Persuading a loved one to get help takes compassion and commitment.
It’s not easy to see a loved one in pain. Mental health conditions can bring on significant and ongoing emotions that may seem to change someone’s personality, such as:
Maybe you noticed a friend canceling plans, or perhaps a family member began talking more negatively about themselves or daily hiccups in life they used to laugh off.
It’s natural to be concerned about your loved ones’ mental well-being. It’s also completely normal to have no clue where to start when it comes to persuading a loved one to take the first steps toward mental health help.
However, if you approach the conversation with compassion and careful language, you can help them feel supported in finding professional help to make them feel better.
When a loved one just doesn’t seem like themselves — or is acting starkly differently than usual — it can often be a sign that they might benefit from mental health treatment.
Some signs your loved one may need professional treatment can be more obvious than others, such as:
- behavioral: making unsafe choices, crying frequently, substance abuse, losing interest in former hobbies, withdrawing from friends and family, expressing increased anxiety about leaving the house
- criticism of self or others: obsessive negative body image, making comments that are considered unusual or very dark in tone
- sleep changes: unable to get out of bed, unusual sleep patterns, insomnia
- cognitive difficulty: trouble concentrating on a conversation or activity, becoming disoriented, seeing or hearing things that no one else does, or forgetting important facts
- self-care: change in hygiene routine, like brushing teeth, showering, or putting on clean clothes, a noticeable change in cleanliness of their home, such as an overwhelming amount of dishes piling up in their sink
It can be helpful to measure these signs against their typical “baseline” of how they usually act to figure out if your loved one might benefit from mental health support.
If you believe that your loved one is experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition, like depression or anxiety, it’s important to consider when, how, and where you begin a conversation about seeking professional help.
As a concerned friend or family member, the last thing you want to do is make them feel ashamed or defensive.
Your loved one may object to looking for help, especially if they feel stigma around mental health treatments. They might have tried to find help before but found it too challenging.
Finding a therapist that’s a good fit can be time-consuming, and navigating real-life barriers to care, like insurance, is often frustrating in the midst of dealing with a mental health condition.
However, if their situation becomes more severe, professional help may be the best option — even though it does take effort to find the right care.
Pick a good time and place
Don’t let the conversation come out of a recent fight or argument. Find a place to talk that is:
For instance, avoid talking during family gatherings or when they’re focused ona deadline.
Ask them if they have time to talk to get consent for the conversation and make it less likely a distraction will come up.
Come to the conversation with compassion
It can help to approach your loved ones with a caring attitude to avoid creating defensive reactions. Try asking questions, rather than giving direct advice. “What do you think about the idea of going to therapy?” can be a great conversation starter.
Using “I” statements, such as “I’m concerned about you,” may help them feel less lectured or blamed. They also may be more likely to listen if they don’t feel attacked.
At the core of your discussion should be empathy and concern for their well-being, not frustration with how their mood is impacting you.
Therapy is a wonderful judgment-free zone for anyone — even people without a mental health condition — to talk through life challenges. Communicating this during your chat can help de-stigmatize support.
“It is important to talk about going to therapy as a normal part of life,” says licensed psychologist Karol Darsa, PsyD. “It is no different than going to a medical doctor for a physical illness.”
If you’ve gone to therapy, you can share your experiences with them, too. It can help to let them know they aren’t alone in seeking help.
If your loved one isn’t aware their mental health condition is impacting their life or that they’ve been acting differently, they may ask for specific examples. Have a few examples of their former behavior to contrast with their current behavior ready to share.
Communicate these in a nonjudgemental way using an opening like, “I’ve noticed…” or, “I’ve perceived a change in…”
Help with the leg work
If you’re going to bring up therapy, it can be important to support your friends and family with the time or information it takes to find help. This can look like:
Be ready in case your loved one isn’t open to the idea of seeking professional help. It’s important that you take time to hear their objections and try to understand why they feel this way about mental health treatment.
It may take a few conversations to reduce their negative feelings about seeking help. They also may not change their mind at all.
“The person might get angry, defensive, aggressive, or withdraw completely and stop sharing their feelings,” explains Darsa. “If the person seems too resistant, it is best not to insist unless the person is in danger to themself or others.”
Try not to be defensive or pushy. You can’t force an adult to talk to you or get help before they’re ready.
Some situations demand quick action. There may not be time to wait for them to open up to the idea of seeking help.
These questions can help you evaluate the danger and urgency of the situation:
- are they seriously threatening you or someone else with violence?
- is there a severe substance use disorder causing them to act erratically?
- are they contemplating suicide and have a means for carrying it out?
- are they experiencing a strong manic episode that may cause harm?
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then consider taking them to an emergency room for their own safety and the safety of people around them.
“If your loved one is actively suicidal, you really need to get that person to an emergency room,” says Maggie Holland, a licensed mental health counselor. “Many times, emergency room visits don’t end in hospitalization. But there are trained staff there to help plan to keep that person safe.”
You can also take your loved one directly to a behavioral health center or hospital for specialized care.
Therapists and mental health professionals can be scheduled later when any active danger has subsided, but in that moment, make safety your priority.
Helping a loved one that might benefit from professional mental health support is an act of love and compassion.
When your intentions are in the right place — and you prepare in advance — you may have a greater chance of them listening and getting the help they need.
“Don’t worry if the person gets angry with you,” says Darsa. “When you love someone, it is better to be honest and direct rather than enabling them with destructive behaviors.”
If you’re not sure where to start, you can check out Psych Central’s guide to getting mental health help.