by Andrea M. Darcy
It’s hard to watch people we care about go through difficult times and suffer low moods and depression, and even harder if we know they could be suffering less by seeking help.
But how can you tell a loved one you think therapy might be a good idea without upsetting them or turning them against the idea completely?
(Note that the following advice applies if the person you are concerned about is showing signs of low moods or depression. If, however, they are exhibiting symptoms of severe mental distress or have a history of mental health concerns, a stronger intervention might be required. And if they are in danger of hurting themselves, you, or others, call the appropriate authorities).
12 Things to Keep in Mind When Suggesting Therapy to a Loved One
So how you can you make a suggestion without causing more harm than good?
1. Make sure your suggestion is informed.
It’s important to be sure of what you are suggesting and to separate it from your own wants and desires. Just because you are not getting along with someone, they have started to change in ways you don’t like, or you want them to behave differently, doesn’t necessarily mean they need counselling.
Do your research and know the signs of depression before you say anything. Are they not enjoying the things they used to? Do their moods seem suddenly erratic, has their personality itself changed? Are they not taking care of themselves properly? (Our guide to depression might be a useful place to start).
If they are exhibiting symptoms of other psychological conditions like a difficult bereavement, an eating disorder, or alcohol abuse, have you looked at the facts on those fronts, too?
Do you even know about counselling and psychotherapy? If you don’t, and you are just following a whim or someone else’s suggestion, it is a good idea to become more informed (you might want to read our guides on ‘what is counselling‘ and ‘what is psychotherapy‘ as a good start).
2. Take the conversation seriously.
Don’t try to casually drop your suggestion they see a counsellor into a random conversation. Telling someone they need to seek help is a serious thing and deserves a serious conversation. Acting off-hand about it will likely make the other person suspicious or could even make them think you don’t take their condition seriously, giving them the exact opposite impression than you are hoping for. Go ahead and tell them you need to make the time to have an important conversation. It is, after all, something you want them to take seriously.
3. Clarify that you aren’t abandoning them.
Some of the side effects of depression can be paranoia and low self-esteem. It’s quite possible that if your friend or loved one is depressed they might think you are trying to ‘get rid of them’ because of their low moods. Make sure they realise that you are not trying to substitute yourself with a therapist and do intend to be there for them (unless, of course, this is not true, in which case it might be best to leave this conversation to someone who is willing to go the distance and to honestly end the friendship or relationship).
Let your loved one know that a counsellor or psychotherapist isn’t the same as a friend or family member, but can offer a different kind of help than you can, with support that is neutral and the capacity to offer a fresh perspective, as well as a highly developed capacity for listening and understanding.
3. Be sensitive to the where and how.
Respect the privacy of the other person. Don’t make your suggestion they seek therapy in front of others, or where others can hear, or in a place where you know they are ill at ease.
Don’t get them at a bad moment. Don’t corner them when they are tired, or have a deadline, or are doing something important to them even if it is just watching their favourite TV show. Try to find a time when they are relaxed and not distracted.
And most of all, don’t use the suggestion of going to therapy as a weapon against them in a fight. This is a surefire way to have someone close down completely to the idea of seeking help, as it will come across as a put down.
Seeking help is courageous, not weak, and we all need help now and then. Make sure you acknowledge and reflect this by respecting someone in the where and hows of how you suggest to someone they try therapy.
4. Keep it between you and them.
It doesn’t matter what others have or haven’t said and think or don’t think, this conversation is between you and your loved one. If you bring someone else into it it’s like you are trying to gang up on them, which is bound to make them defensive.
Ganging up is not generally a good idea. Interventions might be something we see happening in TV dramas and films, and they might work well for serious mental conditions and addictions. But ganging up on someone for feeling low or depressed is more likely to make them feel worse.
Nobody likes to feel that they’ve been talked about behind their back, and a depressed person can be more sensitive than usual. Feeling ganged up on can leave them feeling overwhelmed and even more misunderstood then they already do. They might end up pushing away even your support, let alone that of a therapist. So if there are more then one of you with concerns, talk to the person in question separately.
Also think carefully before mentioning someone else you know who has gone to therapy. While some people might be interested to hear of another’s positive experience, unless it is your own experience then it can seem like a persuasion tactic, which can end up making someone feel bullied.
5. Be prepared for their defensiveness.
Unfortunately, despite great strides being made against such misunderstandings, the idea of seeking support for your mental health still sometimes comes with stigmas attached. This means that someone might feel quite insulted at first that you are suggesting they go to therapy. Be prepared to not take it personally if they get upset, and to have responses ready that show your own positive take on therapy.
