7 Min Read

3 Reasons You Should Encourage Your Loved Ones to Enter Treatment

Brad Brenner, Ph.D.

When it comes to mental health issues, sometimes it’s friends and family members who first recognize symptoms in a loved one. Often individuals who have a mental illness don’t want to admit they have a problem. Or perhaps they don’t realize their behaviors have changed, or that a drug or alcohol habit has become an addiction. Either way, it’s hard to stand by and watch someone you care about suffer mentally or physically. We don’t want their lives to spiral even further out of control. And what if their problems lead to self-destructive behavior or even thoughts of suicide? If there was some way you could prevent these possible results, you would most certainly take advantage of the opportunity.

Luckily, there is something you can do to help. You can recommend that your loved one seek mental health or substance use treatment. Sometimes this is easier said than done, however.

Barriers to getting help

Although most people never hesitate to seek treatment for medical conditions like the flu or a broken leg, they have an entirely different attitude toward treatment for mental conditions.

According to the World Health Organization, one in four people are affected by mental illness, yet two-thirds do not seek treatment for their condition. Some cite the lack of insurance coverage or the high cost of treatment as a reason for holding back. However, in the United States, federal laws such as 2008’s Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA) and 2010’s Affordable Care Act (ACA) encourage benefits providers to include coverage for mental health treatment and treatment of substance use disorders. For those without coverage, there are lower-cost options available through social services organizations, universities, hospitals, and other organizations.

Even if they have insurance benefits or the means to afford treatment, many people can’t overcome the stigma of getting help from a mental health professional. They throw around terms like “crazy” or “head shrinking” and worry that others will think they’re weak. Perhaps they have concerns about privacy or believe their employer will use their agreement to seek treatment against them somehow. Of course, there are federal laws that prevent employers from discriminating against employees because of mental illness and from making an employee’s condition or treatment public.

Overcoming initial objections

Dispelling these myths and misconceptions as your loved one raises them is one thing. Convincing them to enter a program for treatment of substance use disorders or to begin seeing a mental health professional for psychotherapy, however, may still present challenges.

The fact that you are there for them, recognizing their symptoms and their pain, will go a long way toward getting them to accept help. Isolation, or withdrawing from friends and family, can exacerbate depression and further enable substance abuse. Having a strong social support system — people who care enough to not only recognize a friend’s growing problem but also want to help them fix it — can go a long way toward encouraging the person to get help. Your compassion, support, and understanding show the person that they’re not alone in their struggles.

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The right approach

The more people everywhere speak openly about therapy, the less intimidating it becomes. The same concept applies to how you broach the subject with your loved one. This doesn’t mean nagging the person to wear them down. On the contrary, you have to approach the subject of seeking treatment with empathy, not judgment.

When it comes to mental health issues, sometimes it's friends and family members who first recognize symptoms in a loved one. Often individuals who have a mental illness don't want to admit they have a problem. Or perhaps they don't realize their behaviors have changed, or that a drug or alcohol habit has become an addiction. Either way, it's hard to stand by and watch someone you care about suffer mentally or physically. We don't want their lives to spiral even further out of control. And what if their problems lead to self-destructive behavior or even thoughts of suicide? If there was some way you could prevent these possible results, you would most certainly take advantage of the opportunity.

When the time is right, meaning you are alone with the person in a comfortable setting and you’re both reasonably relaxed, start the conversation with kind words, using the less-accusatory “I” instead of “you.” For example, you might say, “I want you to know that I love you very much, and recently I’ve noticed that you aren’t quite yourself, and I want to help you in any way I can.”

Even with this empathetic introduction, your friend or family member may still react defensively. Be strong, though. Maintaining your calm demeanor, offer specific examples of the signs and symptoms of a mental health issue or substance use disorders that you’ve observed. Maybe explain that you’ve noticed how the person has missed activities they used to enjoy, like weekly book club meetings or morning spin classes. Or perhaps tell them they seem more irritable, angry, or agitated than before. Maybe they’re not sleeping, have lost their appetite, or appear to suffer from fatigue. Being specific about your observations may help your loved one recognize that there is indeed a problem that you want to help them address.

Once you have the attention and cooperation of your friend or family member, it’s time to help them understand why they should seek treatment. Sharing your knowledge of the different types of therapy and how they can help is an effective way to convince them that you know what you’re talking about, and they can trust you.

There are three key reasons that you should talk to your loved one about entering a treatment program. Hopefully, these are the same reasons that, with your help, will eventually encourage them to evaluate their therapy and treatment options.

First: You can’t do it alone

Very few people get over depression, anxiety disorders, or substance use disorders on their own. Mental illness, in particular, is a disease. And again, as with colds, broken limbs, or even tumors, the intervention of a medical professional, along with proper treatment and medicines, is usually necessary to improve and treat the condition. Sheer willpower often isn’t enough. Most people need some treatment, whether that’s talk therapy, medical treatments, prescribed medicine, or a combination of these.

