I wanted to talk about a topic that can be really uncomfortable: suggesting a friend or loved one seek therapy. There are a million different reasons we feel that someone could benefit from therapy but it can be an awkward conversation to initiate and it certainly has risks. The stigma around seeing a therapist and mental health issues can prevent these important conversations from ever starting or from being truly heard. Here are some tips for suggesting therapy.
The message is meant to be “I’m worried about you but I believe in you and think, with some help, you can feel much better!” but sometimes people hear “There is something wrong with you. You should be ashamed and you’re a burden to us. Go get help from someone who can fix you”. Ouch. What a mistranslation. When you view the world through a lens of self-doubt and dysfunctional thinking (like personalizing things that have nothing to do with us, viewing things as black or white, and predicting everything will go wrong), you hear things differently.
So how do we say “I’m worried and I have faith it can get better” in a way someone who’s dealing with depression and anxiety can hear? No one really wants unsolicited advice but there are times that we see a loved one struggling and feel pretty sure they’d benefit from some help. The truth is that a lot of people feel loved and cared about when someone shows genuine concern as long as we’re not making it a shameful topic. That being said, some people who are struggling feel so much shame about their mental health that they’ll be upset no matter how you bring it up.
Person of Integrity
One way to make sure that friends, loved ones, and colleagues know that you don’t mean to shame them at all is to be a person of integrity. When you send a consistent message that it’s okay to talk about mental health, they won’t feel singled out. When you talk frequently about mental health and are transparent about how normal mental health issues are, you tell people that it’s OK to talk to you and that you mean it. Besides being real, make sure that you’re not someone using hurtful language or words, even if on accident. Words like “crazy” or “psycho” are not clinical and not helpful to anyone. They’re hurtful. Additionally, don’t use diagnoses as descriptors for individual idiosyncracies. For example, I often here “she’s being so bi-polar” or “Oh my gosh, I’m so ADD today”. That minimizes how much people who live with these illnesses struggle. In general, here are some good phrases to use when trying to tell people that you’re worried:
- “I haven’t gotten to talk to you much lately and I want to know how you’re doing. It feels like somethings going on that you haven’t talked about”
- “Hey, I’ve noticed you’re just smiling less and don’t seem to want to hang out as much. I just wanted to make sure you’re getting what you need- whatever that is. Can I help?”
- I just want you to know I care and I’m here if you want to talk about whatever.
- Are you OK?
- Have you been thinking about suicide?
If the person starts to disclose, encourage them- thank them for being real with you and offer help. You can link them to their insurance company who will help them find a therapist or help them google search for someone nearby. Validate their concerns; phrases like “that sounds really hard” goes a long way.
And on the flip side, here are some things to avoid:
- Resist the urge to fix it. Don’t tell them to get over it, that it’s just a phase, or relate it back to yourself in a selfish way. Ask, am I sharing this because it’ll help them or because I’ll feel better after I say it?
- Please don’t give people ultimatums about getting treatment. Don’t make it so that they either take your advice or you won’t be their friend. If there are behaviors that affect you personally (i.e.: canceling plans frequently, being irritable/aggressive), address those. But it’s not fair or respectful to assume that people have to address an issue the way you think that they should. You can even say something like “I’m hurt/frustrated by how often you cancel our plans. I want to hang out more and I’m not sure how to help. What can we do?”.
- Don’t offer advice that isn’t solicited. I often hear people suggesting that exercise, fresh air, etc. can heal anything, including clinical mental illnesses. Please don’t suggest an essential oil blend if someone is struggling to stop crying at work. I have a dear friend who always asks when I’m upset about something “do you need to vent or do you want to problem solve?”. You can ask that! If they say they want to problem solve, then you can share that a certain herb has really helped someone you know. But if they’re not buying into it, don’t push- it won’t help either of you feel better.
- Don’t avoid talking about mental health. That can send the message that you don’t care and more often than not ends in resentment from the person trying to look past the illness.
I hope this helps, friends! Discussing mental health can be tricky but it shouldn’t have to be. Perspectives Therapy Services can help you if you need to add to your skills. Make yourself an advocate by talking openly and frequently and listen well. You’ll be a huge resource to your friends, loved ones, and colleagues. Be well and have a fantastic week!
Kayla Valley is a Licensed Master of Social Work (LMSW) who works at the Highland location of Perspectives Therapy Services. She became a therapist to help people struggle with the depression and anxiety that she understands intimately. She loves being a Michigander and is an avid sewist who loves spending time with her cats and sugar gliders.
Perspectives Therapy Services is a multi-site mental and relationship health practice with clinic locations in Brighton, Lansing, Highland and Fenton, Michigan. Our clinical teams include experienced, compassionate and creative therapists with backgrounds in psychology, marriage and family therapy, professional counseling, and social work. Additionally, we offer psychiatric care in the form of evaluations and medication management. Our practice prides itself on providing extraordinary care. We offer a customized matching process to prospective clients whereby an intake specialist carefully assesses which of our providers would be the very best fit for the incoming client. We treat a wide range of concerns that impact a person's mental health including depression, anxiety, relationship problems, grief, low self-worth, life transitions, and childhood and adolescent difficulties.