Then have answers ready for any counter argument they might throw up out of defensiveness. If you suspect they’ll say they don’t have time to look into it, you might want to have already sourced some leads on a good local counsellor or psychotherapist or offer them a list of websites they can go to. If you know money will be an issue for them, you could either source low fee counselling, a free support group, or even offer to pay for the first few sessions if it’s easy for you.
6. Bring all your empathy, but none of your sympathy.
Empathy means trying to understand what someone is going through, whereas sympathy is pitying someone for what they are going through. Pitying someone has connotations that you feel sorry for them and place yourself above them. This makes someone feel ashamed for their struggles, when really we all go through struggles and it’s how we grow and learn.
7. Stick to the facts.
Generalisations lead to debate, and opinions more often then not lead to conflict instead of progress. Facts lead forward to decisions. So instead of telling your friend or loved one their moods are unstable, point out they burst into tears when all they had done was burn the lasagna, and yelled at you just because you forgot to unplug the iron, or that they haven’t laughed in a month. Instead of saying say they seem tired, point out you noticed they have been emailing you at 5 a.m. for the last three weeks.
This also means making sure you are not presenting your own perspective as fact. For example, saying ‘your mood swings are difficult for everyone else’ is simply what you think. You can’t really know what everyone else has in their head. The truth is more in saying ‘I’m finding your mood swings difficult’.
8. Watch your language.
It’s very important that you don’t make the other person feel blamed for their emotional or mental challenges. If their depression or low moods has caused friction between you, and you do feel angry at them, that is a separate conversation for another time or perhaps even one that is best to deal with before suggesting therapy (and if you are in a couple, might even mean you need to go to therapy together, see #11 below).
Use language that is free of blame by beginning sentences with ‘I’ instead of ‘you’. For example, “I feel therapy might be a helpful option” is a more useful thing to say than “you should go to therapy”.
Which brings up some the words it’s best to keep out of it – words that impose your will on someone else. This includes ‘should’, ‘must’ and ‘have to’. These words are not based on fact but opinion.
And naturally don’t use any words that make taking care of your mental health seem a negative. It’s bad enough that there is any stigma attached to dealing with emotional and mental challenges when, really, we all at some point experience them. Phrases like ‘crazy’, ‘not well in the head’ and ‘mentally ill’ are not great in any conversation.
9. Bring in the positives.
Therapy is like giving yourself a gift – a gift of support, a gift of new perspective, and a gift of finding ways forward. It means you can create a future that makes you happier. Don’t forget to include these positives, instead of just focusing on their low moods and how worried you are.
10. Be honest.
It might be tempting to make things seem easier then they are to your friend or loved one, especially if they seem particularly fragile. You might want to make out you are less concerned then you are (or more, in some cases where you think that will make their decision easier), or pretend that therapy sounds like fun, or some other kind of ‘trick’ to get them to say yes.
This is likely to backfire and make them feel manipulated. Truth, spoken with goodwill and kindness, tends to work better, even when what we are saying is difficult.
11. Consider if you need therapy yourself.
One of the ways you need to be honest is to face up to whether you might need therapy yourself. If it’s a really big deal for you that your loved one go to therapy, to the point you are anxious and upset if they won’t and your own mood depends on their choice, you might want to consider if you are the one who actually needs counselling.
Even if you don’t feel ‘depressed’ per se, it doesn’t mean you don’t need support (see our article with surprising reasons you might need therapy). If you are in a relationship where you are very focussed on what is wrong with your partner, or you are always worked up about what is wrong with those around you, it could be that you are focussing on others to avoid things inside that aren’t quite right for you personally, or that you are suffering from codependency and low self-esteem.
Don’t forget that you can also seek therapy together with your loved one, in the form of couples counselling or family counselling.
12. And ultimately, leave it up to them to decide.
No matter how much you love and care for someone, you cannot lead their life for them. If they don’t want to go to therapy right now, trying to force them to can just mean they’ll never want to go or that they push you away, which can mean making their support system smaller when they need it most.
Share how you are feeling as openly, honestly, and kindly as possible, and know that they will use the information you have shared with them when they are ready. Then gather up all your patience and leave them to make the choice for themselves.
Photos by Renaud Camus, Ganesha Isis, Betsey Weber, Joe Houghton
Andrea M. Darcy is a health and wellbeing expert, who has done some training in person-centred counselling and coaching. She often writes about trauma, relationships, and ADHD, and advises people on how to plan their therapy journey. Find her on Instagram @am_darcy