How to Help Someone Who Needs Therapy
If you are a parent, guardian, friend, intimate partner, or loved one of someone who is going through a difficult time and needs therapeutic assistance, it can be challenging to know how, exactly, to go about helping. With mental health concerns affecting as many as one in four adults and one in ten children, access to effective care is critical. The good news is that therapeutic treatments have a high success rate; unfortunately, only about one out of three people seek help for themselves.
If you love someone who is experiencing psychological distress and needs support and assistance beyond what you can provide, the tips and resources below can guide you to finding the right kind of help.
Though it may be obvious to you that someone you love needs professional help, there are many reasons why your loved one may refuse or feel reluctant to get treatment. Some people may not have access to quality mental health care, and others may avoid therapy for fear of being considered "weak" or "crazy" by those who stigmatize therapy. A person may have religious or cultural beliefs that keep them from seeking professional assistance, or perhaps they have had a negative therapy experience in the past. Exploring the reasons why someone may avoid treatment can be a good place to start, as well as normalizing mental health issues and treatment. Millions of people all around the world seek help for mental heath issues in order to improve their overall health, well-being, and happiness.
Severe depression, posttraumatic stress, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation are examples of issues that warrant intervention. Some signs of psychological distress to watch for, as outlined by the American Psychological Association, include:
- Marked changes in mood, such as irritability, anger, anxiety, or sadness
- Decline in performance at work or school
- Changes in weight and appearance, including negligence of personal hygiene
- Disturbances in sleep, either oversleeping or insomnia
- Withdrawal from social relationships and activities
Children and adolescents who face mental health issues are especially unlikely to seek therapy without the intervention of an adult, and they may not understand the nature of their symptoms. Most children are not yet accustomed to taking charge of their own health issues, although there are exceptions, especially in the teenage years. Even a self-sufficient teenager, however, may shy away from seeking mental health treatment due to stigma or a lack of awareness and accessibility of available treatment options.
Parents or guardians of minors in distress can offer unconditional love and support, and may also schedule an appointment with a licensed mental health professional for the minor as needed. Counseling allows a child to openly and unashamedly work through challenging thoughts, emotions, and behaviors under the guidance of someone who is trained to treat psychological concerns.
Teachers and school staff may also initiate the process of finding help for youth. Most schools have at least one counselor on staff who can see students on a regular basis. A school counselor should also be able to provide referrals if a child needs additional support outside of the school setting. Ideally, a parent or guardian will be the one to make an appointment with a licensed professional, but if the student appears to be in danger or experiencing abuse, a school counselor may have grounds to reach out to other professionals on behalf of the child.
If the issues your child is experiencing are related to household or family issues, family therapy can be a beneficial treatment option, whether on its own or in combination with individual therapy sessions. A family therapist will work with the family as a unit to examine family dynamics, improve relationships within the family, and address family members' symptoms.
If your child has a diagnosed mental health condition that warrants medication, you can consult with your child's pediatrician or a child psychiatrist to discuss psychotropic medication. Due to the risk of unwanted side effects in children and teenagers who use psychotropic medications, these medications are often prescribed as a last resort and in conjunction with other types of treatment such as counseling.
Client confidentiality is an important aspect of counseling. With children, parents and guardians typically are granted access to records and information regarding their children's therapy sessions. The rules of disclosure vary by state, but in some cases, a minor may elect to make his or her mental health records confidential so that parents or guardians will not be able to access the information. A mental health professional may also refuse disclosure on request of the minor or if the therapist deems disclosure to be a threat to the child or adolescent’s safety. In some states, these protections against disclosure are only applicable if there is reasonable belief of some form of abuse taking place. Additional information on parent and minor rights can be found on the United Civil Rights Councils' website.
- Tips for Supporting Your Child’s Therapy Experience
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- Good Grief: Helping Children and Teens Deal with Loss
- A Parent’s Guide to Formal Evaluations for ADHD
- Beyond Coming Out: Supporting Your LGBTQ Teenager
- Helping Teens to Cope with Your Cancer
Questions about kids and therapy answered by real therapists on Dear GoodTherapy.org:
Sometimes, a friend or family member who is going through a hard time simply needs someone like you to ask questions and listen closely to what he or she is experiencing. Other times, it is important to encourage loved ones to seek professional treatment, especially if their behavior compromises their ability to care for themselves on a day-to-day basis. In such cases, it can be difficult to know how to initiate a conversation and what to say. A simple expression of concern for the person’s well-being may be sufficient to break through the silence, but rarely is one heartfelt conversation enough for a full recovery. Often, therapeutic intervention is needed.
