Watching someone in your life struggle with their mental health can be incredibly painful, especially when you have no idea how to help. Sometimes people need more mental health support than a friend is able to provide, even when you are doing everything you can.
You might want to encourage this person to seek professional counselling, but have no idea how to start that conversation, for fear of upsetting or offending them. You may also worry that they might think you’re suggesting professional help only because you’re tired of “listening to their problems.” As uncomfortable as it may be, sometimes people really do need someone with an outside perspective to encourage them to get help. They will also need that trusted friend and supporter to be there for them throughout the process. This can feel daunting, so here are some tips for encouraging your friend, colleague or loved one to seek out professional mental health support.
Be mindful of the time and place
Privacy is key. While our society has made some progress in accepting mental health struggles as a natural part of life that are not to be ashamed of, unfortunately stigma surrounding mental illness and therapy persists. It is not uncommon for those struggling with their mental health to feel shame about needing or wanting professional support. When starting a conversation about mental health, pick a time and place where you know you can talk privately and without interruption. As tempting as it might be to call for backup from mutual friends or family members, make this conversation one-on-one. While gathering multiple people in one room intervention-style might be popular on TV, this strategy can be extremely overwhelming and embarrassing for the person who is struggling. In fact, it might actually make them even more resistant to receiving support – so keep this conversation just between the two of you.
Empathize and show support
Introduce the topic gently in your conversation and acknowledge that talking openly about this can feel scary – especially for the first time. An example could look like this: “I know this is hard, but it seems like something has been bothering you and I haven’t been able to help. I wanted to ask if you might be open to talking to someone who can?” It’s important to reassure your loved one that you bring this up only because you want the best for them. Affirm for them that you want to support them through this. If they seem open to therapy but have specific concerns, ask what you can do to help them overcome these barriers. For example, if they’re feeling overwhelmed at having to find a counselling office and make an appointment, offer to call around or do some online research to help find a counsellor that works with their availability, budget, and needs. If they’re nervous about attending alone, offer to sit with them in the waiting room until they feel more comfortable.
Anticipate some resistance
Not everyone will get on-board with attending therapy right away. It’s important that you prepare yourself for the fact that they just might not be ready yet. Have a few compelling arguments ready-to-go for why you think therapy could help them.
- If they don’t believe that therapy is helpful… If you have personal experience with counselling, it might be helpful to draw from it. For example, you could say “I saw a counsellor, and I found that it really helped me in these ways.” If you don’t, use analogies to help them understand: just as you would visit the doctor for a broken arm, you visit a therapist for problems with your mental health. It is hardly different than seeking tutoring for help in school, and nothing to be ashamed of.
- If they don’t think therapy is for them… Remind them that no one is immune to mental health problems, and everyone can benefit from professional counselling at some point in their lives. Without naming names, you might try emphasizing just how many people you know that have tried and benefitted from counselling.
- If they don’t think their problems are “bad enough” to warrant therapy… It can be helpful to remind them that everyone deserves support for their mental health if they’re struggling and that mental health challenges often have a greater chance of being resolved when they’re addressed early. There is no “minimum level of severity” their issues must meet in order to benefit from therapy. On the other hand, some folks who are resistant to therapy might not think that they have a problem at all. Try to point out specific problematic behaviours that you’ve noticed without being judgemental. It is often helpful to focus on how their mental health has been affecting your relationship with them. Make sure to make note of their positive qualities and how much you value your relationship. This helps frame therapy as a worthwhile investment in themselves and their relationships, rather sending or encouraging the message that there is something inherently “wrong” with them.
These things can take time, and they may still be resistant to the idea of therapy at the end of the conversation. You may feel the need to have this talk more than once. The best thing you can do is to be honest with them about your concerns and make sure they know that you’re there to support them through the process. Remind them that many, many people benefit from therapy and there are decades of research supporting its usefulness and effectiveness. At the very least, talking openly about counselling and mental health shows them that you care about them, and that they can feel safe going to you for this kind of support. Remember that this process can take a toll on your emotional well-being too, so make sure to take extra-good care of yourself and your own needs.