What to do when they don’t want help

Seeing a loved one suffer is hard. It’s common and natural to want to fix things for our loved ones. Being around them can also be hard when taking care of someone wears you out. Something needs to change soon—otherwise you’re also not sure how much more you can take.

If you’re trying to help someone who doesn’t want help, it probably feels frustrating, exhausting, scary… and out of your control.

People are naturally inclined to want to control aspects of their lives. This is true for you and for your family member. The more we push at times, the more likely the other person will withdraw or double down on taking control of their own life. Think of a time when you wanted to make a change—like managing your anger or eating better. The more someone tells us to calm down or points out the junk food we’re eating, the more irritated we become… and we’re more likely to resist making good choices.

Struggling in recovery is a natural experience. It’s helpful to use these experiences as learning moments. It’s also messy and takes time. Sometimes good choices are made—and sometimes really bad choices are made. But hopefully with the right support, we get where we need to be.

Here are a few things to consider when working with your loved one who doesn’t want help:

Listen and validate

If your relationship is iffy, it doesn’t hurt to just listen. Ask them what’s going on and just reflect what they say. Help them feel heard. You can ask, “how are you doing?” and say “yeah, that sounds hard or that sounds great.” People have a hard time taking action unless we feel heard and understood.

Ask questions

Ask your loved one what they want! You can’t push someone to do something unless they want to do it too. But you can find out what they want, and find ways to support them towards their goals in a way that you both can agree on. If they are open to it, you can also ask how they feel about the thing you want them to do. Medication is a common example. Ask, “how do you feel when you take that drug.” Coping with side effects like nausea or weight gain is difficult, and it’s understandable if people don’t want to take medications that make them feel worse.

Resist the urge to fix or give advice

There is a time for advice—and that comes when someones ask for it. If they haven’t asked, lean towards support. There are times when you might even agree with them: “Yes, this mental illness sucks, but medication sucks too.” Once you give people the space to feel heard, their defenses go down and they are more open to a conversation.

Explore options together

If someone says “I don’t want to do this,” then you’re probably going to make things more difficult for yourself (and for them) by demanding it. You might say, “Ok. What’s something you do want to do?” For some who aren’t sure or aren’t ready to address their mental illness, don’t use those words right away. Feel free to start with work, relationships, life, stress, sleep. Anything else—and then bring up “mental illness” again later.

Take care of yourself and find your own support

We can’t help others unless we’re okay. It’s hard to be patient when we’re tired and frustrated. Find others who are in caregiving roles. Find a person you can vent to who is on your side and can help you feel better. Having other people to talk to can also help you figure out when and how to push, and when it’s okay to let go (which is also hard and can be painful).

In the end, if someone really doesn’t want help, forcing them can be an option… but doesn’t seem to work very well. In many cases, when we force people to do things we want them to do, it only ends in fighting and resentment. Letting people make their own choices, even when their choices are the wrong ones and it leads to more pain, does not make you (as their family, friend, or any kind of loved one) a failure.

Still, there’s a time and a place for taking someone to the hospital against their will. If your loved one presents an immediate danger to themselves or someone else, or if they are having a psychotic break or a drug overdose, it may make sense to have them hospitalized against their will.

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