Therapy can be a difficult subject to broach. For all its benefits, many still consider the need for therapy and other forms of mental health care to be shameful. For someone who is already feeling the burden of anxiety, depression, or another mental illness, careless advice—even if it's good advice—can be harmful.
Nevertheless, there may be a time when it is important to offer such advice to someone. As a friend and loved one, you often have insight into the lives a people around you that they don’t have themselves. Reflecting on Aristotle’s views of friendship, philosophy professor Massimo Pigliucci writes, “Friends hold a mirror up to each other; through that mirror they can see each other in ways that would not otherwise be accessible to them, and it is this (reciprocal) mirroring that helps them improve themselves as persons.”
The first step is to know what you are talking about. Be aware of the symptoms of depression and mental illness, and be aware of the real benefits of psychotherapy. Depending on pop psychology and attempting to diagnose a friend or loved one can lead to offense, and misconceptions about therapy can create false promises. If you are concerned about someone, make yourself aware of the symptoms and treatments before you say anything. Be careful not to call simple differences in personality mental illness. Rather, be on the lookout for unusual changes in behavior and erratic moods. Be aware of factors in someone’s life that might be contributing to those changes.
Next, consider carefully how you communicate your concerns. Treatment for mental health problems often involves serious and potentially embarrassing topics. Approach the conversation seriously and privately. Both of these factors avoid shaming your friend by demonstrating that you take them and their well-being seriously. By not going behind their back to other friends and family members, you show them that you respect them and trust them to make sound and independent decisions about their life. A group intervention is never the first step.
It’s also important to be aware of your friend or loved one’s mood and receptivity. In their moment of frustration, anger, or stress, their need for therapy might be the first thing on your mind, but it’s likely not an opportune time to communicate it. Avoid raising the topic in the heat of the moment. Let your friend know that you have something serious and important that you would like to talk about, and set aside a specific time to talk about it.
How you frame the conversation is important. Emotional health is a personal matter, and someone who is experiencing a hard time may take any conversation about it as a personal attack. Be careful to use “I” statements rather than “you” statements: “I’m concerned about you”; not “There’s something going on with you.” Focus on the specific words or behaviors that have raised your concern rather than a general sense about your friend: “I’m concerned about the fact that you’ve been doing this thing that’s out of character. Is there anything going on? I think you might benefit from some talk therapy.”
Be honest and empathetic. Trust your friend to make the best choice, and offer your advice as simply that: advice. Not everyone will take it, but it is important to respect their decisions nonetheless.