25 reasons why advice columns fail

Stock photo to illustrate 'depression'

Recently I blogged about 25 reasons why advice columns are amazing.

As an agony aunt it’s obvious I’m going to defend advice columns. They’re not just a popular source of entertainment, people do find them genuinely useful. Sometimes even life saving.

However it would be completely wrong to suggest advice columns are all benign or even helpful. It’s worth supporting them when they get things right, and being aware they can get things very wrong.

Here are some of the ways that happens.

1. The advice given tells you what to do but not how to do it. While “luggage label” (very short) replies don’t give enough information to help do anything about your situation.

2. You may write or call in for advice but receive either a standardized answer that doesn’t address your situation. Or get no response at all. Leaving you anxious about whether you’ll ever get reply and potentially feeling rejected and afraid to reach out again, not just to advice columns but to other sources of help and care. This also means a media company is making a profit from your problem.

3. The advice given may not suit your culture, circumstances or situation. For example recommending a relaxing bubble bath as an answer to a serious problem and to someone who has limited access to affordable/hot water. Or recommending someone must immediately and publicly come out as bisexual, lesbian or gay when they’re living in a country where this is illegal and potentially punishable with prison or death.

4. Advice may be outdated, wrong, or dangerous. For example suggesting those who’re depressed just need to ‘think positive’. Or stating those with mental health problems are possessed. Or claiming masturbation causes infertility. Or encouraging people on medication for chronic or life limiting illness to stop taking it. Or recommending people don’t vaccinate their children.

5. Advice can fail to account for difference or diversity – e.g. recommending sex positions unsuitable to someone with mobility problems or chronic pain. Or telling people to make individualistic choices while not noticing they’re in a situation where state, faith or familial control would make this difficult and dangerous, if not impossible.

6. The tone of the advice, or the format of the advice giving column or programme can shame, blame or ridicule those seeking help. If the advice columnist seems judgemental, unsympathetic or overly harsh this can lead to similar reactions from wider audiences towards those in difficulty.

7. The advice columnist may be more interested in promoting their products and services than offering realistic and useful advice for you. While their messages may be commercialized and focused on solutions that are reliant on you having the money to be able to pay. Whether that is in the form of healthcare, therapy, or purchasing products to enhance your relationship (date nights, trips away, sex toys, designer lingerie, expensive bedlinen).

8. The advice columnist may not be paid nor adequately supported or supervised to do their job.

9. Those seeking help may be treated as passive recipients of expert-led (top down) advice rather than giving them tools to find their own solutions to problems or peer-led approaches that actively engage with any advice being given. A focus on all problems as being a huge crisis in need of multiple support interventions may overlook how some people perhaps don’t feel the need for solutions that automatically include follow-up care or to talk widely and in-depth about their experiences. For example the woman who’s had multiple miscarriages that have all upset her to a greater or lesser degree and who wants to share that experience but does not necessarily feel the need to see a therapist about it nor join a self-help group.

10. Examples may be used in advice that are triggering or upsetting (e.g. talking about child abuse recovery by using graphic anecdotes about child sexual behaviour). While images used may reinforce, rather than challenge, problematic ideas about people’s issues. For example the image used at the start of this post is a stock ‘head in hands’ image for ‘depression’.

11. Cases featured, particularly on television (and especially on tabloid talk shows) can demonize those who are poor, from particular racial or tribal groups, who are socially disadvantaged, inarticulate and who may have additional physical or mental health problems or learning difficulties. Rather than offer support for people they may serve to reinforce wider cultural and political views of those in need of assistance as being feckless, immoral, scroungers.

12. Problem pages can change identifiable information but they may not always get this right and potentially you could be identified. For advice programmes on radio and particularly TV you may be easily identifiable if care is not taken to avoid this.

13. Tabloid talk programmes (Maury, Jeremy Kyle etc) may encourage guests to ‘act out’ in ways that may be regretted during and after the programme. Guests may be exposed to stressful, abusive and violent situations, or forced into making choices they don’t feel included in (e.g. ‘choose now to go into therapy or we won’t help you any more’). While aftercare for advice columns and programmes is mostly non-existent and where it does exist it varies in quality and has never been evaluated for effectiveness. Services used within programmes may compound people’s difficulties. For example using lie detectors or ‘interventions’ (where friends or family confront a person to tell them how much of a problem their problems are causing).

14. Some agony aunts are more interested in being famous and/or talking about their own issues than those of their audience.

15. Increasingly advice giving happens via email, online, or through smart phones. If you don’t have access to the right technology you may not be able to ask for the help you need.

16. Problems can be individualized through advice giving. Solutions offered are around the person with a problem either seeking further care or looking to improve themselves. Rather than encouraging audiences to look at wider cultural, structural or social issues that are causing or exacerbating their problems. You may well feel unhappy and a course of counselling might help, but it won’t change much if you are still living in a damp home where you cannot afford food and are struggling with breathing difficulties.

17. Supporters of advice columns argue they challenge or subvert the status quo. In many cases they may maintain it, or worse still present a commercialized and aspirational view of the world where those in crisis are there to be laughed at, pitied, shamed or punished.

18. If you’ve literacy or communication problems reading or contacting advice columns may be particularly difficult.

19. Searching for information or asking for help on taboo topics may be highly risky in some cultures – for example asking for advice about sexuality, or abortion, simply trying to access reproductive health services if you are a young person or unmarried, searching for information about domestic violence, or trying to get help without your husband or in-law’s permission.

20. Writing about your experiences or expressing them on radio or TV may leave you feeling more upset or anxious than before you asked for help.

21. You may simply not have the reserves, energy or confidence to act on the advice given. Which in turn may leave you feeling more helpless and hopeless.

22. Although it’s often recommended, particularly when justifying the importance of advice columns, passing your secrets on to someone else doesn’t always make you feel better, nor lead to anything changing in your life.

23. You may feel cheated if the person you ask for help from doesn’t give you the answers you want. And sometimes there are no immediate solutions to problems.

24. Problems are often presented in a narrative of hope and recovery where audiences are expected to ‘get better’ or ‘change’. But where no notice is given to how difficult this may be, and how other social, cultural and historical factors may prevent this. For example the person upset about being single is expected to try harder and transform themselves into dating material. The alcoholic or drug user is expected to want to stop using immediately and get sober. The person in an abusive relationship is expected to recognize abuse and to leave, quickly. Where people resist or find this hard they are seen as being difficult, weak or unwilling to want to help themselves. And therefore completely to blame for their situation.

25. If your situation is not represented in advice giving (because it often doesn’t deal in diversity) you may feel more alienated and afraid.

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