Q&A: Help! A Loved One Is Mentally Ill, But Refuses To Seek Treatment

Q: I have a loved one that is suffering from a mental illness who needs help, but refuses to seek it. What should I do?

A: Many of us may have experienced a similar situation to this where we have a close friend or loved one who is clearly distressed or whose behavior is significantly impaired and are resistant to seeking treatment. Threatening or coercing him into receiving help is not effective and, in fact, has the very high probability of backfiring. This may damage your relationship with your loved one or push him further away into isolation. Another problem that may arise in threatening or coercive behaviors on your part is that your loved one may go to a mental health professional but is not invested enough in treatment to receive any significant benefit. In fact, when I meet with a new patient one of the first questions I ask is “who or what had you come in”. This allows me to have a general idea of any factors that may hinder treatment and I can proceed as appropriate.  

I would suggest that one of the best things you could do in this situation is to provide support and encouragement, as well as communicate concerns in an honest, non-judgmental way to him. I also recommend re-assuring him that you would not think any less of him if he decided to receive help and that his treatment is generally protected by confidentiality (except in cases where the physical integrity of him or others may be compromised). Your primary goal is to state your commitment to his well-being, as well as to the health of your relationship.

However, if a loved one or friend is threatening to harm themselves or somebody else, it is very important to immediately assist him in seeking help. If it is apparent that he is in imminent danger to himself or others, many states allow you to make a report to the authorities who are able to speak with him and, if necessary, get him to a hospital for further intervention to ensure his safety and the safety of others.

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