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How do I know when I or a loved one should seek out a professional counselor?

By: Seth Evans LPCC-S, Cornerstone Family Services


You hear that word and your life changes. Whether you are the patient, the family member, or the friend, you know that your life will not be the same.

Common questions likely start to fly through your mind. How? Where? When? Why? What if? And many more as you wait for answers, get answers, and have new questions emerge.

Here is another set of questions that may or may not have crossed your mind: How do I know when professional counseling should be pursued? Should I go to counseling? How about my loved ones? How can I lovingly encourage someone to go to counseling?

Let’s take a look at answering some of the counseling-related questions.

How do I know when I or a loved one should seek out a professional counselor?

A diagnosis of cancer will likely knock you to the floor mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. If you have a solid support team around you, they will lay on the floor with you while you catch your breath, then support you as you begin to sit up, and lock arms with you as you stand up and begin to walk through the journey of cancer. Remember, while one support person is better than none, multiple people coming together is better to carry the stressors (Eccl. 4:12).

If you don’t have those support persons to weep with you while you weep (Romans 12:15) and help bear the burdens of the diagnosis with you (Galatians 6:2), then it may be a very good idea to reach out to a professional counselor. A professional counselor can help to temporarily fill the role of a support system and also help you find and develop that community.

While having other people around is helpful if you are the one with the cancer diagnosis, it is also needed for those who are loved ones and friends of the person with cancer. Though those who are physically caring for a person with cancer can feel fatigue over time, the same emotional fatigue can happen for those who are involved emotionally and spiritually. So, to have a team of those caring for the caregivers – which may include a professional counselor – is a wise plan.

Another clue that it may be wise to seek out a professional counselor is when you realize, or a loved one tells you, that it seems that you appear to be in mental and emotional distress throughout the day, more days than not, for at least two weeks. A person can certainly contact a counselor right away; in fact, it would be expedient to do so if there are crippling panic or anxiety attacks or deep depressive episodes. If there are suicidal thoughts, then please immediately contact 911 or a suicide hotline such as 988. If the thoughts and emotions are not strongly debilitating, then two weeks can be a good indicator to see if you are able to get back on your feet from the earth-shaking impact of the diagnosis without the help of a professionally trained clinician.

There is no shame nor is it a sign of weakness or lack of spiritual health to reach out for help because your thoughts and emotions seem to be overwhelming. Psalm 42 and Psalm 88 are two poems written by people in deep distress and wrestling with God and not shamed nor condemned for their emotions and spiritual struggles in the midst of their suffering. These Psalms, though personal, were sung publicly which could help others have a voice for their pain and also to let people know they can come to God and to others for help in times of need.

Some people express their thoughts and emotions, such as the ones in Psalm 42 and Psalm 88, on the surface and it is clear that they are struggling. Others stuff their thoughts and emotions, trying to hold them down or keep them out of their minds, and may seem like they have it all together. Yet, it is not uncommon that “stuffers” don’t set aside intentional time to actively deal with their thoughts or feelings; this also can be a sign that a person is overwhelmed because if they weren’t then there wouldn’t be a need to hide from the distressing emotions and cognitions. So, if you or a loved one is clearly in distress or is a “stuffer” for at least two weeks, then it may be wise to contact a professional counselor so that they can assist you in your grief journey and help you healthily cope with and develop a toolbox to healthily process your new reality.

How can I lovingly encourage someone to go to counseling?

A solid professional counselor can help a person become equipped mentally, emotionally, socially, and spiritually as they journey through their or their loved one’s cancer diagnosis. Yet, not everyone is open to the idea of seeking out professional help. If a person is a legal adult you can’t make them go to counseling; even if they are a minor you can’t make a person productively engage in professional counseling.  Guilt-tripping and manipulation are not healthy ways to encourage someone to consider outside help, so what are some loving ways to encourage a person to go to counseling?

There is not a one-size-fits-all approach to encourage a person to seek counseling. There are some general principles to consider implementing. First, before telling someone to go find a counselor or laying out a case for your desire for them to go to counseling, ask them if they have ever considered counseling. Then seek first to understand their answer and find a way to empathize with any hesitation or resistance that they may have to counseling. A person who feels heard and that they are cared for is likely to be more open to hearing suggestions. Second, be aware of your own limitations and boundaries in caring for the other person. You can then express your limits and encourage them to seek professional help for their needs in ways that you cannot fulfill based upon your own limitations. Finally, pray for their openness to counseling and seek wise counsel from others on how to faithfully love the person and encourage them to take steps for their overall well-being (Proverbs 11:14).


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