How to Encourage Someone to Go to Therapy

Know someone who might need help? The Savvy Psychologist covers the nuts and bolts of how to encourage someone to seek therapy--and how to deal with what they might say to you in return.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
Episode #029
encouraging therapy

Question #3: But What If They Don’t Think There’s a Problem? How Do I Say, “You Need Help,” Without Saying Those Words?

This takes some planning. Take a page from fiction writers and “show, don’t tell.” Rather than labeling them by saying something like, “you’re an addict and you need help,” instead, show evidence, through indisputable facts, that you think there’s a problem. For example, “There were 40 beer cans in the trash this week, you’ve missed 4 days of work this month, and the doctor says you’re in the early stages of cirrhosis.”

This must immediately be followed with empathy and love. Your cold, hard facts can’t stand alone—they need to be wrapped in a package of compassionate concern so your loved one can hear them.  For example, after the facts, you can add “I’m really worried about you. I love you so much and it makes me sad that you’re so miserable. For me and our family, I’d like you to do me a favor and come with me to see a counselor. I want you to be around to see our kids grow up.” 

Put it all together in what’s called the "sandwich method." Picture a constructive request between two slices of compassionate support.

For example, “Sweetheart, I love you and want you to be happy and healthy. Since you got laid off, you’ve been glued the couch, you’ve gained 30 pounds, and you haven’t been out of the house in a week. You don’t have to feel this way. I got a name of a good counselor. Can we go together next Tuesday? I love you and I’m here for you no matter what.”

Question #4: How Else Do I Make the Message Easier to Hear? 

You can grease the wheels in lots of ways; here are 8 ideas:

1)      Counterintuitively, make it about you. This allows them to save face by going to therapy, on the surface, to appease you. For example, “I’m worried; can you do this to put my mind at rest?” 

2)      Don’t say “you.”  Or “your drinking,” or “your anger,” which makes it easier to take things personally. Instead, frame the problem as an “it”: “this depression,” “these outbursts,” “this drinking habit.”   Approach the conversation as you and him as a team against a problem. Frame it as wanting to solve the problem together.

3)      Do it for the kids. If your loved one has kids, ask him or her to do it for them. Parental mental health is directly linked to child health—mental and physical. Your loved one is valuable and worthy enough in and of himself to deserve help, but evoking the kids can be a helpful motivator.

4)      Lower the bar. Ask your loved one to go for an evaluation. Sometimes the idea of weekly therapy is too much to handle at the outset, so ask her to try one visit. 

5)      Ask him to try it as an experiment. This is often a helpful reframe, and it puts your loved one in the driver’s seat. For example, he can get an assessment, but decide not to take medication. He can get the prescription, but wait to fill it. He can fill it, but not take it.  Or if he takes it and doesn’t like it, he can call the physician and say he wants to taper off. Same with psychotherapy: when he goes the first time, he’s also test-driving the therapist. If the therapist seems flaky or distracted, try someone else. 

6)      Stress you’ll be with her every step of the way. You’re not trying to outsource your loved one and her problem. Offer to go with her. If you can afford it, offer to pay for it.

7)      Does your loved one admire or respect anyone who you know has gone to therapy? If you’re not betraying any confidences, offer that person up as a role model.

8)      Don’t make your loved one do the research. Go online and find two or three practitioners you think might be a good match. Or call your insurance and get a list of practitioners who take your plan. Ask trusted friends for referrals. Look at the therapists’ websites or profiles, then ask your loved one to choose the one they feel most comfortable with. This is particularly important with depression, anxiety, or substance abuse. Depression stomps on initiative, so you have to do it for them. Anxiety is all about avoidance, so you have to gently help them face this fear. Alcoholics and addicts may feel overwhelmed by fear, denial, control, and a long history of burned bridges. Don’t set them up to fail by extracting an empty promise that both of you know won’t get followed through on.


About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. 

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