Watching someone that you love go through problems with their mental health is hard to do. Sometimes it can be obvious to us, as outsiders, that a friend or family member might benefit from seeing a trained professional who can provide insight and talk through issues.
But not everyone is keen on hopping onto a therapist’s couch. Not to mention that therapy is a huge financial burden ― it may not be covered by insurance and some sessions can cost upwards of $400. And it can also be difficult finding someone depending on where you live.
So how do you go about trying to nudge someone into giving therapy a whirl and help them find the right specialist? Experts say the subject should be approached delicately and compassionately.
We surveyed some therapists to get their best tips on how to suggest that someone close to you make an appointment with a mental health professional.
Start by bringing it up in a comfortable or private situation.
Find the right place and the right time to have the conversation. Brandi Lewis, owner of Reach Counseling Solutions in Charlotte, North Carolina, said bringing up the subject at the dinner table or in the middle of an event aren’t good times.
“Suggesting therapy is a sensitive topic and making a loved one uncomfortable or embarrassed in front of other people can only further complicate things,” she explained.
Instead, Lewis suggested having a one-on-one conversation, “ideally when the issue at hand arises so that the person involved can possibly see your concern instead of talking about the issue in the past tense.”
However, don’t do it directly in the middle of an argument or in a tense situation, said Judi Cinéas, a psychotherapist who works in Florida and New York.
“During those times, the recommendation is likely to be received less from a viewpoint of caring and more like a wagging finger in the face saying ‘something’s wrong with you,’” she explained.
Bringing it up gently and shortly after an issue has subsided can help you express your concern without using therapy as an argument tactic, which only further adds to stigma.
Share your own experience.
For therapy newbies, the idea of sitting across from a mental health professional and spilling out secrets can be daunting. But if you can fill someone in on the positives of your own therapy experiences, that can help to put a person’s mind at ease.
“Think about the questions you had before your first therapy session and share what that experience was like for you,” said Matt Smith, a licensed professional counsellor and owner of ModernEra Counseling in Charlotte, North Carolina.
If you have never been to therapy or do not know someone who has, then do a quick internet search to find success stories to share, suggested Shelley Sommerfeldt, a clinical psychologist, relationship coach and founder of Loving Roots Project. (This piece on the best advice people learned in therapy may be a good place to start.) Showing someone these types of stories, according to Sommerfeldt, normalizes therapy and allows a person to feel like they’re not alone.
“When people are struggling with an issue, they can often feel that it will never get any better. By providing some stories of people who have had success and gotten better, this can help your loved one to see that there is hope for their situation as well and they may have a more open mindset about going to therapy as well,” she added.
Clarify your motives for wanting them to seek help.
It’s easy for someone to be offended by the suggestion of “needing” psychological support, said Christina Iglesia, a licensed clinical psychologist who started the #TherapyIsCool mental health campaign. Since people can commonly misinterpret the reasons why therapy is being recommended, it’s very important to spell out why you are suggesting that a loved one sign up.
“Saying things like, ‘I am proposing therapy because I see that you are struggling’ can inform the other person that this suggestion is made from a place of love and concern,” she said.
Be gentle in your approach.
Phrasing is a key issue, said Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist in Sonoma County, California. Here are a few of her suggestions for gentle, thoughtful phrasing:
- “I love you so much and see that you’re struggling a bit with ____ (anxiety, depression, stress). Confidentially, I’ve heard of a great therapist who specializes in ____. Would you like his/her name?”
- “As your best friend (sister, parent, etc.), I’m always your supporter. I’m honoured that you share your struggles with me, and I’m thinking that maybe a therapist would be helpful. I’m here for you, but I’m not an expert. I’ve done some confidential research and have a few names to offer you.”
- “It seems like your anxiety (stress, depression, etc.) is getting more challenging. I found a great confidential support group. It’s every Monday night at 6 p.m. at the local community center. I was wondering if you’d like to go with me this coming Monday?”
Destigmatize the experience.
There are many misconceptions about mental health, explained Catherine Jackson, a psychologist and neurotherapist who practices in Chicago. Make sure to use language that is not stigmatizing when talking about therapy.
“Let your loved one know you are there for support in the process and share how a therapist can be helpful,” she said.
When you approach someone about seeing a therapist, it helps to frame mental health the same way as physical health.
“Would you break your leg and wait for it to heal? No. You go to a medical doctor and trust that doctor to help you fix your leg and to help it heal correctly. The same is true of mental health,” Jackson said. “There is no need to sit at home and simply wait for it to get better.”
Keep in mind that therapy will only be effective if they put in the work.
In order for therapy to actually make a difference, the person who attends has to be able to find their own reason for being there, said Mark Borg Jr., a psychologist and author of “DON’T BE A DICK: Change Yourself, Change Your World.”
“I’ve said to clients many times, ‘Therapy is over when you can no longer find a reason for being here,’” he said, adding that most people believe that a person will go to and progress in therapy because they “need” to. In reality, the process works best when the person is intentionally showing up to their sessions, wanting to be there.
In order to help a loved one reach that point, Borg recommended asking about what is going on in their life as a way to start finding the root cause of the problems they’re experiencing. That may help them realize therapy could be beneficial to them.
Offer to find a good fit.
“It is important that your loved one feels comfortable with the therapist they see so that they don’t have any excuses to drop out,” said Jenkins, who recommended researching therapists on their behalf or providing resources for them to do so themselves.
Ask what their ideal therapist looks like. Do they want to see a man or woman? An older or younger person? A therapist who specializes in certain conditions? This guide can also help you or a loved one find a good therapist based on your needs.
Expect some resistance.
When referring a loved one to therapy, you may experience some resistance. Sheila Tucker, a marriage and family therapist with Heart Mind & Soul Counseling in Hilton Head, South Carolina, said to actively listen to their resistance and try not to get offended.
“Listen to what your loved one has to say, validate their feelings, and offer your take on the therapeutic process. Also, allow them the opportunity to openly disagree while offering to make time for them if they want to continue the discussion,” she said.
If money is an obstacle, Carolina suggested offering to help locate low or no cost services in your area, which could include group therapy or online therapy. She also said to keep in mind that “not everyone is ready for therapy, even if you think it will be of great benefit.“