About 14 years ago, I wasn’t okay. My husband Peter and I had recently finished school and moved our little family of four into our first real home. By all appearances, our life was pure white-picket-fenced bliss.
But one day when we were finishing unpacking, Peter dumped out a cardboard box of toys on my daughter’s bedroom floor with the intention of putting them away, but was interrupted by a call from work. I sat there alone in the room, staring blankly at the pile of toys on the floor. A few months earlier, I’d defended a master’s thesis and given birth to our baby boy all in the space of two weeks. It couldn’t be that hard to put away a few toys, right? But in that moment, the notion of organizing those toys felt like trying to summit Everest without a Sherpa or any gear when I wasn’t much of a hiker to begin with. I felt paralyzed.
Later than night, I admitted to Peter, “I don’t think I’m okay.”
He surprised me by replying, “I don’t think you’ve been okay for awhile.”
You see, my husband had been noticing for months that I hadn’t been myself. He’d watched me lose my passionate motivation and become apathetic toward everything I previously loved. He saw before I did that I was in the throes of postpartum depression.
After we talked, Peter immediately started getting me help. He contacted our health insurance company to find out our medical and therapy options, and he called my mom in California to come help me take care of the kids. He made me appointments and bought me books on postpartum depression—all things I couldn’t have done for myself.
Maybe you’ve also been noticing the signs that someone you love isn’t okay. Perhaps you can tell they need more than a supportive confidante—they need professional help. As with my husband, your desire to help is likely genuine. You want them to know you care and you’re not judging them. But how do you broach the topic without offending them?
Time it Right
Talk to them at a time when they seem calm and open to conversation. Whether your loved one struggles with mental illness, an addiction, or some other life conflict, it’s likely affecting their mood and temperament. Avoid discussing getting help when they don’t seem emotionally present. Your loved one may be a morning person or a night owl—choose a time of day when they function best, even if it means rearranging your plans. Most people have more willpower to make bold decisions early in the day, and that willpower wanes as the day progresses. You may want to have this conversation before noon if their schedule permits.
Your mood is also important. You and your loved one may have conflicts of your own between you. Don’t weaponize their need for help during a heated argument to show them just how “messed up” they are. They need to know that your concern comes from a place of love.
All that said, don’t stall waiting for the perfect time to approach your loved one about getting help. I once needed to talk to someone I was close to about getting help for his addiction, but I was afraid to. I kept hoping the topic would magically come up on its own. Needless to say, that never happened, and he sadly ended up moving away before we could talk about it. It’s more important that this conversation happen at all than it happen at the ideal time.
Begin by telling them how much you care about them. But then be gently direct about their struggles as you have witnessed them. If you’ve had positive experiences with therapy or other professional help, share them. Remind them of all of their wonderful qualities, and communicate that you only want to see them thrive.
Expect the Unexpected
You may not have any clue how your loved one will respond. They may be open to any opportunity to get better. Or they may resist the idea.
People are hesitant to try therapy for various reasons: stigma against mental disorders and addictions, a lack of belief that therapy will help them, social anxiety about discussing their secrets with a stranger, denial that they have a problem, etc. Ask questions to discover why your loved one is resistant. Reassure them that we all have struggles, and theirs don’t make them any less valuable or lovable. If they are anxious about talking to a therapist, offer to go with them so they don’t feel alone.
Offer to Help
When I was suffering from postpartum depression, finding a therapist, scheduling an appointment, and arranging necessary child care would have been impossible for me. If your loved one needs therapy, they may not be operating at full capacity. They could really use your help setting it all up. Help them in any way you can, always making sure you have their consent first.
Be There for Them
Recognize that just getting your loved one to therapy isn’t a magical cure in and of itself. A lot of therapy’s benefits come from outside work they do. Your loved one may also need to attend a twelve-step program, see a medical doctor, make some lifestyle changes, etc. They’ll need your continued support—someone to talk to and lean on through all of these life changes.
Be Aware that They Still May Refuse
Remember that unless they are your minor child, you can’t force anyone to go to therapy. If they aren’t open to the idea, they may not benefit from it. It may take some time and experience for them to realize that they have a problem or warm up to the idea of getting help. Take comfort knowing you have planted the idea. However, if you strongly suspect they may harm themselves or others, please contact the authorities immediately.
If your loved one’s problems are affecting you as well, don’t hesitate to seek therapy for yourself. Seeing the benefits therapy brings to your life may soften the stigma and change your loved one’s mind about getting help.
I’m grateful that I when I was struggling, I could turn to someone who didn’t dismiss my problems with some platitude about how “we all have problems” or “it gets better.” My husband saw that I wasn’t myself and was brave enough to help me get the tools to find “me” again. Be the brave one in your loved one’s life. They need you.
By Wendy Morkel, MA
Sela Health Editorial Contributor