Pro bono email therapy

How I do therapy
Paradox in therapy
Psychologist? What for?

   This is the transcript of my contribution to a forum on volunteering at the Australian Psychological Society's annual conference in Canberra, 2011.

   Here are three cries for help. I know you can read -- just indicate when you're finished with each screen.


   My name is Fatima, I'm 18-year-old from Middle East. I had this problem since I was 14.

   I hate myself so much. I know that everyone hates me and ignoring me. Even the school counselor did. I was going to her but she didn't help at all. She said I'll talk to you later but she didn't.

   I don't know what is the exact problem. I can't just change my thoughts.

   Please help me, I don't want to kill myself.


   Hey, Bob, my name's Crissie, I'm 15, and I desperately need your help, although I have to admit, I feel guilty loading a stranger with my problems...I feel guilty loading them on anyone at that. Anyway, here's my problem: I have no joy for life. I don't believe in any god, I'm an atheist, and life seems totally pointless to me, and completely devoid of meaning. I'm turning 16 next week, and frankly I'm amazed I've made it thus far without jumping in front of a bus. I feel numb, and worthless, and empty.

   I think I'm having what people call an existential crisis, and, now that I've reached it, it feels like the ultimate truth, that all those things I enjoyed in the past were distractions from the pointlessness and absurdity of life and existence. I wouldn't care if I were alive or dead, and I've felt this way for well over a year. I feel like every day I'm alive is just a depressing wade through time, which doesn't exist anyway, it's just a concept, an illusion like everything else, like romance, and society, and purpose.


   I have been on medications for 5 years now. So far i have kept my self out of the hospital. Today I feel like I need to go back but cant bring my self to do it. I need some help trying not to kill myself. I feel my world is crashing. I give and give and give till i cant anymore Its time for CRASH City. do you have any suggestions that i can do Right now to stop these feelings? I beg of you to HELP me PLEase.


   I have been doing email therapy with people like this for over 12 years now. My payment is the joy when they come good.

   Some, like the last one, is a single exchange of emails. I corresponded with the girl I called Crissie for months. Then she contacted me a couple of years later when she was having conflict with her parents. A year later she let me know that she was at University, studying to be a psychologist. She'll be brilliant as a therapist. You can read more of my correspondence with her toward the end of

   The girl from the Middle East is a currently active granddaughter. For weeks now, she's sent me an email almost every day. We are engaged in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (I got her to look it up). We exchanged emails yesterday morning.

   Perhaps for the first time in her life, she feels good about herself. I've also put her in contact with two young women from America, who'd sent me cries for help, and are now doing wonderfully well.

   I actually have a book containing 50 answers to such cries for help, although some were paying clients. It is at

   I don't have the time to show you a sample, but it's included in the power point version you can grab.

   Why am I crazy enough to load my busy day with work I don't get paid for?

   The more you give, the more you get.

   But there is paradox beneath paradox here. If you give in order to get, you are not giving, so you won't be getting.

   That's to say, if you give for selfish reasons, you miss out on the wonderful satisfaction given by pleasure caused.

   Then we get to the paradox beneath that one. If you do not already have the benefit that comes from the love of giving, how do you get it?

   By giving, even for selfish reasons. After awhile, it becomes natural.

   When you reach the point that if you stopped doing it you'd feel diminished, then you are no longer selfish, but a giver, someone for whom it is true: the more you give the more you get.

   I am fortunate that I discovered the antidepressant qualities of giving early in life. As a youngster, I KNEW I was stupid, and ugly, and guaranteed to stuff up anything I tried, and that no one could love me.

   One of the ways I could distract myself from this was to get involved in the problems of others.

   At first I was surprised that I actually made a difference for the other person, and then I could feel good about myself for a while.

   I no longer need antidepressants, even of such good kinds. However, I still get joy when I manage to lead a person from helplessness and despair to inner strength and positivity.

   Of course, most people pay me for the service, but that is incidental.

   One of my ways of earning an income is to provide therapy via email. I set this up in 1999.

   To draw attention to my service, I found web sites with agony columns, and ended up offering pro bono answers on the most popular one. This is:

   And, while I do this for the love of it, I also benefit financially. Very recently, a paying email client found me because an internet search led her to an answer at Queendom -- which I posted 11 years ago!

   When I started answering cries for help at Queendom, I was one of about 10 therapists of various kinds. Last year, I suddenly realised that I was the only one left. I spread the word, and since then a few others have started.

   Hundreds of questions keep coming in, and it's simply not possible to answer them all. I would REALLY LOVE IT if some of you decided to join me in helping out.

   You can do so at:

   Let's go back to why you should bother.

   There is a wonderful Jewish custom called the Mitzvah. It is a secret good deed.

   If you do something nice for someone, your reward is that person's appreciation, thanks or admiration. But if you keep it a secret, the reward is that you know you are a good person.

   The idea is that if I steal something and never get found out, my punishment is that I know that I am a thief. If I am helpful, my reward is that I know that I am a helpful person.

   An act is its own reward or punishment.

   You can try this as an experiment. Today, look for a chance to do a secret good deed, and as you do it, say "Mitzvah" in your heart. Observe how that makes you feel.

   We have training and skills to relieve suffering. By doing so without payment, we enjoy the same kind of spiritual growth as when doing a Mitzvah.

   "The most effective way of helping others is to make spiritual progress oneself and the best way to make spiritual progress oneself is by helping others." [Brazier, Zen Therapy, 1995].

   Both illustrate that: