Helping a Friend Seek Help

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Reader’s Question

My flatmate has been having some seriously concerning panic attacks of late. She talks continuously, apologizing for hours on end and begging us not to hate her. She also makes humming noises and repeats the same phrase or part of the sentence until we stop her. She bangs either the table or her hands together, cries and then starts hyperventilating, while telling us it’s fine.

We want her to get an appointment to go to the doctor, but she’s still in denial that she has a problem; she’s scared everyone will think she’s ‘crazy’ and has apparently suffered from this for years without speaking out. She’s incredibly paranoid and in her words, “can’t deal with it when people don’t like her” and so is constantly trying to make everyone like her.

I’m encouraging her to talk to me about things, but I really think she needs professional help. What advice can you give us to help calm her down when she gets into one of her attacks, and how can we encourage her to seek professional help?

Psychologist’s Reply

It’s always tough when we see the problems so much clearer than the person who is actually experiencing them. Some of this may be because, like your flatmate, people live with their problems for so long that they have no idea how truly bad they’ve become, or sometimes they don’t realize that their behavior is not normal. That is why gentle feedback about their behavior can be useful. However, since mental health issues are still scary for some people, such feedback needs to be done with great care.

One of the ways I like to talk to people about mental health treatment is to liken it to physical healthcare. Most people would not hesitate to go to a doctor if they broke their arm or developed an unexplained cough. The pain of either ailment would probably be sufficient to warrant their seeking help and most people know that broken bones and coughs are things that physicians can treat. Additionally, they know how to find a physician. Mental health is a bit trickier, but it can be quite similar.

It sounds like your flatmate needs to know that (a) her condition is painful enough that she should seek help; (b) mental healthcare professionals can treat her; and (c) she can find a qualified psychologist or counselor. The last two are easier to deal with, so I’d start with them. People respond better to certainty, so if you want her to get help, you may want to have the name of a few professionals ready for her to call (part c). You could even do a little research on their qualifications so you can tell her that they specialize in treating people who suffer from anxiety (part b). Once you get that information, you are ready for the discussion with your flatmate.

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The main goal of such a discussion is to get the person to acknowledge that their condition is so painful that they no longer want to continue suffering. Again, I would use tactics similar to what I would with a physical condition. For example, if someone I knew was coughing, I would express sympathy for how horrible it must be to suffer from it. I would normalize the condition by talking about other people I knew who developed a serious cough and how awful it made them feel. When my friend agreed with all of this (part a), I would then be ready to present her with the names and qualifications of people who could be of assistance. I might even offer to go with her to the first session for moral support.

Mental health treatment can be very scary, especially since it is still shrouded in mystery for a lot of people. I cannot tell you the number of times people have expressed surprise to me about how ‘normal’ counseling is versus what they were expecting. So, a large part of getting people to seek help is in helping them understand the process. Once they do, many are ready to start feeling better.

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