Imagine this scenario playing out with someone you care about deeply. It is the holiday season. You and your loved ones safely gather for a routine family gathering. You notice something is “off” with your [grandmother/cousin/uncle/stepbrother/etc.]. Mental health struggles such as depression, anxiety, or other mood disorders are not uncommon. It is important to note that 2020 has been an especially trying year that could exacerbate these struggles.
It is difficult to watch a person you care about emotionally struggle. You strongly believe that he/she could benefit from working with a counselor. Encouraging someone to seek counseling can be a delicate matter. If done the wrong way, you could aggravate the person or turn them against the idea entirely. So, what do you do? What do you say? How do you begin the delicate conversation? Imagine this scenario playing out in homes and video chats across the country this year. Talking to a loved one about possibly seeking counseling can be very difficult. It is an intense and personal conversation.
If you notice a loved one who may need some help embracing a mental health resource, perhaps consider some of the following aspects.
Right Place, Right Time
Logistics are key to ensuring that your loved one will be open to the subject matter. Consider holding your conversation in a place that is comforting and at a time when he/she will be most receptive.
Counseling is a sensitive topic for most. The fact that you noticed the need for counseling in your loved one (via behaviors or comments) could trigger a wide range of feelings including defensiveness, embarrassment, or denial. It may be ideal to have this conversation one-on-one. More importantly, do not approach the topic during an argument or in a situation that feels emotionally stressful or tense. Try as much as possible to keep the conversation private, friendly and relaxed.
Do Your Homework
Your conversation might be more fluid if you research the mental health disorder that your loved one struggles with. For instance, if your sister struggles with depressive symptoms after giving birth to her baby a few months ago, read about postpartum depression (PPD). Moreover, take the initiative to research some mental health providers in her area.
Simply put, learn about what your loved one struggles with, research the types of counseling that might be relevant, and then identify a few providers that he/she can read about and possibly schedule a session with. If preferred, you could contact the selected providers via email or phone call. A brief conversation with the provider may help you portray a more personalized and trustworthy recommendation when speaking with your loved one.
Be Gentle and Intentional
When you finally take the plunge and initiate the conversation, be gentle. Counseling has gained a sense of normalization in recent years; however, it still carries a stigma. The seemingly random indication that you noticed your loved one struggling may catch him/her off-guard, thus trigger some defensiveness.
Consider some of the following templates to help plan the initiation of the conversation:
“As your [sister, best friend, parent, etc.], my intention is to support you. I am honored that you share your struggles with me, and I am thinking that maybe it would be helpful to meet with a counselor. I am here for you, but I’m not an expert. I have done some confidential research and have a few names of counselors to offer you. Perhaps we can look at the information together and decide whom you would feel most comfortable meeting with.”
“It appears that your [anxiety, stress, depression, etc.] is becoming more challenging. I was wondering if I could help you find a way to manage it. Maybe we can find a counselor to talk to.”
“Please know that I love and care about your wellbeing. I see that you are struggling with [anxiety, depression, stress, etc.]. I know of a great counselor who may be able to help you. Would you like me to give you the counselor’s information?”
Remember that the initiation of this conversation is for the sake of your loved one. It is important to carefully navigate your intention without communicating a sense of “bossiness” or dictating what you think he/she should do. Expressing a belief that there is a need for counseling should be presented in a way that the loved one can enter into counseling on their own terms, in their own way. Be sure to avoid using stigmatizing, labeling, accusatory, or blaming language.
Prepare for the possibility that your loved one will be resistant to your well-meaning recommendation. If this happens, do your best to actively listen to why your loved one is resistant. Most importantly, do not get offended by their comments or react with defensiveness. Understand that you are stepping into a delicate area and for that reason, know that it is your responsibility to validate their feelings. Do your best to remain friendly and retain composure no matter what is said back to you. Your loved one will be more receptive if you show your love and your willingness to make a commitment to a nonjudgmental and loving conversation. Meeting resistant feelings with reactive feelings will only hurt the conversation.
Go Above and Beyond
Let’s say your loved one agrees to go to counseling. That is great news but keep in mind that following through on this decision will be hard. Your loved one may need you to keep them accountable! Offer your loved one meaningful support by actively helping them book their first counseling session. Guide them in finding a good counseling fit in the area by surveying online counseling directories, etc. You can contact offices on their behalf or even research various providers as well as read their reviews. Evaluate costs needs and help your loved one locate a counselor within their budget or within their insurance network. Moreover, know when their first session is scheduled. You may need to call your loved one before and after the session time to ensure that they attended. In some cases, your loved one may need some extra encouragement/strength. Consider accompanying him/her to the counseling office. Once more, periodically check in to see how the counseling journey is progressing. Counseling is very rewarding, but it is emotionally hard work! Keep your loved one encouraged.
Normalize the Need for Counseling
It is important to destigmatize the practice of going to counseling. If you have personally benefited from counseling at some point in your life, this is the perfect opportunity to share that experience. More importantly, communicate that the need for counseling is not a “sign of weakness,” but rather quite the opposite! It takes great strength and courage to confront personal struggles in a healthy way. Make a point to address their feelings of self-doubt, shame, and misconceptions associated with counseling.
Accept the Outcome
The decision to enter into counseling is ultimately not your decision. Despite good intentions and well thought out resources, your loved one could decide that he/she is not ready to pursue counseling. If this does occur, please remember that you tried your best. It is not a personal jab but rather a case of ill-timing. Your loved one will hopefully pursue their healing journey when the time is right. Until then, do not push; rather, lovingly accept their decision and be ready for when they do decide the time is right.