The Sensitive Way to Suggest That Someone Needs Therapy

People dealing with relationship troubles or mental health issues may be hard to approach. While therapy could be a help, finding a way to suggest this is a minefield. Here's the strategy experts recommend.

TherapyPressmaster/ShutterstockPeople who are in crisis or battling mental issues can be tricky to engage—make sure you avoid the two words you should never say to someone in crisis. They need to feel safe and not like they’re under attack. “The most important advice for sensitively suggesting that someone might benefit from therapy is to both select the right moment for it and to foster a safe environment while doing so,” suggests Marie Fang, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist in Santa Monica, California.

Most often people make the mistake of bringing therapy up in a moment of conflict, says Dr. Fang. This can harden the person against the suggestion because they are already feeling defensive. “When we tell a loved one we believe they need help, they often filter that to mean that there’s something wrong with them; the importance of treading carefully can’t be stressed enough,” she adds. “Find a moment when the individual is calm and ask permission to offer some advice.” Here are some tips on how to find a therapist who can help.

Also, she says, express your concern and remind them of the ways you care about them. Share specific examples from their life to illustrate why therapy might help. “Lastly, never try to strong-arm someone into counseling; if they don’t want to go, they won’t be able to utilize the benefit of it even if you get them to show up in the therapist’s office,” she says.

Jana Scrivani, PsyD, a clinical psychologist who practices in New York and Florida, says to remember that for many people there is still a stigma attached to the idea of therapy. The best approach is to raise the topic when you’re alone. “While you might feel comfortable discussing therapy, the person to whom you’re speaking might not. It’s best to hold this discussion in private, when both of you are free from distraction,” she advises. “A one-on-one conversation creates an emotionally safe environment. Rather than making statements like ‘you need therapy,’ highlight specific behaviors that you’ve noticed, and explain that you’re concerned.” Comforting a friend can help during personal conflict; here are 24 ways to be a supportive, true friend.

Show genuine concern when telling a loved one or a friend that you’ve noticed they’ve been isolating themselves, and often appear tearful, while expressing concern is a much more effective approach, Dr. Scrivani says. “Offering to help them find resources, and even accompanying them to their initial appointment goes a long way toward showing someone that you care,” adds Dr. Scrivani. “Finally, if you’re worried about someone’s immediate safety,—if they are suicidal, homicidal, or appear to have lost touch with reality—call 911 or the National Crisis Hotline at 1-800-273-8255,” she advises.

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