Thanks To Woke ‘Scripts,’ The Way We’ve Started Talking About Mental Health Is Crazy

Alaina Demopoulos
James Boast/Getty

While in the midst of a 2 a.m. freakout months ago, I received one of the most comforting texts a friend has ever sent me.

“This is hard,” he responded. “You’ve done hard things before and I believe in you.” Underneath my comforter and tear snot, I smiled. He was right: I have done hard things; resilience is a trait unique to me. I silenced my phone and went to sleep.

Weeks later, I found that my friend had ripped the quote from a chart created by Whitney Goodman, an Instagram-famous therapist from Florida. Her graphic gives advice on how to respond to friends in crisis with “validation and hope.” Over 8,000 people had liked the post. They’ve all done hard things, too.

I’ve never told the meme plagiarist that I’m on to him, partly because I’m a bit embarrassed with how that one-size-fits-all influencer-speak genuinely fed my soul. I appreciate the pro bono analysis from Whitney Goodman (aka @sitwithwhit), but it also serves as a chronic reminder that my private struggles may not be as unique as I thought they were.

So it’s not surprising that a series of “scripts” on how to initiate tough conversations over text have gone viral—and then subjected to merciless parody. It began last month, when Melissa A. Fabello, PhD, tweeted out a message she received from a “very good friend.”

“Do you have the emotional/mental capacity for me to vent about something medical/weight-related for a few minutes?” the text read. Fabello explained in a Twitter thread that, for a myriad of valid reasons, she did not. So the “feminist wellness educator” offered a “template” for “how [to] respond to someone if you don’t have the space to support them.”

It goes like this: “Hey! I’m so glad you reached out. I’m actually at capacity / helping someone else who’s in crisis / dealing with some personal stuff right now, and I don’t think I can hold appropriate space for you. Could we connect [later date or time] instead / Do you have someone else you could reach out to?” 

Though Fabello’s general idea—it’s OK to tell someone you’ll call them later—isn’t entirely ridiculous, her detached delivery swiftly garnered criticism and became the meme of the week. (Fabello did not reply to my request for comment, missing a perfect opportunity to tell me that she was at emotional capacity.)

But the internet moves fast, and now more mental health instructional memes have bloomed. First, the writer Suzannah Weiss reminded her followers to, “Ask consent for all sexual encounters, yes, even sexting.” She then offered up a “script that you’re all welcome to borrow!” 

“I was texting a partner who I never had sexted before,” Weiss told me over the phone. “I wasn’t sure if he was open to hearing that. I don’t know, maybe he was with a friend and had his phone on the table in plain view, trying to focus on something up, or just not comfortable.” 

Weiss explained that she really only wanted to “make a point that consent is important in digital interactions.” Very true, though comments on Weiss’ post noted that the formality of her wording sounded “robotic” or even “sociopathic.” 

“Some of the comments bordered on people talking about it sounding autistic or something, which I find insulting to neurodiverse people,” Weiss said. “There’s this idea that you need to communicate in a certain way to be an acceptable human being, when what’s more important is that you communicate in a way that respects the other person’s autonomy.” 

Alyson Cohen, a psychotherapist who specializes in treating teens and young adults, told me that “rehearsals and scripts” are often used to help clients with autism talk to others about their condition. 

“I work within a suite where there are practitioners who do with on the spectrum,” Cohen said, adding that she herself does not. “Often [these messages] are related to employment, maybe for when someone goes to a job interview. You might say, ‘If you find that I’m not making eye contact, it’s because I have an autism spectrum disorder.’ It makes people understand why they’re not having the most normative reaction to things, so for neurodiversity, these scripts make sense.” 

For his part, the partner Weiss sent the text to was reportedly “glad for the heads up,” as the writer later told me over email. “He said he was glad to be asked because [when I sent the text] he was with his roommate and a ‘very wholesome’ friend of his lol,” she wrote.

Later, the man also told Weiss that her initial inquiry felt “sort of like a tease that made him curious what sexual thoughts [she] was having.” Take that! 

The woke text trifecta completed its hat trick with a screenshot of a message sent by the friend of Twitter user @YanaBirt. It read, “Are you in the right headspace to receive information that could possibly hurt you?” 

Consider it the 2019 equivalent of that historically wretched opener, “We need to talk.” As the writer Luis Paez-Pumar put it, “I would rather someone text me that they’re coming to kill me instead of texting me this.” 

On Slate, Shannon Palus blamed the tweets on how “therapy speak has invaded all our relationships.” 

“Therapy speak sounds a little canned and prescriptive, because it is,” Palus wrote. “Ideally, a therapist who is working with you (rather than dispensing advice to the masses) will help you to do the work of finding your own words to describe what you need, rather than handing you a template that sounds, well, like a template.” 

Cohen, the therapist, partly holds mental health texting apps like Talkspace, which assigns users therapists they can message, without ever meeting in person. 

“[Apps like Talkspace] send the message that anything is appropriate for a text conversation,” Cohen said. “I’ve seen time and time again, that’s not the case. If a client is trying to reach out to me in a time of crisis, I always ask if they can talk on the phone. If they say they can’t, then I don’t think they’re in a crisis—they might just be looking for attention or minimal support.” 

Dr. Kathryn Smerling, a family therapist based on New York City's Upper East Side, put it bluntly: “This is the weirdest form of communication I have ever seen between two people,” she said, almost immediately after answering my phone call.

Of the “Are you in the right headspace” text, Dr. Smerling quipped, “You’re asking someone whether they’re in the mood to hear you vomit on them, instead of saying, ‘Hey, I have a problem, can you listen to me for a couple of minutes?’” 

Then there is the passive-aggressive undertone of “Are you in the right headspace to receive information that could possibly hurt you?”— the question can read as a disclaimer of sorts, an excuse to lurch into a bitchy tirade with the caveat that you asked for the receiver's consent before you ruined their day by calling them a terrible friend.

This isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with preparing a little for a meeting with a friend that might cause stress. Rachel A. Sussman, a therapist and relationship expert, suggests drafting a few mental talking points beforehand, but leaving room for the conversation to be spontaneous. (Translated to therapy-speak: keep it organic.)

“One of the best definitions of friendships is the ability to be authentic with each other,” Sussman said. “The minute you start using scripts, where’s your heart? I think [these texts] are a total cop-out.”

Susssman said, with feeling, there is “no circumstance at all” where a script text to a friend would be preferable to free communication. “That’s taking a shortcut for a skill in life that you need to learn,” she said. “It builds confidence, makes you feel proud about yourself, and I imagine you will feel more connected to your friend or partner.” 

Boiled down, the next time you want to ask a friend if they need to chat, just ask if they need to chat—and then talk and listen to each other.

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