Updated: Oct 30, 2020
“Are you trying to say there is something wrong with me?”
I remember the first time someone I cared about said this to me. All I wanted to do was help someone I cared about get the emotional support I felt could help - and all I got was defensiveness. Their response hurt at the time, I won’t lie. But what I learnt from that conversation - and others like that - was that sometimes as much as we want to help, using the right words and approaches can make the biggest difference between being helpful - and hurtful (however unintended). And the difference between them seeking help - and shutting you out.
Yes you might be right. Yes, they might just be difficult. But if you really want to help, if you really want them to seek help - sometimes you need to also make sure you are speaking the right language to make sure they understand.
Over the years, I have had so many conversations like this - with my South Asian family members and friends; cancer patients from diverse backgrounds I worked with; and too many males in my life - as have so many of my friends.
Therefore, during World Mental Health Awareness Month (especially as someone of you might be thinking of having these conversations with loved ones struggling during this pandemic), I collated a list of tips myself and my friends have learnt to help have these conversations better:
1. Pick a good time & place - As tempting as it is, don’t broach the topic mid fight or
argument. This can be a conversation where people could get defensive at the best of times, so try to pick a time and place where they are most open to listening, rather than them thinking you are using this topic as ‘ammunition’.
2. Empathize and share - When you want to try to get through to someone it is important that they believe that you genuinely want to help - and you’re not just criticizing or attacking. Don’t wish that they were more like you; instead put yourself in their shoes - and try to say what you wished you would want to hear if you were them. For example, you could:
Relate & compliment them: If there are specific circumstances or behaviours that you think they might need help with, don’t start by pointing them out like weakness - this might ‘otherize’ them. Instead try to relate and make them feel like they are not the only one. You could tell them you understand how these circumstances might be challenging, and you have been so impressed at how amazingly they have coped so far. Acknowledge what they are doing well.
Share: If you have experienced anything similar or seen others experience similar circumstances to help them see that you understand.
Demystify therapy with examples: Then, share experiences of how you or others in similar positions have benefited from therapy. This approach could help them see that you are not saying there is something wrong with them, you just want to make sure they can benefit from resources or expertise they might find helpful. It also helps demystify therapy for someone who hasn’t experienced it. You could even give specific examples of how a therapist gave you or someone you knew actions or techniques that helped you deal with a specific challenge to show them tangibly how helpful therapy can be.
3. Speak or mirror their language - It’s important to speak ‘their’ language. Listen to them to help understand what words or language might work. For example, you might know things or activities that they do and you could try to relate it to therapy. Here are a couple of analogies that have worked for myself and friends:
The doctor analogy - When a friend felt like going to therapy was stigmatizing and a sign of weakness, I compared going to a therapist for your mental health as similar to going to a doctor for your physical health or ailment. She said this analogy really helped her feel therapy wasn’t a sign something was wrong with her - it was just trusting an expert for emotional help as needed, just as she would always do with her physical health.
The ‘personal trainer’ analogy - I learnt quickly many of the males in my life didn't like the terms ‘emotional’, ‘support’ or ‘help’ (among others). “I don’t need support, I should just man up. I’ve been through worse, I’m strong enough to deal with this, don’t worry,” they would say. (They don’t often go to the doctor so I couldn’t use that either.) I learnt words like support or help make some people feel weak or helpless. So if you find this, don’t try to out-convince them - learn their language. For example, listen to what they like or benefit from and try to compare that to therapy. One analogy that worked was comparing therapy to a trainer at the gym - as one of them said: “I use a trainer at the gym not because I need help but to help me be at my best. That’s exactly what a therapist is, like a trainer but for your mind.”
4. Ask them to ‘try it’ - If they are new to therapy, therapy might feel scary and awkward so don’t make them feel like they will be trapped if it doesn’t feel right. Also, continue to be supportive - acknowledge that you understand it’s tough to take the first step, that you’re inspired that they are doing so, and it means a lot to you.
5. Eliminate barriers - Keep your ears open for any others barriers and try to eliminate them. For example if they’re scared about confidentiality, assure them that therapists take privacy and confidentiality very seriously. If cost is a barrier, you could tell them most therapists are covered under insurance, some have sliding scale and many insurers like BCBS have even waived co-pays during the pandemic.
6. Be patient & supportive - Be encouraging. Be kind. Be supportive.
But be patient. You can’t force anyone to do something they don’t want to do, and they might shut you out if you push too hard. You always want them to feel supported so remember to check in regularly, but gently. Make them feel like you care but that they are in control and it is entirely their decision if they want to seek therapy.
7. Make the process easy - Once they are ready, make the process of finding a therapist as easy as possible. They may have heard the process of finding a therapist can be confusing and time consuming so try to make it seamless. There are some free services like Unmute - where you can submit your preferences in a therapist and they will take the legwork out of finding someone and send you 5 therapists that meet your needs. Connect them with organizations like Unmute to make the search easy and help them get the help they need.
Hope this was helpful, if so, please share and I’d love to know what you think as well! Connect with me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any feedback and if you have any other tips or advice or ideas for other topics you’d like to read about.
The author, Asini Wijewardane is the co-founder of Unmute, a free service that helps connect people seeking therapy to therapists quickly and easily.
Note: This article covers general information & guidance. If someone you know is in crisis, please call the emergency services or the national suicide helpline: 1-800-273-8255.