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How to Talk to a Loved One Who Could Benefit from Therapy

Learn how to respond to the most-common concerns about therapy.

Key points

  • Thoughts and beliefs can stop a loved one from seeking the help of a mental health professional.
  • They may believe that therapy won't help, or they may be confused about the process.
  • Being able to respond to their concerns can increase the likelihood that they'll get the help they need.

The stigma around therapy has been greatly reduced in the past few decades. Lots of people now understand that there is nothing wrong or shameful about seeking help for mental health challenges, relationship issues, or quality of life concerns. But there are still many reasons why someone who could benefit from therapy might be hesitant to seek help. If you have a loved one who is struggling and you feel they could use the help of a mental health professional, you’ll want to understand the thoughts and beliefs that may prevent them from seeking help, and be prepared to respond compassionately. You might also want to be prepared to help them problem-solve practical concerns, like those related to time, money, or logistics. Here are some common barriers and how you might consider responding:

They may believe that therapy won’t help. Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) has been clinically tested in thousands of research studies and found to be an effective treatment for a range of mental health conditions, and medical conditions with psychological components. In fact, CBT has been found to be as effective as anti-depressant medication for the treatment of depression—and the benefits lasted longer.

Your loved one may find it helpful to view therapy as an experiment. You could say something like, “Of course, it’s possible that therapy won’t help. But it could also help a lot. You don’t need to make a big commitment—you could try a few sessions and then decide if it’s working.”

In CBT, therapists track client progress by assessing mood and behavior, and discuss their findings at each session, so your loved one will never have to guess whether therapy is working or not. And CBT therapists always welcome feedback from clients, so if your loved one isn’t making progress, the therapist will facilitate an open discussion about ways to improve the process of therapy and help your loved one feel better.

They don’t want to talk about childhood issues. Some types of therapy encourage exploration of childhood events. But other types, including CBT, focus mainly on the present and the future. A CBT therapist will help clients evaluate unhelpful thoughts and beliefs, solve current problems, identify their strengths and values, learn new skills, and take steps toward meaningful goals.

When I’m in session with a client, I often ask myself, “How can I help this client have a better week this week?”

Sometimes, it is helpful for CBT therapists to understand how a client came to hold a certain deeply engrained belief about themselves, other people, the world, or the future. In that case, it may be useful to discuss an event or relationship from the client’s past. However, the therapist and client would decide together whether to have these types of conversations, and the therapist should certainly never force a client to talk about something they aren’t comfortable discussing.

Reassuring your loved one that they won’t be expected to discuss childhood issues can be comforting if this is one of their concerns.

They are confused about the process of therapy. Depictions of therapy on TV or in movies can make therapy seem mysterious or strange. Your loved one may be picturing themselves lying on a couch while a therapist discusses their vulnerabilities or dissects their dreams.

In reality, many of the therapies that have been developed and tested during the last 50 years are designed to be straightforward and collaborative. During their initial evaluation, therapists will collect information about the client, including their goals and aspirations, values, and strengths, as well as the challenges that brought them to treatment. Using this information, the therapist will devise a treatment plan, and share it with the client. The client will have the opportunity to provide feedback on the plan, and ask questions about the process of therapy and what to expect in the coming weeks or months. Therapists, including CBT therapists, also provide psychoeducation, where they explain the client’s diagnosis and symptoms using clear and simple terms.

CBT therapists collaborate with clients throughout therapy, so clients can be sure that their most pressing concerns are being addressed promptly, and that they are aware of and comfortable with the interventions being recommended.

If your loved one is open to attending a few sessions as part of an experiment, encourage them to come prepared with questions about what to expect. Their therapist should take the time to respond thoughtfully and completely to all of your loved one’s concerns.

They have concerns about the costs or investment of time. Sometimes, a practical problem can get in the way of an individual seeking help. If your loved one has concerns about the cost of therapy, you may want to help them with some problem-solving. Maybe you can help them find a therapist who accepts their insurance, works on a sliding scale, or offers low-fee services. It might be helpful to mention that CBT and other types of evidence-based therapies are intended to be time-limited. Many CBT clients with common mental health concerns start to feel a little bit better after just 3 or 4 sessions, and many only require 10 to 12 sessions before they experience significant improvement.

If your loved one has concerns relating to logistics, you could help them by setting up the first appointment, driving them to therapy, providing childcare, or helping them complete required paperwork. You might help them get set up with teletherapy, if their therapist offers it.

No matter what your loved one’s concerns are, remember that going to therapy is an act of bravery. Approach your loved one with empathy, be supportive and non-judgmental, and if they do decide to seek help, be sure to let them know how courageous they are.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

More from Judith S. Beck Ph.D.
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