Once your friend or family member decides to seek mental health treatment, you may need to help him or her to schedule an appointment with a licensed mental health professional, and possibly even accompany him or her to the first session. As he or she moves through the healing process, you might find it helpful to have conversations about how you can best offer support. Is it helpful for you to remain in close contact? Or does he or she need some space during treatment? Often one of the most supportive things you can do for someone is to remain nonjudgmental as they go through the healing process. Also, remember to look after your own needs when you are supporting someone else.
Questions answered by therapists from Dear GoodTherapy.org:
- What Can We Do to Help Our Adult, Drug-Addicted Daughter?
- My Friend is Ruining Her Life, But She Won't Listen to Me
- How Can My Friend Help Her Bipolar, Manic Depressive Sister?
- Gambling Addiction has Taken Over My Brother's Life
The same general ideas apply when approaching an intimate partner about seeking treatment. Express your concern, listen closely, encourage your partner to seek help, and, even more so than with a family member or friend, expect that you may be asked to attend counseling sessions alongside your loved one.
A person in a relationship can pursue individual therapy sessions or couples therapy, and choosing between the two depends on the nature of the issue(s). Is your partner experiencing depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress, or another condition that would benefit from individual therapy? Or are you hoping to get some help with communication, sexual functioning, or intimacy as a couple? Questions like these will help you assess the best mode of therapy for you and your partner.
The Good Therapy Blog offers valuable insight and advice for people who wish to encourage an ambivalent partner to try therapy:
- Encouraging a Reluctant Partner to Try Counseling
- How to Effectively Approach Your Partner About Relationship Issues
- How to Get My Husband to Go to Therapy?
- What to Do When Your Partner Won't Go to Therapy with You
If you believe that someone is in danger of hurting themselves or others or is experiencing a life-threatening emergency, it is important to take action without hesitation. Calling a crisis center, dialing 911, and/or taking the person to an emergency room is vital when a person has indicated he or she is in crisis. See more information on crisis resources, here.
In extreme cases, involuntary or emergency hospitalization of a person may be necessary. In the United States, a qualified civil official, crisis team member, or medical staff may deem a person a danger to themselves or others and enact an emergency hospital evaluation, often referred to as a “psychiatric hold.” The laws for these involuntary treatment options vary by state, as outlined by the Treatment Advocacy Center.
If an emergency has not yet occurred and you feel your loved one is experiencing severe mental health issues and is in need of inpatient or outpatient treatment, you can petition a court-ordered civil commitment. Information and guidelines regarding who can initiate a court-ordered psychiatric intervention in your state are available through the Treatment Advocacy Center.
If a person is not in imminent danger, there are many other ways you can help a loved one who may be experiencing suicidal thoughts; for example, by encouraging them to find the right therapist and listening with empathy.
If you or someone you know would like to find a therapist or mental health professional in your area, you can start by searching for a therapist on GoodTherapy.org or calling 888-563-2112 ext. 1 (toll-free). Other ways to find a therapist may include asking for recommendations or referrals from other professionals, such as your family doctor. You can also search for therapists on the Internet, in the phone book, and through your insurance provider.
Most mental health professionals will provide a free phone consultation prior to treatment. You can ask questions about the therapy process and the therapist, and discuss the issues you hope to address in therapy.
- Emergency Hospitalization for Evaluation: Assisted Psychiatric Treatment Standards by State. (2011). Retrieved from http://treatmentadvocacycenter.org/storage/documents/Emergency_Hospitalization_for_Evaluation.pdf
- Huey, W. C., and Remley, Jr., T. P. (1990). Ethical and legal issues in school counseling. Highlights: an ERIC/CAPS digest. ERIC Clearinghouse on Counseling and Personnel Services Ann Arbor, MI. Retrieved from http://www.ericdigests.org/pre-9214/legal.htm
- Initiating Court-Ordered Assisted Treatment: Inpatient, Outpatient and Emergency Hospitalization Standards by State. (2011). Retrieved from http://www.treatmentadvocacycenter.org/storage/documents/Initiating_Court-Ordered_Treatment.pdf
- Stefan, Susan. (n.d.). HIPAA Facts: Parent and Minor Rights. Technical Assistance 25 Support Center of the National Association for Rights Protection and Advocacy. Retrieved from http://unitedcivilrights.org/members/HIPAA/HIPAA-parent-info1.pdf
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