If you have a friend who seems to be struggling emotionally or is showing signs of mental illness, you might want them to try therapy. Unfortunately, many people, even if they have a serious problem such as depression, PTSD, or an addiction, are reluctant to seek professional help.
However, although you can’t force someone to try counseling, you can encourage them to at least consider it. This article contains tips that may help you persuade someone you care about to get help.
Before you recommend therapy to your friend, make sure you understand the basics: how therapy works, the advantages of both online and traditional in-person therapy, who can benefit from it, how much it costs, and how to access it.
By educating yourself, you’ll be able to say with confidence that therapy can help people in your friend’s position. You’ll also be in a better place to answer questions your friend might have about the process.
Check out these resources:
- The National Alliance on Mental Illness’ guide to psychotherapy
- BetterHelp’s guide to different types of counselors
- Psychology Today’s guide to preparing for your first therapy session
- Psycom’s guide to finding affordable therapy
It’s important to know that therapy isn’t always the right solution. For example, if someone is having a mental breakdown and can barely function, or if they are suicidal, they may need urgent medical care from a mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist.
If your friend is struggling with alcoholism or another form of addiction, they may need hospital treatment or rehab.
Mental Health America has a useful page on what to do if someone you care about needs mental health support. It will help you decide what kind of support the person needs right now.
For most people, mental health is a sensitive subject. Your friend will probably feel more comfortable talking in a private place where you won’t be overheard. For example, you could raise the topic of therapy when you’re on a walk or talking on the phone when you’re both home alone.
Start the conversation by reminding your friend of how much they mean to you. They might feel defensive or self-conscious when you suggest therapy. It can help to emphasize how much you value them; make it clear that you only want to help, not to make them uncomfortable or pry into their personal problems.
Here are some examples of things you could say to show your friend that you are coming from a place of concern:
- “You’re my best friend, and I want you to be healthy and happy.”
- “You mean a lot to me, and I want to support you when life gets tough.”
- “Our friendship is very important to me. I care about you.”
Your friend might be more likely to accept that they need therapy if you spell out exactly why their behavior is worrying you. Think of two or three concrete examples. Try to avoid “You” statements because they can come across as confrontational. For example, “You are always down” or “You never relax anymore” might not be helpful. Instead, focus on what you have observed.
For instance, if your friend has been low recently and you think they are in crisis, you could say, “I’ve noticed that you’ve been sending me a lot of texts recently about how depressed and hopeless you feel. I’ve been missing you at football practice too. It seems like you’re in a bad place.”
Or if your friend often seems worried and stressed, you could say, “I know you’ve been taking a lot of sick days off these past few months. When we talk, I think you sound on edge and anxious on the phone. It looks as though everything is really overwhelming for you right now.”
After you’ve expressed concern and explained why you are worried about your friend, introduce the idea of therapy. Do it gently, but be direct. Use factual language and get to the point; don’t use euphemisms or give the impression that therapy is something unusual or shameful.
For example, here are some ways you could politely raise the subject of therapy without forcing the idea on them:
- “I was wondering whether you’ve considered seeing a therapist?”
- “Have you thought about trying talking therapy?”
- “Do you think that speaking to a mental health professional might be a good idea?”
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Your friend might be unsure why and how therapy could benefit them. It can help to spell out exactly why talking to a therapist could improve their life.
For example, if your friend has bad anxiety that prevents them from going to social events, you could say, “A therapist could show you how to stay calm around other people. It could really help you build a great social life.”
Do not try to diagnose your friend. For example, if they have been having mood swings, do not say, “I’m pretty certain you have bipolar disorder. Therapy could help you manage it.” Unless you are a mental health professional, you are not qualified to diagnose what disorders your friend has, if any.
Instead, focus on specific problems that are getting in the way of their everyday life. In this case, you could say, “You’ve told me a few times that you don’t understand your mood swings and that they make your life difficult. A therapist could probably help you deal with them.”
Your friend may be in denial about their problems or insist that they are capable of handling the issue by themselves. Even if your friend agrees that they would benefit from getting help for their mental health, they might have several objections.
The following concerns are common barriers to seeking help:
- Cost: Your friend might worry about finding the money to pay for therapy.
- Logistics: Getting to a therapist’s office every week can be challenging for some people, for example, if they don’t drive and live in a rural area. Others may worry that they will have to stay in therapy for years.
