Mental Health Self-Help

Maggy van Eijk: How to talk to your GP about your Mental Health

The best thing you can do when you’re struggling with your mental health is to reach out to a professional. However, taking that step can be a bit daunting. For some, it seems like a ginormous mountain you have to climb. How do you start? Where do you begin? Do you just come right out and say: “Hey, I can’t get out of bed and I’m pretty sure no one has ever really loved me?” 😐…

Once you have managed to put into words what’s worrying you, you might fear the doctor will shrug, tut or even worse: laugh you out of their office.

Thing is, the very fact you’re taking this step is absolutely the right thing. It’s an incredible thing. You’re taking charge of your life. Talking to your doctor will give you an indication of what’s going on inside your head and what support is available to you. Yes, doctors are often pressed for time and they might seem strung out and unfriendly but fundamentally, they care about their patients. They want you to get better.

If you’re thinking about making an appointment but you’re feeling nervous about it, here are some things that might help

1. Write down a list of questions

In case your mind draws a blank when you find yourself in that brightly lit doctor’s room, bring a list of questions with you. Hold it in your hands so you can easily take a peek. Don’t feel weird about having a list. It shows you’re taking your situation seriously.

The list might include questions surrounding a specific mental health condition you’ve read about that you suspect you have? Perhaps you want to ask about talking therapy? Or medication? Or any lifestyle changes they might recommend? Are there walk-in mental health services in your area? Are there any helplines?

2. Don’t worry about being judged

On any given day GPs see a lot of things. I know this for a fact, and yet I still feel more shame about talking about my self-harm and my anxiety than I do if I have to show them my butt or a manky ingrown toenail.

Thing is, GPs are there to help you. It’s literally their job. They want to provide the best solution to what you’re dealing with and they can only do that if you’re as honest and open as possible.

A little trick that might help is to talk as if you’re representing someone else. State the facts, the issues and all the little details to make sure your GP has all the information they need. Support yourself like you’d support a good friend. Pretend you’re a lawyer or you’re giving a presentation. Once you’ve said everything you need to say you can go back to being yourself knowing you didn’t miss anything out.

3. Be honest

I’ve had times where I’ve been nervous that my symptoms aren’t really that bad. I’m out and about, I’m going to my job, I’m getting on trains. I’m doing all these things with a brain on fire but who cares? I’m still living my life, right?

If you’re in this situation, don’t feel like you have to play up your symptoms. Remember that doctors are never trying to catch you out. They’re not there to call bullsh*t on you. If they seem cold and distant it’s not because they think you’re a baby. They’re just busy, probably underpaid and understaffed and they’ve got a big queue of patients lined up. If they appear a bit off, don’t take it personally. You deserve their time and effort. You’re there for a reason. Don’t rush through your questions.

4. Have some goals in mind

Have a think about what you’re hoping the outcome of your appointment will be. Whatever you’re dealing with, your doctor probably won’t give you something that’ll make your symptoms disappear immediately.

Try and think of goals for your conversation that are realistic even if they’re not what you hope for, for example: just getting everything off of your chest, making sure someone other than you is aware of what’s going on, working on an actionable plan for what to do next or getting answers to some questions that are running wild in your mind.

5. You can try another GP

I’ve had some GPs I simply haven’t clicked with. Especially as I live in a big city where I move around a lot and end up having to register and re-register. I’ve seen a lot of doctors and there were definitely a few where I thought: “OK, I can tell we’re not on the same page.”

I’ve had a GP who I would see whenever my depression was worsening and all she’d do was up my medication and send me on my way. Something about her made me feel like I could never pause for a moment and ask if there might be any other options. I just took the prescriptions and walked out.

After I realised I needed to break this cycle, I made sure to make an appointment with another GP who fast-tracked a new psychiatric assessment for me so I could get a treatment plan that was more specific to my needs. Whenever I needed to see the doctor I’d make sure I’d stick to that one. Every time you see someone new they have to play catch up on your files. Try and stay consistent with who you end up seeing.

6. Take information home with you

Your GP will have a host of numbers, leaflets and websites they can give you. It might feel a bit like: “Oh great a leaflet, that’s really going to solve my issues!” However, these materials often have helplines you can call in crisis when you don’t feel like you can manage. Have these numbers on hand someplace they’re easy to find. Keep them in a box and store these numbers on your phone.

7. Arrange a follow-up appointment

Regardless of the outcome of your appointment make sure you schedule another one for a follow up to discuss how things are going, if things have improved and where you are with the treatment plan.

If your GP has referred you to a secondary mental health service, your GP should still be in the loop with what’s going on, especially if you get placed on a waiting list and you’re in limbo. Don’t let the weeks stretch on and on. Checking in with your doctor also means you end up checking in with yourself. The no man’s land of waiting lists can feel lonely and isolating. Don’t lose yourself.

I know it seems like the hardest thing in the world to look after yourself, especially when every inch of your mind is screaming for you to do the opposite. However, try your best to stay proactive in your treatment. Make those calls, go to appointments, keep track of your symptoms. Don’t give up.

 You can buy Maggy’s book Remember This When You’re Sad (out Jan 11th). Her book lays bare the true reality of mental illness in the hope it can help others through their turmoil. You can also find her on Instagam & Twitter.