Over the past several years, it seems that Canadians have become more comfortable talking about mental health, stress, and life’s challenges. However, many still struggle with asking for help and support.
In this blog, we discuss some reasons why asking for help can be difficult, as well as ways you can support someone as they reach out for help.
Why can asking for help be so hard?
There are many reasons why asking for help can be hard. Below are some of the common barriers to asking for help discussed in the research on help-seeking (please note, this is not an exhaustive list of barriers to help-seeking).
Stigma is defined as “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person”. While we have made progress addressing the stigma around mental illness and suicide, it still exists. Some types of stigmas may be more common among certain groups. For example, asking for and receiving help can be seen as a sign of weakness among men, even though it is actually a sign of courage and strength. Addressing stigma will enable people to feel more comfortable asking for help.
Difficulties with Communication
Some people may not ask for help because they can’t or don’t know how to, which can result from a lack of emotional literacy. Emotional literacy is the ability to identify, label, and understand the feelings of yourself and others. When someone can’t identify or understand how they feel, how are they expected to communicate that to someone else? Similarly, some people may not know or understand that they need help. Instead they may think that their struggles are “normal” or not “bad enough” to deserve help.
Differences in language can also be a barrier between service providers and those seeking help, particularly for newcomers to Canada. We can work to support communication by advocating for translation services and by learning about culturally relevant, trauma-informed practices.
Privacy and Confidentiality Concerns
Privacy and confidentially concerns are another reason why individuals may not seek help. For example, youth may fear that their mental health information will be shared with their parents or guardians without their consent. In a study on non-disclosing youth, McGillivray et al. (2022) found that 25% of survey respondents listed concerns about privacy and confidentiality as their primary reason for not disclosing thoughts of suicide. For parents, caregivers, and practitioners, it is important to acknowledge the concerns around privacy and to be clear about when confidentiality will have to be broken and why.
Distrust of Healthcare Professionals
The fourth reason that someone may not ask for help is because they distrust healthcare professionals or service providers. For many marginalized communities, including Black and Indigenous peoples, this lack of trust has been created and perpetuated by decades of abuse, neglect, systemic racism, and trauma. It is critical that healthcare professionals and service providers work to unlearn biases involving marginalized communities, and challenge the structures, institutions, and beliefs that continue to support systemic racism in healthcare.
Beliefs that Professional Help will not be Effective
Lastly, someone may not reach out for help because they don’t believe that the help available will be effective. Individuals may become discouraged from seeking help after a negative experience with a care provider. However, it is important to know that there are many, many different kinds of services and options for help, depending on someone’s wants or needs. This includes individual therapy, group therapy, peer support programs, faith-based counselling, and art or music therapy.
If you have had a negative experience (or even multiple) with a mental healthcare practitioner, it is important to keep trying. Counsellors can adopt different therapeutic approaches, and one approach may work better for someone than others. It may be helpful to ask questions about their philosophy, training and approach when reaching out to different counsellors or therapists.
Ways to Support Help-Seeking Behaviour
As you can see, there are several reasons why someone may not want to seek help. Thankfully, there are some things that we can all do to encourage and support help-seeking behaviour.
The first way to support help-seeking behaviours is to challenge stigma. Often time, stigma or stereotypes are reproduced through jokes. Calling out these “jokes” as not funny and inappropriate is one way to challenge stigma. After calling out the joke, you can call in the person who made the joke and have a conversation about the harm that comes from perpetuating stigma and stereotypes. “Calling in” is similar to calling someone out for inappropriate behaviour, except it is done in private and involves conversation, compassion, and context (New York Times, “What if Instead of Calling People Out, We Called Them In”).
Another way to challenge stigma is to model positive behaviour by seeking help when you need to, or by acknowledging the ways you have sought and received help. For people who don’t think they can reach out for help, seeing someone they know do so can be eye-opening and empowering.
Encourage Emotional Literacy
As mentioned above, emotional literacy is the ability to identify and understand what we are feeling and why. When someone knows what they are feeling and why, they are better equipped to seek help. Thankfully, emotional literacy can be taught and developed at any age, and there is one tool WRSPC loves to share: the Feeling Wheel! Check out the link to see WRSPC’s recommended uses for the wheel.
The last way to encourage help-seeking behaviour is to share resources, such as warning signs for suicide, and where individuals can go to seek help and support. If you are supporting someone with thoughts of suicide, it may be helpful to ask if they need support in making or attending an appointment. Sometimes, it can be less overwhelming or scary for the individual to reach out for help if they have someone with them.
Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but of courage and strength. While there are many reasons why someone may not want to seek help, there are also ways that we can encourage help-seeking behaviour. For more information and resources, checkout the list below!
Sources and Resources for Further Learning:
Hochauser, S. et al. (2020). Why social justice matters: a context for suicide prevention efforts. International Journal for Equity in Health, 19(76).
McGillvray, L., Rheinberger, D., Wang, J., Burnett, A. and Torok, M. (2022). “Non-disclosing youth: a cross sectional study to understand why young people do not disclose suicidal thoughts to their mental health professional. BMC Psychiatry 22(3).
Kids Help Phone. “Understanding why it can be hard to reach out for help”. Understanding why it can be hard to reach out for help – Kids Help Phone