How to talk about mental health with clients

By Jonathan Got | February 28, 2024 | Last updated on February 28, 2024
3 min read
Advisor meeting with client
iStock / AndreyPopov

When Aravind Sithamparapillai discusses a financial plan with clients, he can see in real time the relaxing effect it has on them. 

“I walk them through what’s going to work and where the uncertainties are, and we lay that path. I have seen their body language shift,” said Sithamparapillai, an associate at Ironwood Wealth Management Group. “I’ve seen their shoulders come down. You can kind of see the tension ease off their face.” 

That phenomenon — the mind-calming effect of having a financial plan — has also been noted in recent research by the Canadian Mental Health Association and Bridgehouse Asset Managers. A survey released Feb. 21 reveals that nine out of 10 investors who have a financial plan say their mental wellbeing is either excellent, very good or good. 

The report found that advisors are in a unique position to impact the mental health of their clients, helping them feel hopeful about their financial futures and confident that long-term goals are achievable.  

And that positive effect extends to their sleep experience as well. The study found that just having a financial plan is a big factor in how well an investor sleeps. Of those with financial plans, three quarters say they sleep well at night. 

Asking “the sleep question” can be an excellent way to identify clients’ financial concerns, Carol Lynde, president and CEO of Bridgehouse Asset Managers, told in an email. 

“It is a potential indicator that there are significant stressors affecting mental well-being,” she said. 

But a client may not always tell their advisor everything because they could feel shame, said Ron Malis, a financial advisor with Reegan Financial in Toronto. He serves clients living with disabilities, and if he feels there’s something odd going on with a client, he’ll ask questions that may seem innocuous to the client, but are intended as wellness indicators. Asking follow-up questions, in a very specific order, can help peel the onion. 

“They don’t feel threatened by that,” Malis said. “It’s like two separate compounds that could be totally inert. But mix them together and they become a little bit more potent.”

For example, if a client has a son with a disability, Malis might ask where he goes to school. If the parents say he finished high school at age 21 and has been fired from two jobs since then, Malis might infer that the parents are worried they’ll have to support their son for the rest of his life. 

Advisors should listen actively to show that they care about what is important to the client. Just saying  “trust me” does the opposite.  It means “don’t ask any questions,” Malis said. 

To know if a client’s mental health may be stressed, Sithamparapillai tries to capture emotional and physical cues in his notes. He has looked at how other industries take notes and learned that therapists use the SOAP technique: subjective, objective, assessment and plan. So, he’s adopted personal, financial, life insurance and other categories in his notes. 

“My notes used to be long paragraphs,” Sithamparapillai said. “That’s one small little tweak in our note-taking process. It’s [no longer] all jumbled into giant pages.”  

While advisors need to make space to have tough conversations about mental health and peace of mind with clients, advisors also need to know where to draw the line. 

“It’s really important to note where my expertise begins and ends,” Sithamparapillai said. “The two things that I try really hard to focus on are: one, making space for them to just talk through what they’re feeling; and two, try to give them as much clarity around the numbers as possible.” 

Advisors could redirect a tough conversation about a traumatic event by asking whether an employer’s benefits covers therapy and whether it extends to family members, Sithamparapillai said. “I might not be the person to help you specifically, but I can at least remind you that you have resources … to rely on.” 

He said he once suggested opening an RESP account to align with a client’s late spouse’s wishes to leave a college fund for their children. “That’s where straddling the emotional [and the] technical becomes really important.” 

The Bridgehouse survey was conducted online between November and December 2023 with 1,500 Canadian adults with at least $25,000 in investable assets excluding real properties. 

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Jonathan Got

Jonathan Got is a reporter with and its sister publication, Investment Executive. Reach him at