Second: Treatment leads to understanding and change

For someone who is suffering from a mental illness or substance use disorder, gaining an understanding of what might have contributed to their condition can be extremely helpful when working toward a solution. According to Mental Health America (MHA), there are more than 200 classified forms of mental illness, ranging from depression and anxiety to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Without proper intervention from a mental health professional, your loved one may never know exactly which condition or conditions he or she suffers from, let alone the severity of the illness or how to treat or cope with it.

Mental illnesses may be caused by a reaction to environmental stresses, genetic factors, biochemical imbalances, or a combination of these, according to MHA. In many cases, underlying medical conditions contribute to mental health issues. For example, a hormone imbalance can lead to multiple psychological consequences, including anxiety, panic attacks, concentration problems, and mood swings. Some medicines or supplements used in the treatment of physical ailments may have psychological side effects.

If either of these situations applies to your loved one, working with a medical professional to start hormone treatment or adjust their existing medications may make all the difference in their mental health and wellbeing. At the very least, the person will understand what led to their current mental state, and know what can be done to improve it.

The same goes for someone suffering from an addiction. Substance abuse doesn’t happen overnight. Gaining an understanding of what led to the addiction will help your loved one not only recover from their current situation, but also help your loved one to avoid triggers and situations that might lead to substance use disorders in the future.

Third: You have so many treatment options

Mental health therapy and treatment of substance use disorders come in a variety of flavors, one of which might be just right for your loved one. They may even benefit from a combination of different types of therapy. For example, your friend or family member might need to seek psychotherapy from a mental health professional to explore their mental illness, but also attend regular meetings of a peer-led support group for ongoing social support.

Individual therapy is usually a good starting point for someone suffering from symptoms of mental illness, especially if your friend or family member isn’t ready to share their concerns in a group therapy setting. Working one-on-one with a licensed counselor or psychotherapist allows your loved one and the mental health professional to dig deeper into the causes of and potential solutions for his or her particular condition. From there, the therapist can recommend the most appropriate treatment.

Based on your friend or family member’s specific needs, their therapist may choose from several different treatment options. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most popular therapy types for mental health conditions. CBT explores the person’s “thinking patterns, attitudes, and expectations as they relate to behavior,” according to American Addiction Centers. A form of psychotherapy, CBT is also the most common type of therapy recommended for the treatment of substance use disorders.

Psychodynamic therapy has also proven effective for the treatment of substance use disorders as well as mental health conditions. This type of therapy is based on the theories of Sigmund Freud and explores the effects of childhood experiences on patients’ adult lives. Psychodynamic therapy explores unconscious mental processes that impact everyday behaviors rather than conscious decisions or attitudes.

Although it is rarely used in isolation to treat mental conditions or substance abuse, behavioral therapy focuses on treating behaviors that stem from these conditions, rather than what might have caused them in the first place. For example, prescribing a medication that will cause nausea or vomiting if taken with alcohol is a form of behavioral therapy meant to connect an uncomfortable outcome with undesirable behavior. Behavioral therapy often supplements other types of therapy.

In cases where these more traditional types of therapy prove ineffective, a mental health professional may turn to transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to treat depression or other conditions. TMS is a non-invasive procedure that stimulates nerve cells in the brain using magnetic fields. This treatment, often used repetitively, has proven effective in improving mood and easing symptoms of depression with only minor side effects.

Offering your continued support

During your initial conversations with a loved one, keep in mind that sharing all available treatment options might be overwhelming. You might begin by talking about the broad categories of therapy, like group therapy and individual therapy, or inpatient and outpatient treatments.

Perhaps you volunteer to find a local support group that focuses on your friend or family member’s particular needs and attend a meeting with them. Peer support can be incredibly empowering when exploring the best treatments for mental health and substance use disorders. Talking to someone who has successfully overcome what they’re currently going through, or has had the same questions but has found the answers, helps to show your loved one that they are not alone in their struggles, and that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

Helping your friend or a family member find the right mental health professional is also a great way to show your support. There are a lot of therapists in America today, and selecting one with whom your loved one will be comfortable while receiving appropriate and effective treatment is essential. You wouldn’t want the process of locating a therapist to become such a burden or obstacle for your loved one that he or she gives up on the idea of therapy entirely.

To find the right therapist or program for your friend or family member, you could start by discreetly asking others for recommendations, but this could prove difficult if those individuals are reluctant to disclose their conditions or treatment plans. Using a website like WithTherapy.com might be your best bet. WithTherapy.com lets you narrow the field of candidates for professional treatment using a wide variety of parameters, including the therapist’s age, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, geographic location, years of experience, types of therapies used, or treatment specialties. Finding the right fit with a mental health professional or substance use disorders specialist is paramount to helping your loved one not only begin treatment but thrive throughout and beyond the process.

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