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Helping a Loved One with a Mental Illness Accept Treatment

January 15, 2024
Woman holding head and crying next to bed

If someone you care about is struggling with a mental illness and refusing to get help, it can be very distressing. With some mental health conditions, changes in the brain may actually impair a person’s ability to recognize their illness and accept treatment.

For others, the perceived stigma of a diagnosis, the misconception that they can get better on their own, or more severe symptoms like paranoia or hallucinations can also create resistance to care. While every individual and situation is different, here are some general strategies to help you approach the subject in a sensitive way.

Create the Right Environment

Find an opportunity to talk to your loved one when you are both comfortable, relaxed and there are limited distractions. Try your best to avoid bringing up your concerns during a heated argument when emotions are high. Do not include any family members or friends who your loved one doesn’t trust or feel close to in this discussion—even if they push to participate. Creating a comfortable environment will encourage your loved one to open up and feel supported without worrying about being overheard, interrupted or judged.

Listen and Empathize

During difficult conversations, people just want to feel understood. This is particularly important for your loved one who’s experiences are likely making them feel very alone. Listen carefully, validate their feelings, and at least for now, avoid offering solutions. Possible responses may be something like, “I hear that you are scared to take public transit to work,” or “I’m sorry you are exhausted from not sleeping much recently.” These types of reactions will make your loved one more open to talking to you and hearing what you have to say.

Stick With ‘I’ Statements

After carefully listening and validating their concerns, start by using ‘I’ rather than ‘you’ statements. For example, avoid saying, “You haven’t seemed like yourself and you need help.” Instead try, “I am worried that you have been feeling so sad lately. I think it could be really helpful to talk to someone outside of the family.’ Framing your statements this way will make your loved one less likely to get defensive or withdraw completely.

Be Prepared  

In hopes that your loved one is open to getting support, you should have a plan or possible options ready to share. Offer to help them find a therapist, psychologist or other mental health resources and let them know you’re willing to come with them to any appointments. If this feels overwhelming to your loved one, encourage small steps first. Maybe help them find a local support group, encourage them to talk to another friend or family member or suggest they reach out to their Employee Assistance Program (EAP) at work as a start.

Stay Persistent But Respectful  

If the conversation didn’t go well, consider this a starting point. It may take some time and multiple conversations for your loved one to come around to the idea of accepting help. Urging, pleading or threats are usually ineffective and can lead to a breakdown of communication.

If this isn’t an emergency situation, continue to offer your support but let things go for now. Try bringing up your concerns again later once your loved one has had some time to process and reflect. You can’t control another person’s decisions, but being a supportive friend or family member can have a positive impact on their health in the long-term.

Identify a Crisis Situation  

While you can’t force someone over the age of 18 to seek treatment, there are circumstances that require immediate action. You should consider the following situations an emergency:

  • Suicidal thoughts or attempts
  • Threat of violence toward others
  • A manic episode—or extreme changes in mood, energy and behaviour—that could lead to harm.

In any of these cases, get your loved one to a hospital emergency room or call 911 if they are resisting your help.

Get Support

It can be very difficult to care for someone who is experiencing mental health challenges and refusing treatment. It is important to set boundaries to protect your own mental and physical health as well. You do not need to make yourself available 24/7 and should never be put in an unsafe situation.

To support your health during this challenging time, try to get enough sleep, eat nourishing food, stay active and spend time with other loved ones. You may also consider reaching out to a mental health professional yourself. They can help you develop positive coping strategies to deal with the stress this situation may be creating.

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