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  • Leanne Butterworth

Why "you should just see a counsellor" will never, ever work - and may lose you a friend.

Updated: Aug 16, 2019

A theory based approach to helping someone in need.


“You should just call a helpline”


“You should just go for a walk”


“You should just do your job”


What’s your immediate response to someone telling you that you ‘should just’ do something? I know mine and it also starts with “maybe you should just…….and ends with the opposite of ON”. But that’s me. If someone tells us that they’re struggling with their mental health (or anything really), then logically and intellectually, they ‘should’ do something to fix that problem right? Well, maybe but there are ways and means to get from A to B. There is a lot to say about this topic – we could examine it from an attachment theory perspective or a vulnerability perspective but today we’re looking at self-determination theory and why “you should go see a therapist” will never, ever work. And it may lose you a friend in the process.


According to Deci & Ryan (2000) an essential component of all behaviours is the feeling of self-determination. The feeling of acting out of free-will is vital for meeting a person’s basic psychological needs. Let’s now examine how self-determination theory relates to giving advice to someone struggling with their mental health – or advice in general, to be honest. Let’s say someone has told you something vulnerable like “I can’t sleep at night because I’m obsessing about rising sea levels”. In this situation, your job is to make the person feel safe and connected not to fix , dismiss or diagnose. The anguish and stress they are FEELING is very real. So, using self-determination theory, what do you do?


Self-determination theory postulates that personal motivation comprises both autonomous (self determined) and controlled motivation. Autonomous motivation is achieved when one participates in an activity through their own desires and from their own willingness and choice. Motivational psychologists describe autonomous motivation as having three key components or psychological needs which must be met for full commitment to any activity.


- Relatedness is a person’s drive for a sense of belonging and may also include contributing to a cause greater than themselves.

- Competence refers to a person’s desire to feel they have the opportunity and capability to improve their skills in a meaningful way.

- Autonomy is the desire for people to be in control of their own behaviour, decisions and environment and act out of free will.


When a person feels all three components of autonomous motivation, they are more likely continue a behaviour as their primary psychological needs are being met. It is therefore valuable for people to ensure all three elements of autonomous motivation are met when trying to encourage someone to change their behaviour. In other words – telling someone they SHOULD JUST do something without feeling in control or connected or capable will inevitably backfire.


According to SDT, the contrary element to autonomous motivation is controlled motivation.

Participating in health care or counselling is an environment void of obligation therefore one cannot simply ‘direct’ someone, they must motivate them. Offering tangible incentives has consistently been shown not to change behaviour. Rewards may increase participation in the short term but decrease ongoing participation in a behaviour. This has been replicated across a variety of populations including children, blood donors, student altruism and environmentalism.


In a study of teaching styles and student success, Reeve (1998) found that autonomy-supportive leadership consistently lead to greater performance. The key to autonomy-supportive leadership is that managers cannot treat people as a homogenous group, they must respond individually to people. Although a person’s natural motivation style is important, autonomy-supportive leadership has been shown as the most important determinant to meet all three basic psychological needs as it enhances feelings of autonomy, competence and relatedness and ultimately improves the well-being and happiness. Conversely, poor management practices can negatively impact satisfaction and increase their likelihood to quit.


There’s another whole article to be written on the benefits of autonomy-supportive management.


But for today – how do you supportively guide a friend or colleague who is struggling with their mental health towards professional help? Step one is NEVER assume you know what is best for someone else. It’s THEIR experience. You can empathise (not sympathise – there’s a difference) but respect their experience.


Enhancing relatedness

- LISTEN to the person AS A PERSON.

- Ensure that person knows they are important to you, to the team and to achieving the mission / vision of the organisation and are appreciated.

- Take time to check in with the person and follow up.

- Encourage social interaction and create opportunities for teamwork.

- Use words like “Let’s” and “We”.

Enhancing Competence

- Believe in the person and their strength.

- Set small, achievable steps.

- Acknowledge their positive attributes and skills.

Enhancing Autonomy

- Set goals collaboratively – discuss different options out there and if you don’t know then maybe research them TOGETHER.

- Give people opportunity for individual choice – see if they feel comfortable making an appointment or if they’d like help.

- Consider and value personal needs – maybe a counsellor isn’t right for them but a support group might help.


It is important to remember that if someone shares something vulnerable with you, you are in a very privileged position and you must acknowledge the emotion with empathy and understanding – not to intellectualise it or offer advice. Offering advice can be as harmful as not responding at all and may cause the person to refrain from sharing with you again. This in turn leads to distance in the relationship and may have negative consequences for your friend and the friendship. In every situation, whether it is mental health related or not, ensure you friends and your teams feel empowered, important and capable.


LOSE YOUR MIND uses Virtual Reality to teach your executives, staff and volunteers to LISTEN with kindness, empathy, patience and consideration.


Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The "what" and "why" of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11(4), 227-268.

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