Can You Ever Make a Person Seek Therapy?
Taking ownership of others' mental health is a slippery slope.
Posted Jun 25, 2018
It is not uncommon for psychologists to get asked some version of the question, “How can I get (fill in the blank) to start therapy?” The short answer: You can’t. Certainly, we have all encountered individuals who seem to be prime candidates for some kind of therapy. Even the most functional among us may gain additional insights into their lives through the process of therapy. Then there are more extreme examples of people who are more obviously suffering or share feeling depressed or who disclose considering self-harm. In fact, it is only in extreme cases when individuals appear to be an imminent threat to themselves or others that they can be forcibly treated, and even then there are limits to how long a person can remain hospitalized or otherwise treated against their will.
A fellow PT writer, Dr. Frances (2013), reflects on the controversy surrounding forcibly treating someone when he writes, “Involuntary treatment is perhaps the most contentious source of dispute between psychiatry and its critics (especially former patients who were forced into treatments that were harmful to them)”. I am concerned for purposes of this post with individuals who are generally functional but clearly have certain issues or difficulties that would benefit from therapy.
When it is difficult to impose treatment on more severe conditions of mental illness, how then, do we get those loved ones resistant to therapy to seek the help they so desperately need? Even among those with the best intentions, it is common for individuals acknowledging that they could benefit from therapy to find ways to avoid the process—money, time, and effort is often in short supply in our fast-paced culture, and one can always find reasons not to seek therapy. Moreover, practical concerns may be the explicit reason a person shows resistance to therapy when in fact internal barriers are also blocking their willingness to consider it.
Men, for instance, may be less inclined to seek therapy because constructions of masculinity in our society impose strict rules on men to appear stoic, always in control, and unemotional thus this leaves them more vulnerable to perceive asking for help as a sign of weakness. Cultural norms also vary regarding how acceptable it is for an individual to seek therapy within a given society.
In the wake of the recent high profile suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, many of us have been awoken to the fact that those around us are suffering, and that even individuals who may appear to be happy may be suffering in silence. Still, “’You can’t pressure someone to get into treatment”’ reminds a psychologist, “’All you can do is try to encourage them’” (as quoted by Neilson, 2017, para 6).
I think one way in general we can try to get around cultural resistances or stigmas about therapy is for those of us who are actively in therapy to speak more openly about our experiences. I have done this in my own life. I have tried to serve as a model to others that one can be functional and still benefit from therapy, and offering personal experiences of insights gained in therapy could enable others who are hesitant or skeptical to be more open in considering it for their own problems.
Ultimately, though, for better or worse, it is important to keep in mind that we can only be responsible for our own mental health. Even if as observers it is apparent to us that our loved ones are suffering or have emotional baggage that could benefit from being unpacked in a safe, therapeutic environment, unless the individual is in imminent danger, they are the ones who get to decide whether or not to seek out therapy. And in fact, repeated pressure from others could even backfire or turn them off to therapy as an option.
I have cautioned to others (and have had to learn the lesson in my own life) that it is always a slippery slope when we start to take ownership of another person’s mental health and well-being. Other than in the case of children or individuals in some kind of incapacity where they can’t advocate for themselves, we cannot impose on others treatments—even if they stand to benefit from them—unless they make the decision on their own. And if we blur boundaries between our own well-being and that of our loved ones, it can create even more stress for ourselves and impair our relationships with others. Indeed, I have to constantly remind my students and others who pose this question regarding therapy that self-care is critical.
Self-care, psychologists note, is critical when in the presence of others who can clearly benefit from therapy but aren’t seeking it. “’At some point, you have to protect yourself’” these experts remind us, “’You cannot force someone else to get help’” (as quoted by Neilson, 2017, para 8).
As we develop and grow in our lives, we begin to gain the skills of identifying what we can and cannot control. Ultimately, our mental health and well-being is in our own hands, particularly for those of us who have the privilege of access to some kind of mental health treatment. As for that of others, while we can be a support system to our loved ones and friends, whether or not they seek therapy is not within our control.
Frances, A.J. (2013, October 3). When is it Justified to Force Treatment on Someone. Psychology Today Blogs: Saving Normal. Retrieved on June 25, 2018 from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/saving-normal/201310/when-is-it-justified-force-treatment-someone
Neilson, S. (2017, December 15). How to Gently Convince Your Friend to Go to Therapy. The Cut: NYMag.com. Retrieved on June 25, 2018 from: https://www.thecut.com/2017/12/how-to-convince-someone-to-go-to-therapy.html