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How can I convince my friend to go to therapy? Four things to try.

We all want the best for our friends—and sometimes that means therapy. But even if we know they’d benefit from it, sometimes it’s hard for them to take that step.

Featured Article
UPDATED June 23, 2021

About a year ago I went to lunch with an old friend. We used to work closely together—I’d called him my “work husband”—and we have an easy shorthand with one another. That same shorthand is why, after we sat down, ordered, and started to chat, I knew something was just… off. 

We talked about our jobs. About our families. About his niece and twin nephews, who bring him so much joy. We talked about our romantic lives. But I could tell with every “fine” he said, that the opposite was just below the surface. He was depressed. He was lonely. And he could use a therapist.

I consider myself a “therapy veteran.” At various times in my life I have truly felt that, had my therapist at the time not reached down, grabbed me by the collar, and picked me up, I wouldn’t be here today. It’s that simple. But I understand that for many people, knowing you would benefit from therapy and actually making that appointment are two very different things. 

My friend was stuck. He recognized he needed to go. He wanted to go. But taking that next step paralyzed him.

Mental illness is more common than many people think

Mental illness, including depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders, affected millions of people worldwide before the outbreak of COVID-19. But now, the situation is even more precarious, increasing the demand for mental health treatment. 

According to The National Institute of Mental Health Information (NIMH):  

  • 21% of U.S. adults experienced a mental illness (or 51.5 million people, or 1 in 5 adults)

  • More than a quarter (29%) of adults aged 18 to 25 years-old had a mental illness, while 5.2% had a serious mental illness (SMI). (A SMI is defined as substantially interfering with or limiting one or more major life activities.)

The good news is that therapy can be very effective in treating mental health disorders. The bad news is that, less than half (45%) of U.S. adults who need treatment actually get treatment. 

My friend was stuck. He recognized he needed to go. He wanted to go. But taking that next step paralyzed him.

And those who do get treatment often wait years after they first experience symptoms. In fact, on average, it takes 11 years from when mental illness symptoms first appear and when first treatment contact is made.

A Monarch by SimplePractice illustration of five people sitting on a picnic blanket.

The need for mental health support is clear. So what can you do to help encourage friends and loved ones to seek help?

Tips to encourage someone to consider therapy

Here are four tips:

1. Let them know you care

Your priority is to make sure your loved one understands you’re coming at this from a place of love and concern—not judgment. 

Sometimes that’s a hard line to walk because, for someone in distress, “I want to help you” can be interpreted as, “There’s something wrong with you.” 

However, gently telling them you are here to help is sometimes the best, most basic thing you can do to start the conversation.

Use “I” statements, like “I want the best for you”, “I love you”, and “I’m concerned about your wellbeing”, and avoid “you” statements, like “you need therapy” or “you have a problem”.

Most mental illnesses are highly treatable, so focus on the benefits of going to therapy, rather than the consequences of not going. That said, if you receive immediate resistance, it’s also okay to table the discussion to another time when you feel like they may be more open to having the conversation.

2. Share your own experience

Sometimes the best way to communicate the benefits of therapy is to share your own therapy journey. 

Especially if you can give a specific example: “I had this problem, we talked it out, my therapist suggested I do this, I did, and it helped.” Then say, “I see you're having some of the same issues, so maybe therapy could help you too.”

Resistance can come in many forms, from “my problems aren’t bad enough for therapy” to “I don’t have the time” to “I’ll get to it later”. As we all know, the latter rarely means it will actually make the list. 

Even if you’re close, your friend may not know what initially drove you to therapy, or why you keep going. Telling your story helps normalize therapy for those struggling with roadblocks—both real and imagined.

3. Be mindful of the time and place

This can be tricky. If you see your friend regularly, having a conversation about mental health is likely an easy conversation transition. 

But, if it’s someone you only see once a month, or perhaps only talk to on the phone once every month or two, a conversation like this can prove to be more challenging. That’s why it’s so important to know your audience. Test out the waters. 

A Monarch by SimplePractice illustration of a Black man in a white t-shirt holding a drink and putting his arm around a Black boy in a green t-shirt, who is leaning on a table with his eyes closed and holding a drink.

Mention your own therapy experience and see how that’s received. If the conversation feels tense or stressed, save it for another time. 

Talking about the need for therapy is a delicate subject. And while sometimes these conversations are more urgent in nature, it’s also okay to drop some hints over time until you’re ready to have the full conversation. 

While the “perfect” time to bring up therapy might never truly exist, you also don’t want to inadvertently turn your friend off to the idea by bringing it up at an inopportune time.

If you initially get pushback, don’t assume that the conversation is over. Instead, leave the door open by asking if there is a better time to talk. If they say no, don’t be afraid to say that you may bring it up again.

4. Remind them the choice is theirs

 At the end of the day, you can’t make anyone do anything they don’t want to do, but something that can make potential therapy goers even more comfortable is to remind them that the choice is theirs. 

People don’t like to be told what to do. And feeling like they’re being backed into a corner and forced to go to therapy will turn them off altogether. Reminding them the choice is theirs, puts the power back where it belongs: in their hands. 

With that in mind, you also need to be prepared for them not to go and determine whether that works for you. If you feel strongly that your friend really needs to go, and they refuse, know ahead of time how you want to move forward. 

You may find you want to limit your interactions, or take a break from the friendship. It’s important to take care of yourself and only do whatever is healthiest for you. 

Sometimes getting someone to go to therapy is as simple as outlining the benefits and positives you’ve experienced by having a therapist of your own. Other times it can be more complicated. But with support and love behind them, hopefully more people will take the steps towards prioritizing their mental health.

How to Encourage Someone to See a Therapist | NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2017). Retrieved: Nami.org website: https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/November-2017/How-to-Encourage-Someone-to-See-a-Therapist

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