- Shame/embarrassment: Stigma around mental health issues can put people off trying therapy. Depending on your friend’s background, it may help to remember that some cultures are less accepting of therapy than others. Some conditions, such as sex addiction, can carry extra stigma.
- Fears around confidentiality: Your friend might worry that their therapist won’t keep the things they talk about in therapy sessions private.
- Fear that therapy will last indefinitely: Your friend might worry that they will have to stay in therapy for months or even years.
- Concern that therapy isn’t effective: Your friend might think, “It won’t work anyway.”
Don’t dismiss your friend’s objections. Listen carefully and show that you respect their feelings before you respond.
For example, let’s say your friend is worried that therapy will last a long time. They might say, “I don’t want to spend years on a therapist’s couch. It might be a waste of time and money.” You could empathize by saying, “Yeah, that might not be much fun, and of course you want to get better quickly. I wouldn’t want to go to therapy for years either.”
You could then counter their view by giving them the facts. In this case, you might say, “But there are different types of therapy, and not all therapists work in the same way. It typically takes about 15-30 sessions, not years.” Use what you have learned about therapy to gently challenge their misconceptions.
It’s normal to feel frustrated when someone stubbornly refuses to accept help. Sometimes, you may be tempted to issue an ultimatum. However, this isn’t usually the right way to get someone to try therapy.
For example, let’s say that you’re friends with a depressed person, and they often tell you in great detail about their feelings. You often find yourself listening to them for hours at a time, and it feels like your friendship has become one-sided. You might want to say something like, “Unless you get help, I can’t be friends with you. Our friendship is draining me.”
Unfortunately, using your relationship as leverage can backfire. Your friend might feel as though you are abandoning them, and they may not feel able to trust you in the future.
If your friend’s problems are worrying or upsetting you to the point where it’s affecting your mental health, it can help to set boundaries to limit the amount of time and energy you spend on them. Our article on how to set boundaries with friends contains tips on how to set and uphold boundaries without issuing ultimatums.
Your friend may be open to therapy, but there might be barriers getting in their way. If you can help a friend find a good therapist and find a way of paying for therapy, they might be more likely to commit to trying it.
Here are some ways you could offer practical support to a friend who is thinking of starting therapy:
- “I’d be happy to help you look up local therapists if you like?”
- “Would you like me to find some links to online therapy services?”
- “If you’re worried about going to the therapist’s office, I could drive you there and wait until you’re done. Would that make it feel any easier?”
- “Would you like me to help you find out whether your insurance covers the cost of therapy?”
If you can afford it, you might be tempted to fund a few sessions for your friend. But be careful about offering to pay for their therapy. You don’t know how long your friend will need treatment, so you could end up paying a large amount of money. Your friend may also feel under pressure to “get better” quickly if they know that you are paying.
If you have been to therapy and benefited from it, you could share your experiences. For example, you might say, “I’ve had therapy myself and found it helpful. When I felt depressed after my mom died, my therapist helped me understand my feelings and come to terms with what happened. It wasn’t a magic fix, but it helped me cope.”
If you don’t have any personal experience, you could talk about how a family member or another friend benefitted from therapy. Keep names and identifying details secret if you think the other person would prefer to remain anonymous.
It can also help to share resources about therapy and how it can help. For example, you could show your loved one the articles you used to educate yourself about how therapy works.
Personal accounts, such as those in this Buzzfeed article on experiences of therapy, can also be useful.
You cannot force someone to go to therapy. If you repeatedly bring up the subject, you may come across as controlling or overbearing. Your friend could begin to resent you. If they ask you not to discuss therapy again, or they appear angry or upset when you encourage them to seek help, respect their wishes.
It may help to remember that although your friend might not be ready for therapy right now, they may think back to your conversation at some point in the future and feel inspired to get help. You could also say, “OK, I won’t bring therapy up again, but I’m always willing to talk about it in future if you like.”
You can offer practical assistance, for example, by giving them a lift to their therapist’s office. You could also offer emotional support. Let your friend know how proud you are of them for seeking help, and encourage them to practice the skills they’re learning during their sessions.
It must be your friend’s decision to get counseling. But you can help your friend to find and contact a therapist. For example, you could also help them write an email of inquiry. There are strict codes and laws that mean therapists cannot discuss your friend’s therapy appointments with you.