How to Talk to Your GP About Your Mental Health
Mental health difficulties aren’t always obvious, but just like physical illnesses or injuries, they can be painful to live with and deserve care and attention. We try to see our General Practitioner (GP) when something about our physical health doesn’t feel right, but how often do we talk to our GP about our mental health?
In recent years we’ve become good at getting tested for COVID-19 when we notice certain changes in our body. Similarly, we can become better at getting check-ups for changes in our head-space.
Why see my GP?
Your GP is an important starting point for any kind of health concern. GPs are trained to assess, diagnose and treat mental health difficulties, and they can refer you to mental health specialists, like psychologists and psychiatrists.
In fact, in 2020, a national survey by the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners in their “General Practice Health of the Nation” report revealed that psychological issues are the most common reason why people visit their GP. This is consistent with surveys conducted in previous years. Unfortunately however, as common as mental health difficulties are, we know that they can often fly under the radar. For example, mood and anxiety disorders are the most common mental health conditions in Australia and the average amount of time it takes people to seek help is 8.2 years. As with any other health issue, these conditions can worsen over time if they’re left untreated.
Where do I start?
It’s normal to feel nervous or unsure about talking to your GP about your mental health. You might not know what to say, or you could feel worried about being judged. Speaking about what you’re going through could also bring up painful thoughts and feelings.
Tips to help you prepare for your appointment:
- Book a longer consultation. Give you and your doctor ample time to understand what you are experiencing and discuss your next steps.
- Ask for support. If it would ease your nerves, ask a trusted friend or family member (if possible) to accompany you to the appointment.
- Be open and honest about what you’re experiencing. Your GP will be in a better position to help if they have a fuller understanding of your concerns. Be prepared to disclose what things are really like for you, even if you feel it’s upsetting, embarrassing or confusing.
- Think about what you’d like to get from the appointment. Write down any questions you have and bring these with you so you remember to ask on the day. For example, “What do you think is happening?”, “How can I feel better?”, “Where can I get support and treatment?”, “How does this treatment work?”, “How effective is it?”. Or if you are already undergoing treatment, “Can we review how my treatment is going?”
- Be open minded and curious. Your GP could suggest a few options. For example, medication or referral to a psychiatrist, or psychological treatment such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) either face to face with a psychologist and/or an online CBT program (eg with THIS WAY UP). Whether you’ve heard about these suggestions before or are learning about it for the first time, give it some thought rather than being quick to dismiss them. Take notes during the appointment so you can take in what’s being explained and consider it more, later.
- Take the time to ask questions. If there is something you don’t completely understand, ask for more information or clarification. We can all have certain ideas or biases when it comes to mental health and treatment approaches, which may be misconceptions that can be corrected. Equip yourself with enough information to make an informed decision. You can ask for fact sheets or other reading material to look at when you’re at home, book a follow-up appointment for more discussion, or talk through your options with loved ones.
- Build a good working relationship with a regular GP. This can help you feel more comfortable about talking with them about personal topics, such as mental health concerns. Seeing one GP consistently over time helps you build trust and openness. It also means they can get to know you, give continuity of care and track your progress in the longer term. If you do not yet have a regular GP, it’s worth taking the time to invest in finding one. Many GPs have particular interests in working with certain health issues. You could also consider looking for a GP who has a special interest in mental health.
What if it doesn’t go as planned?
Everyone can have different experiences of talking to GPs about their mental health, with some discussions not going the way they hoped. When discussing sensitive topics such as mental health, it’s important to find someone you feel comfortable speaking with, so it’s okay if you want to talk to another GP. Sometimes, it can be helpful to ask friends and family for recommendations.
We encourage you to keep trying to find and build a good working relationship with a regular GP, just as you might with a counsellor or therapist, whom you can feel comfortable talking to about your emotional wellbeing.
THIS WAY UP’s Take-A-Test Tool
If you would like to check your stress, mood and anxiety levels, fill in some brief, anonymous questionnaires online using our Take A Test Tool. You will be given results and suggestions of an online program(s) based on your responses, if applicable. These results can be a helpful talking point to bring to your appointment and start the conversation with your GP.
Don’t forget, you can ask your GP to prescribe a THIS WAY UP program for you for free (normally $59). To make it easy, you can download this helpful letter to take with you.
For more information and practical tips on boosting your mental health, head over to thiswayup.org.au