As financial advisors know, talking to clients about money can get emotionally charged, especially when the discussion concerns major (and potentially traumatic) life events. And sometimes, clients can become so distraught or unable to face the challenging issues in their past… even as the failure to deal with those issues prevents them from moving forward in their financial future. Which can also be distressing for a financial advisor who is striving to help, but who may recognize that the help the client needs is beyond the scope of what the advisor can provide and that referring the client to a mental health professional is the best course of action.
In practice, though, the point when a referral should be made is not always clear. As while it might be obvious that a client who has expressed (for instance) suicidal thoughts, or is otherwise in acute mental or emotional distress, is in need of a mental health professional’s services, how can a financial advisor tell when a client might just be “sad” (and who might simply need an empathetic ear to move forward with their financial planning recommendations)? And when a referral is in order, how does the financial advisor actually give that referral in the first place, without offending the client and potentially driving them away?
To understand when and how to involve an outside mental health professional, it is helpful to consider how money issues can impact an individual’s emotions across a spectrum of stress/anxiety. On the one hand, even common, everyday issues such as basic retirement planning or changes in income levels may be mildly stress-inducing, while more serious issues such as a death in the family or divorce can be very upsetting. On the other hand, at the farthest end of the spectrum are issues that involve disorders and conditions that are psychologically diagnosable, such as addiction, clinical depression, and hoarding behaviors.
To decide whether a referral to a mental health professional should be offered, the first factor to consider is the financial advisor’s own comfort level with the client conversation. Some firms have specialized models designed for clients working through emotionally-charged issues (e.g., divorcees, widows/widowers, etc.); these firms often already have processes in place that can more easily accommodate these clients’ needs, which, in turn, may make it easier for advisors to work with clients themselves, versus offering a mental health referral. On the other hand, if the financial advisor is uncomfortable with a client’s emotions that arise during a conversation, the best course of action can simply be to recognize and acknowledge the client’s distress, and to offer a referral for the client to see someone who is better-equipped to help the client with their stress or anxiety. And even if an advisor is comfortable working with a client who is experiencing high levels of stress, it may still be better for the advisor to refer the client to a mental health professional if they don’t actually have the time capacity (and thus ability) to fully service the client’s needs.
Of course, there’s still the challenge of just bringing up a mental health professional to a client in an unawkward way in the first place. One way to normalize the referral process is to discuss mental health referrals to clients as part of any other referral resource (e.g., CPAs, estate planners, etc.) early in the relationship, and reviewing those resources periodically during annual service meetings, which can then help clients be more comfortable accepting the referrals should the need ever arise. For advisors uncertain who to refer to, a helpful way to identify suitable mental health professionals is for them to personally make use of the mental health professional’s services themselves, which can give them the opportunity to discuss with clients, from firsthand experience, precisely what clients can expect when making referrals to see those professionals. However, some advisors may not have time to vet a network of referrals, or may have clients in need of immediate attention from a mental health professional. In these instances, advisors can work directly with the client to make calls together to find a suitable professional (or ask the client for permission to reach out to friends and family who can help with this).
Ultimately, the key point is that financial advisors should not be afraid to refer clients to mental health professionals, and that it’s perfectly OK to recognize that there is a level of emotionally-charged issues that clients experience, which advisors are not necessarily trained and equipped to handle (especially when those issues impact, but themselves are outside the purview of, financial planning itself). Advisors who are able to identify a network of mental health professionals that they can have on hand to use as referral sources, can, over time, develop a strategy to broach the subject of making referrals with clients in the first place, and make the process of providing mental health referrals a natural and comfortable process not only for themselves but for their clients as well.