a rude comment).

  • Try to salvage the question: Is there anything in the question that we can answer? Or is there any valid question that straightforwardly arises from the asker’s situation? If yes, edit the question to focus on this and explain your edit in a comment.

  • Otherwise, always flag or vote to close if necessary. If such questions are answered prematurely, it only makes it more difficult to sort out the mess. The earlier they are closed, the better.

  • Leave comments to help the asker:

    • Show your compassion for their situation.
    • Explain why their question is not answerable in its current state (or explain your edits). If you voted to close as a duplicate, explain that if the duplicate does not help, they should edit their question to explain why.
    • Encourage them to seek professional help about their mental-health issues (unless they haven’t clearly indicated that they already did this). If the asker is suicidal, you can find some ready-to-use comments here.
  • Make an extra effort to guide the asker to salvage their question:

    • Make it very clear which information is missing.
    • Think very hard about alternative valid questions the asker may have about their situation and suggest them.
  • Follow the question so you can quickly respond to edits, potentially rude comments, etc. Remember that you can retract your close vote.

  • If you see such a question make it to the hot network questions, raise a flag so moderators can undo this according to our policy.

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    "Encourage them to seek professional help about their mental-health issues" This is what I think needs improvement. The close messages don't, and probably shouldn't, meet this need. – Anonymous Physicist Apr 25 '20 at 8:29
  • This is what I think needs improvement. – What do you mean by this? Should the system provide something for this? Or should we just leave more comments in this direction? – Wrzlprmft Apr 25 '20 at 9:10
  • I'm not sure... – Anonymous Physicist Apr 25 '20 at 9:44

I think it can be appropriate to give very generic suggestions when people seem to be disturbed in a manner that suggests they might benefit from seeing a therapist/counselor/psychologist. Even many people who have no long-term mental health issues can benefit from these sources of support; I think suggesting them is fine but be supportive rather than pushy.

What is, in my opinion, NOT APPROPRIATE is to offer your diagnoses. Don't say "you have depression, get help", don't diagnose someone's obsessive compulsive disorder, don't diagnose someone's personality disorder or the personality disorder of their professor or anyone else they are interacting with. It's never necessary to do so.

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    Good point! It is not appropriate to diagnose someone on stack exchange because diagnosis requires in person examination by a properly trained person. – Anonymous Physicist May 4 '20 at 0:34
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    However, if the asker is stating their symptoms/diagnosis, it would be inappropriate to pretend they are not real. Acknowledging that someone is experiencing real symptoms is probably a good way to help. – Anonymous Physicist May 4 '20 at 0:35
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    Also, diagnosis done properly is a good thing that will lead to treatment. The idea that diagnosis is bad is rooted in the wrong idea that mental illness is the patient's fault. Avoiding diagnosis because "if you get diagnosed with mental illness it will reveal you are a criminal" is as wrong as "if you get diagnosed with cancer it will reveal you are a criminal." – Anonymous Physicist May 4 '20 at 0:38
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    @AnonymousPhysicist I partly posted this answer because I specifically saw A) this meta post, and some time later B) you posting a comment saying "I think you have depression" (sorry not an exact quote... I just know you said someone had depression though). That bothered me. It's fine to acknowledge someone is going through a hard time, but the problem with diagnosis is not that it's bad but that SE is not the right venue. I'm not advocating getting rid of diagnoses, I'm advocating getting rid of diagnoses via anonymous psychologists, physicists, lawyers, and politicians. – Bryan Krause May 4 '20 at 5:21
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    (and if that comment isn't clear..."It is not appropriate to diagnose someone on stack exchange because diagnosis requires in person examination by a properly trained person" in my opinion is in conflict with posting a comment saying someone is depressed) – Bryan Krause May 4 '20 at 5:23
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    I said "It sounds like you might be experiencing depression. You should seek help from a licensed mental health professional." It could have been better phrased as "It sounds like you might be experiencing mental distress. You should seek help from a licensed mental health professional." But I think that it was clear in the initial comment that it was a hypothesis, not a diagnosis. – Anonymous Physicist May 4 '20 at 5:25
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    @AnonymousPhysicist Better to not try to diagnose people with depression. – Bryan Krause May 4 '20 at 5:26
  • So we agree. ... – Anonymous Physicist May 4 '20 at 5:27
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    @AnonymousPhysicist More like...there isn't nearly enough in that post to assume someone is experiencing depression so...maybe just leave that out of it? Nothing in the question asked for a diagnosis, and if it did it would be off-topic. – Bryan Krause May 4 '20 at 5:29
  • I don't see why you are messaging me after I've agreed with you. – Anonymous Physicist May 4 '20 at 5:39
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    @AnonymousPhysicist Because your comments do not indicate agreement; I am specifically saying your comments are a problem. – Bryan Krause May 4 '20 at 6:17
  • I feel like you are just repeating yourself. Are you referring to a different comment from the one I corrected above? Or are you disagreeing with my suggested improvement? – Anonymous Physicist May 4 '20 at 6:34
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    @AnonymousPhysicist Idk how to make it more clear..."It sounds like you are experiencing depression" == "I am diagnosing you with depression". I think people on Academia.SE should not do that. – Bryan Krause May 4 '20 at 6:54
  • Are you disagreeing with my suggested improvement? I don't understand why you keep posting. – Anonymous Physicist May 4 '20 at 7:49
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    I think what Bryan dislikes (at least from his comments on my answers/comments) is the specific mention of any particular disorder (OCD, anxiety, depression, etc.) - but I think this is usually very helpful. I like to mention specific disorders because the OP can google them and see that their symptoms match and have extra incentive to actually seek the mental health treatment. – Dawn May 14 '20 at 20:17

