There is nothing worse than seeing a friend or loved one struggling with their mental health and not knowing how to help. It feels like your hands are tied. They just want to wave a magic wand and “fix” their struggles, but you can’t. After a loved one suffers a spinal cord injury, many family members struggle with it. You want to do whatever it takes to help them heal the trauma, both physically and mentally, but it’s difficult. Friends of the affected family are also struggling with it. You want to help the family members who are witnesses of their loved one being diagnosed with paralysis, but it’s hard to know where to start. Mental health is complicated, and myriad underlying emotions, influences, thoughts, and experiences can impact a person’s mental health. Sorting these things is like untying the biggest knot in the world. It’s tough. It’s so important to let your friend or loved one know that you care about them, that you’re there for them, and that they’re not alone. Sometimes the best thing you can do for someone is just be there for people, sit next to them and just listen.
But if your symptoms aren’t going away and there’s an ongoing struggle that has you wondering what else to do, consider talking to your friend or loved one about starting therapy. The idea of suggesting therapy for someone often makes people cringe because they don’t know what to say or not to say and they’re afraid of how to bring up the topic without offending someone. Let’s talk about how to gently bring up the topic.
First, talk to your friend or loved one in a private setting while you and the person get along well. Be sure to emphasize that you are bringing up the topic because they are important to you. Stay calm and collected. There is no reason for you to get excited or concerned about the subject. They want to convey that therapy is normal, healthy, and widely used. It is helpful to remind the person that therapy is something that many people engage in and benefit from. Speak in a very casual tone, just as you would with any other topic related to a person’s well-being. It’s important to avoid stereotypes, avoid derogatory language, and avoid making the person “need therapy” so embarrassing. Instead, remind the person that going to therapy is one of the most powerful things they can do for themselves. Deciding to seek treatment for mental health is an extraordinary act of personal courage.
Emphasize that mental health is just as important as physical health. Try comparing the therapy to seeing a doctor for another condition. Treating your mental health is just as valid as treating any other part of your body. Remind the person that mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression are and can be treated. Tell the person that treatment can make them feel better and help them overcome trauma. It is important to convey ideas of hope and recovery through this conversation. Be willing to listen and validate their feelings, whatever they may be.
Not sure how to start the conversation? The following examples might be helpful to you:
“Hi, I don’t want you to take this the wrong way and I’m only mentioning it because I really care about you. Are you interested in speaking to a therapist? I know you’re struggling and it hurts me to know it hurts you. It might be helpful.”
“You may have thought about this, but I was just wondering if you think talking to a therapist might be helpful. It sucks to see you have problems and you deserve to be happier. So many people are going to therapy these days, it’s not a big deal. Perhaps you would like to speak to someone safe and confidential?”
“Hi, I’ve noticed you’re not being yourself lately and I’m wondering if you’re struggling with things that a therapist could help with? I hate to see you feeling this down and I want to help you connect to anything that would be helpful.”
“I know things have been really difficult for you, and I think maybe a therapist can help you strategize to deal with it.”
(If a spinal cord injury is recent) – “Recovery from trauma as severe as this is not easy and it is so important to focus on both physical and mental recovery. Your body needs to heal, but your mind needs to heal too. Many people also find that an early focus on mental health recovery is so crucial to long-term health. It’s okay if you don’t want to talk to your family or me about this right now, but would you be willing to speak to someone privately? It might help to just have a safe outlet.”
(For a family member or loved one) – “You are also experiencing trauma! It must be so devastating to witness what is happening to your loved one. Your life will change too. Your feelings and experiences are also valid. It might be helpful to talk to a therapist about how to understand all of this.”
It is also important to remember that this is not your decision. It is your decision. You just come up with an idea that might be helpful to you, but if your friend or loved one isn’t ready for therapy, you can’t force them to do it. People who are forced to go into therapy usually do not participate in the process, and it is very difficult to make progress during the session when someone is reluctant to go into therapy. If you feel like you are pushing them too hard, please take a step back as forcing someone into therapy will not help (it may make them feel worse).
However, if the person is willing to talk about it, this is a great opportunity to talk about their preferences and options. Would you be interested in online therapy? Or do they need a personal treatment option? What health insurance do you have? Do you prefer a male or female therapist?
The main message from the conversation should be that therapy is available to them if they choose. It’s normal to feel some anxiety and nervousness when beginning therapy, but if the person is brave enough to begin, they will likely find relief in the process and therapy will feel much more comfortable after their therapist has met.