7 Ways to Support Someone in Therapy
By: Amanda Czlapinski, LPC
Human beings are social creatures. We depend on other humans from the moment we are born. We along with many other animals, organisms, and some would even argue, plants are social in the way that we interact with each other, cohabitate, compete and cooperate for resources, nurture and raise our young.
While some people are self-proclaimed to be “loners,” the majority of us (and I suspect many of the supposed loners) are inherently social. We live in a social system and, apart from the few that have gone off-grid and choose to live on a mountain alone somewhere (I can’t say I haven’t considered this from time to time), we interact with each other. It is within our relationships and social connections that we develop our perceptions of ourselves and the world around us. This is why having a strong support system is a key component of mental wellness.
If you are skeptical of just how much we rely on the people around us for mental stability and health I suggest you watch a season of the television series Alone on The History Channel. The reality game show follows several people that attempt to survive alone in the wilderness for as long as possible with limited supplies. Most of them are trained and skilled in various areas but the most common and least prepared for struggle that can be witnessed amongst all the contestants seems to be the pain of isolation.
There is so much that can be said about our social functioning, the various levels of support we all need and how to strengthen our support system. The point is that chances are you are part of someone’s, if not many people’s, support system, and sometimes we struggle with how best to be supportive of those in our lives, especially when they are struggling with their mental health. There are many articles out there sharing ideas for how to be there for someone that is going through a mental health crisis of varying degrees, and I encourage you to check them out. The following suggestions and things to consider are a collection of useful tips that I have collected from my own experience of hearing my clients talk about what they need, and what they can do without, from those that care about them most.
If you were surprised to learn someone you consider close to you is attending therapy, chances are they have been silently struggling for a while and may have even been in treatment for a while. I often learn that my clients have not disclosed to anyone in their support system that they are attending therapy or that they have been struggling for a long time before deciding to seek help. For various reasons they have chosen not to share with anyone, as is their right, but this also tends to mean they haven’t spoken much about the struggles that brought them to therapy either. If they confide in you, assume it was not easy, and offer some words of encouragement and gratitude that they felt comfortable enough to share this with you.
We have come a long way in reducing the stigma of mental healthcare, especially when it comes to encouraging others to get help, but when it is for ourselves it continues to bring a sense of vulnerability and fear of judgment we would prefer to avoid. By being vulnerable ourselves and sharing some of our own struggles others are less likely to worry about negative judgments from us and may be more willing to share their own experience.
Sometimes being direct and honest can be the best way to go. It leaves less room for assumptions and opens the door to letting someone know you are interested in them and care about how they are doing if they want to share. If they don’t, just let them know that you are there if they ever change their mind and make it a point to check in again in the future.
LET THEM KNOW THEY ARE NOT A BURDEN
Clients frequently tell me they don’t want to be putting their problems onto other people and cite this as a reason for not reaching out for help to those closest to them. They know you have your own problems and life to attend to and may consider their problems something they need to deal with on their own to avoid piling more on to you. If you want to help, let them know and assure them that you will be responsible for letting them know if you have reached your limit.
MAKE IT MUTUAL SUPPORT
It feels good to be of service to other people. Finding and suggesting ways that you can both be supportive and helpful to each other can help avoid worries of being a burden and promote positive emotions for both of you.
BE AWARE OF HURTFUL REMARKS
The most common reason I hear from clients for regretting the decision to tell others about attending therapy is that they now are subjected to unhelpful advice about what their treatment goals should be. Often this advice has more to do with things they personally dislike rather than what is in the client’s best interest. Try to avoid saying things like, “You should really talk to your therapist about that” or suggesting that they let you contact their therapist “so they can hear both sides of the story.”
DO NOT ASK THEM WHAT THEY TALK ABOUT IN THERAPY
One of the most important parts of therapy is a client’s right to confidentiality and freedom to say what they think and feel without fear of judgment. It’s understandable. You are curious and just want to know. Or maybe you feel hurt that they did not come talk to you. But it is important that you respect their right to have privacy and come from a place of wanting to know what information you need to know in order to be of support.