This is just one option: We could have a question

Where can I get help if I am feeling anxious or depressed?

This question could be used for closing questions that cannot be salvaged by marking them as duplicates.

Ordinarily this would be an off-topic question.

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    Make that “Where can I get help when I am feeling anxious or depressed?” and it would be an valid question, except for broadness, but then canonical questions may be a bit more broad in my opinion. – Wrzlprmft Apr 25 '20 at 8:43
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    I strongly agree that this is needed. I am seeing more and more questions where people are using words that suggest that they would benefit from mental health screening. I am always surprised when I get pushback for suggesting screening. – Dawn May 14 '20 at 20:15

There has been considerable discussion about how to handle suicidal users, both on academia.SE and elsewhere on SE. Your question is about a mental health crisis rather than suicide, but I think Shog9's answer from the first link applies to both:

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 [...] there's a decent chance that leaving a post like this around could end up just making things worse.

Shog9 then describes a (now widely-adopted) procedure [for suicidal users], which Strongbad summarized in the second link as:

(1) close with an appropriate message, (2) flag for mod attention, (3) mods (or users) call in CMs.

I would suggest using essentially the same workflow here:

  • Close. If there is an on-topic, answerable question, we can answer the academia-related question while acknowledging that there are likely additional mental-health-related issues that need to be addressed but are beyond our expertise. If the mental health is the primary or only issue, we can close the question.
  • Flag. For more serious issues, or if we are concerned that the post itself will lead to harm, flag for moderator attention. Mods will review and can lock, close, or delete the question as appropriate.
  • Call in CMs. CMs are spread thin right now (and for the foreseeable future), so we would generally resort to this for only the most serious issues.
  • "close with an appropriate message" The default close messages don't seem to address the "crisis" aspect, and I'm not suggesting they should. I forgot about the "Other" close reason, which is possibly what should be used. – Anonymous Physicist Apr 25 '20 at 8:34
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    I would like to add that Shog9’s answer that you quoted is from Software Engineering, a site where mental health, personal issues, life decisions, etc. are much further from the scope than here. Any question touching these issues is clearly off-scope there (and on most other SE sites), while there may be something we can address here. – Wrzlprmft Apr 25 '20 at 8:37
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    @AnonymousPhysicist: You do not have to address the crisis in the close reason. Better do this in a separate comment. (Also note that the close-reason system has received a significant overhaul and adapting our close reasons to it is a work in progress. More on this in a few days.) – Wrzlprmft Apr 25 '20 at 8:46

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