Wednesday 1 May 2024

Thanks, I'm Cured! The Big Red Button and What (Not) to Say When Your Friends Need Help

Want a one size fits all solution to your mental health problems? You’re cured with The Button!

This article was inspired by a brilliant spoof mental health infomercial by VLDL (Viva La Dirt League). Before reading any further, I suggest you check it out. If you don’t laugh at some point this post probably won’t interest you. If you squirm a little, you’re in good company.

I don’t want to spoil the surprise if you decide to watch it later, but the basic idea is they’re selling a handy gadget — a big red button — to help when someone is struggling and comes to you for support. Why inconvenience yourself figuring out the right thing to say when a press of the button will generate exactly what your friend or loved one needs to hear? Needless to say, the button’s suggestions are hopelessly inadequate, inappropriate, or just plain daft.

Have you tried being more positive?

It could always be worse.

Happiness is a choice.

Have you tried chamomile tea?

It’s all just in your head.

Other people have it much worse than you

It’s a hilarious metaphor for not thinking, for saying whatever comes to mind, for brushing off our loved ones’ needs with a trite remark or useless suggestion that makes us feel better but doesn’t help them at all. It’s also excruciating, because at one time or another we’ve all done it. We’ve all said something dumb, unhelpful, dismissive, or unkind. We’d never say anything quite as bad as these cringe-worthy examples, of course. Except I have, and you probably have too.

No matter how aware we imagine ourselves to be, no matter how much we’ve been through ourselves and how many times we’ve been there for others, no matter how many courses we’ve taken or books we’ve read or (ahem) written, we’re still going to mess up. And that’s okay. The purpose of the video isn’t to make us afraid of saying the wrong thing or doing something that seemed good at the time but was ultimately unhelpful. It’s there to make us laugh, to give us pause, and remind us we can do better.

Some things are never going to be useful or appropriate, but none of us is perfect and we can’t always know what someone needs. The right thing to say to one person might be the wrong thing for someone else, or even for the same person under different circumstances. Messing up is okay, as long as we’re open to being told and prepared to learn from the experience. That’s something I’ve learned over the years with Fran and other friends. They’re not afraid to tell me if I’m not paying attention, if I get it wrong, or overstep the mark. I’ve written about some examples of this in the past in such posts as How to Be Honest without Losing Your Friends and Letting go.

There’s another serious point being made in the video, which is that sometimes we’re genuinely unable to respond to our friends and loved ones in the ways they need in the moment. This might be for any number of reasons. We may not have the physical or emotional resources to help. We may have conflicting priorities and commitments. Ultimately, it’s our responsibility to manage our boundaries and to respect the boundaries of others. Being a good friend doesn’t mean dropping everything else, every time, at a moment’s notice. It does, however, mean treating our friends with care and respect, and being honest with them about what we can and can’t do for them. I’ve explored some of this previously in How to Be There for a Friend When No One Else Is.

The video also shines a light on the role of artificial intelligence in mental health support. The big red button is funny because its suggestions are ridiculous, but what if they weren’t? What if there was a big red button that got it right almost every time? There are a number of AI therapy apps on the market right now that offer emotional and mental health support. I’ve not tried any and can’t attest to their usefulness, but some people find them helpful and they’re likely to improve over time. Those I’ve read about are geared towards seeking help for yourself, but I wonder how long it will be before we have a big red button app on our phone to help us decide what to say to our friends and loved ones when they’re struggling? Out of interest, I asked ChatGPT the following question. The scenario is taken from the video.

Me: My friend just told me “I’ve just been really overwhelmed lately and I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how much more of this I can take.” How should I respond?

ChatGPT: It sounds like your friend is going through a tough time. You could respond with empathy, acknowledging their feelings and offering your support. For example, “I’m here for you. Would you like to talk about what’s been overwhelming you?”

I’ll leave it to you to decide if that’s an improvement on the big red button, which suggested, “You should probably just exercise more.” I know you’d never say that to anyone, but what would you say?

When I first saw the video I thought it was hilarious but wasn’t sure how other people would respond. After all, humour is a very personal thing. Would they laugh or feel it was making fun of people living with mental health issues, their carers and loved ones? Before sharing it on social media I sent it privately to a few friends I knew would tell me if it was off-colour in any way. I needn’t have worried. Without exception they thought it was brilliant. It’s clear that others agree. The video has attracted over a million views on YouTube and hundreds of appreciative comments in the two years since it was posted.

Over to You

What do you think? If you’ve not watched it yet, here’s the link again. Have you ever said any of these things, or had them said to you? Maybe you feel a couple of them are okay under certain circumstances. If so, which ones? Which could you never imagine saying, no matter what the situation? How would you feel if someone you reached out to responded like that? Would you call them out them on it? What if there was a big red button app that got it right almost every time. Would you use it? Does AI have a role in helping us respond appropriately to someone in distress? Fran and I would love to hear what you think, either in the comments below or via our contact page.


Image by kjpargeter on Freepik.


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