waiting room

We’re all used to going to talk to our GPs about even the most embarrassing of physical conditions, but if you’ve never talked to your GP about your mental health, having that initial conversation can be pretty daunting.

Don’t delay, talk today

Common patient concerns include:

  • Fear of being labelled and judged by their GP,
  • Fear that information will then be on their medical record and that other people (e.g.  surgery receptionist/practice nurse) will read it and gossip,
  • Fear that a future employer will be able to access the information about their condition.

For many of the common mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression, these feelings can actually be part of the condition themselves:

  • Feelings of lack of self worth,
  • Doubts that one will be listened to,
  • Doubts that anyone cares,
  • Fears that one will not be able to explain what is wrong,
  • Fear that ones problems would not be understood.

All too frequently used in self justification for avoiding the subject.

Many of us find it difficult to find the words to explain what it is that we are feeling, often not recognising that or not wanting to acknowledge that our problems have an element of mental health involved and instead insisting that they have some undiagnosed physical problem that is causing all of our distress.

As a consequence, many people suffer unnecessarily by delaying talking to their GP until they reach a real crisis point.

Getting help rapidly is the best way to manage mental health difficulties and to reduce the suffering that a mental illness causes. As GPs are normally the first medical professional we do talk to, they’re used to dealing with all mental health issues. Around  third of GP appointments involve some discussion of one’s mental well being.

Trust your GP

Almost all of these fears and excuses for not doing something are unfounded. Your GP wouldn’t judge you any more for being depressed than they would for having hemorrhoids or suffering from incontinence – they are there to help you.

No-one should be looking at your medical record without good reason and if an employee of a GP surgery revealed any detail that they had learnt through the course of their work they would be summarily dismissed. It is illegal for an employer or the government to discriminate against you for having had a mental health issue – or any other disability – and they would have to have a very good reason to get a GP to reveal such confidential details anyway.

GPs are very aware of the special nature of their role and will protect it in almost all circumstances. Your GP really is the first person you should talk to about any health problem and they should always provide you with that confidential and non-judgemental environment to express why you’re there and what your concerns are.

Before your appointment

There are a couple of things that you can do to make sure that you do get the best from your GP:

  • The most important one is to make sure that you  have enough time to really talk things through. A standard GP appointment is only 10 minutes, so it is  useful to tell the receptionist when you book the appointment that you will need a double appointment – don’t worry – it is allowed! (and the receptionist really doesn’t need to know why you want to have that extra time!)
  • One good way to make sure that you really do cover everything is to write it all down beforehand. Consider  downloading and printing information via the internet and bring it with you – the GP might not read it all there and then – but it might be useful to them in understanding what you are worried about.
  • Take someone with you to support you and help you explain things if you are worried about that – it’s your appointment, and your GP will be happy to go along with anything that makes it easier for you to talk to him or her.

During the appointment

During the appointment you and your doctor will usually discuss

  • what your physical and emotional symptoms are
  • what sort of things might trigger you to feel the way you do
  • what you believe the underlying cause may be
  • how this is affecting you and your family.
  • your medical history and your family history, especially in terms of any previous examples of mental health conditions, either diagnosed or not
  • your drugs and alcohol use and any thoughts or plans you might have to harm yourself.

You’re also very likely to be asked to fill in a health questionnaire which will help the GP to score the severity of your condition. In almost all cases this will result in your GP making a diagnosis, though, if they really feel they have to, they might also refer you on to a specialist mental health service.

Treatment options

Your GP will then discuss your treatment options with you to help you to manage the symptoms you’ve been experiencing and agree with you what type of interventions would be most appropriate.

These might include trying to make some lifestyle changes such as reducing alcohol intake or increasing exercise, perhaps a referral on to a counselling service or maybe taking some medication. Having explained how these different treatments work and agreeing a plan with you, usually your GP will then set up a follow-up appointment for a few weeks’ time so that he or she can keep track of how you’re doing and re-assess the plan with you if it doesn’t seem to be working.

Of course, if you feel that things are not getting any better and that the agreed plan isn’t making a difference, you can always ring up and make an earlier appointment.

Occasionally, for instance if your GP feels you are in crisis or is concerned that your condition is such that they do not have the expertise to give you the support that you need, they might refer you on to local mental health services, or even to A&E if immediate action is needed.

Please remember that if you feel you’re in an acute mental health crisis and you really feel desperate for help, you can always head straight for A&E yourself or call the Samaritans helpline which operates 24 hours a day (Tel: 116123).