Recently I had the experience of being a “Listener” on a site called 7 Cups where users can seek online counseling. The site itself exists to provide emotional support to those with anxiety, depression, and feelings of loss.
I found a sense of personal fulfillment in helping anonymous users find solutions to their own problems, but what was arguably more interesting was the moral dilemma that arose. As the hours went by, it soon became apparent that there was a constant, never-ending stream of people to be helped, begging the question: was I morally obligated to help those in need? I believe yes. The next question, exponentially harder, is: “How much?”
The solution to my particular moral dilemma was easy – ignore it. Close the browser, and move on with your life. Logically I knew there were real people behind the screens, people I was helping, but the reality was simple; it is undeniably easier to walk away from words on a screen. But what I said isn’t true. This method isn’t easy, nor is it a solution. What’s easy is to pretend the moral dilemma does not exist once the words on the screen fade out of memory.
What’s even harder is when we are forced to stare, unblinking, at this problem in the face; when we witness friends or family members who suffer from the same mental anguish. What, then, is our moral obligation to real people in need?
Clinical psychologist Dr. Shruti Mukkamala of the UCI Counseling Center makes the argument that in order to help struggling friends, we should express concern by “telling them directly you are concerned about them.” Of course, she notes, it depends the relationship and the situation, but in order to help, one should refer a troubled friend to the “supplemental means of help, such as talking to a professional” and be supportive and non judgemental in their struggle. Sometimes admitting you’re out of your depth is the most helpful thing you can do.
These actions, she claims, are the extent of what we can do to help. It is unwise to attempt to solve someone’s problems for them. She goes on to say that one should help “as long as physically, emotionally, financially, you are able to sustain helping then, then you should to that extent.”
If your friend is sharing something that is “affecting your own physical or emotional health, one should seek help. In other words, “when the burden of a friend’s issues start to take a toll on you or your health, that’s where your moral obligation ends.”
Now of course, Dr. Mukkamala raises a good point. There are risks in shouldering someone else’s burden, and it too easily can become a situation where you are another person’s only lifeline. This is too far. One is not morally accountable for saving another person. The responsibility unarguably lies with them to save themselves, and it is at this point that my argument ends.
However, listening is a moral obligation precisely because it takes a toll on us; obligations are not supposed to be easy. At the risk of generalizing and oversimplifying Dr. Mukkamala’s opinion, in a real and imperfect world, people often lack the means to seek professional help.
A 2017 study by MHA (Mental Health America) indicates that 56.5% of adults with mental illness received no treatment in the preceding year, which raises another relevant hypothetical: suppose a good friend has been grappling with mental illness. You talk to them about said illness, and since it feels overwhelming to you, you refer them to therapy.
If a friend refuses the referral, do we then have the moral “okay” to play bystander to their suffering because we feel burdened? Is listening really the extent of our help? We have not done all we can, as friends.
Our desire to feel unburdened should not be a precondition for helping those in need.We must realize and concede the fact that not everyone can be saved.
There exists a middle ground. You hold your friends accountable. You force them to realize that they’re morally obligated to help themselves. We owe them this. Furthermore, you are a constant for them, meaning you don’t abandon them, even when it’s difficult for you.
Instead, you pay attention, you listen, and you watch. You let them lean on you for support and encouragement. Yet you never become their only lifeline, or their savior. Your moral obligation ends precisely where theirs begins.
Dylan Tran is a first-year biological sciences major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.