Talking to a doctor about our mental health can feel daunting - like turning up to a job interview unprepared with no clue what’s going to happen or what we’re even going to talk about. It can be overwhelming and we might feel uncomfortable.
You aren't alone
30% of GP appointments are related to mental health and wellbeing issues and 1 in 6 people will experience a mental health problem each week. Tackling problems earlier on can help prevent these from escalating at a later date.
Whether we’re seeking support for difficult emotions and how to manage them, support for a diagnosed mental health condition, or feel something is not quite right but can’t quite put our finger on it, a GP can help signpost us in the right direction and offer appropriate options for improving any symptoms.
By using this guide, we can visit a GP to discuss and get support and treatment around our mental health confidently and successfully.
How do we know if we need to see a GP?
Noticing any thoughts or feelings over the past couple of weeks or months that are causing us concern or distress, tell us it’s time to consider going to the GP.
We might be experiencing low mood or a lack of energy or even appetite changes that are interrupting our day-to-day activities, like not being able to face work, or feeling like hiding under the bedcovers waiting for it to pass (only it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere).
We might have negative thoughts racing through our minds, feeling like our brain is on a spin cycle in the washing machine and all we can think about are those tough feelings that are making life feel too difficult to handle right now.
Or we might feel we’ve lost our way in life, maybe helpless to feeling good again or hopeless that anything can be done, following a difficult break-up or losing a loved one.
It can be easy to miss the signs, whether we have a diagnosed condition or not, because symptoms can build up over time. Keeping a mood diary or thought journal can help us notice any changes to our temperament or rising issues that might feel impossible to overcome.
What will the GP do to help?
When sharing our mental health concerns with a GP, they will:
Ask questions about feelings and thoughts that may help to better understand what is going on and what support is available
Offer medication if it's appropriate and/or free talking therapies
Recommend simple lifestyle changes that can improve mental health
Arrange another appointment in a few weeks' time to monitor changes, improvements or deteriorations. A referral to a specialist may be made if they think that would be more helpful.
What they are not, is a crisis centre. If symptoms, experiences or behaviours feel dangerous or out of control, skip the GP and go straight to a crisis team who will be better equipped to help. The NHS have details here.
How to prepare for an appointment
Talking about our mental health, and difficult emotions or experiences can be flustering and emotional, which can mean we forget to mention things in the moment or end up walking out face-palming because we didn’t say what we wanted to. So preparing or making a note of what to talk about when we’re feeling calmer prior to the appointment can be really helpful.
Here are some things to make a note of:
Write a list of things to discuss or mention such as common symptoms, feelings or thoughts that are concerning, or worrying behaviours.
Write down how these symptoms or feelings are affecting day-to-day life.
Make a note of key personal information, including upsetting events in the past and any current major stressful events.
Summarise experiences, including other physical or mental health conditions, any names and amounts of medications, herbal remedies or supplements currently being taken.
Feel free to have a family member or friend with you for support if it will help in feeling more at ease.
We might want to get some more information from the GP so could ask questions such as:
What type of mental health problem might I have?
Why can't I get over my mental health problem on my own?
How do you treat my type of mental illness?
Will counselling or psychotherapy help?
Are there medications that might help?
How long will treatment take?
What can I do to help myself?
Do you have any brochures or other printed material that I can have?
What websites do you recommend?
In addition to the questions prepared, don't hesitate to ask further questions to get a full understanding.
What happens next?
After an initial appointment, we may be left feeling pretty much the same, possibly a little more hopeful, but it’s not a magic remedy and we won’t feel bright and breezy straight away.
Don’t skip the follow-up appointment, or arrange one if there isn’t one already scheduled. It can feel uncomfortable to return, especially if things haven’t improved or actually feel worse, but it’s important to check in so the GP can offer further help or different support methods.
If medication has been prescribed:
Keep a mood or thought diary to help understand how the medication is working. It doesn’t work for everyone so this can be useful in deciding whether to continue or stop medication treatment.
Important: medication can take a few weeks to settle into our systems, usually around the 6-8 week mark is when we will see more reliable effects of the medication. So do persist, but if symptoms continue or get worse, let the GP know so they can offer different medications or a different course of treatment.
If you’re referred to mental health services: (including NHS talking therapies)
Seek help from the GP to get support while waiting for specific service appointments. There are lifestyle changes that can help reduce symptoms or improve mental health while waiting for further treatment that the GP can advise on.
Important: waiting lists for referrals can be long, on average 1 in 4 people wait 3 months and 1 in 9 can be waiting for up to 6 months. So it’s important to continue seeking support in the meantime from your GP or other private or charity organisations.
Extra tips to feel at ease:
Appointment slots are short, but it’s possible to request a double appointment if necessary, to ensure we have enough time to discuss our concerns, symptoms and experiences. Just ask for a double slot when booking in with the receptionist.
Ask the receptionist if there is a GP with a specialist interest in mental health and request to see them. It’s possible to request a specific doctor, a familiar one or a preferred gender (some prefer to speak with someone of the same gender or we may find the opposite).
The receptionist never needs to know why we’re booking an appointment - if they ask, it’s to make a note to prep the doctor for when we arrive, but it’s totally ok to reply “I’d prefer not to say”.
We don’t need to make any decisions during an appointment, any discussions should be noted in our medical records so we can decide what to do later - especially useful for when we’re having trouble making big decisions or want to mull it over first.
Sometimes talking with a GP can be difficult, but GPs are trained to deal with sensitive issues in a professional and supportive way, so there is no need to be embarrassed. Everything they hear is legally confidential unless there is cause for concern over our or other’s safety.
Don’t be afraid of seeking a second opinion and seeing another GP if the treatment and/or support offered doesn’t feel appropriate or is unexpected. GP’s aren’t superhuman and they also make mistakes, which is exactly why second opinion options are available to us all!
Final thoughts: It’s certainly not an easy feat trying to manage our mental health, never mind find the courage to speak up and seek support, but it will be worth it in the long run. It can be hard to navigate and at times can feel like we’re not being heard, so remember you know you better than anyone - even the health professionals, hear their advice but use your voice to get the most effective support for you.