How to advocate for yourself during a mental health appointment with your GP

Talking about your mental health to a complete stranger can be hard. Here’s how to make advocating for yourself during that first GP appointment a little bit easier.

Anyone who’s ever thought about seeking professional help for their mental health will know how daunting that first GP appointment can be. 

As much as you want things to change, the idea of sitting in front of a relative stranger and telling them about what’s going on inside your head can be challenging – especially when you’re worried about what they might think.

However, no matter how scary that initial appointment may seem, talking to your GP about how you’re feeling is one of the most important things you can do for your mental health – even if you’re not sure whether you’re struggling with a specific issue. 

Not only will they be able to explain more about what might be going on, but they’ll also be able to provide you with treatment and support options and point you in the right direction if you need further help. 

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The key, then, is getting to a point where you feel able to talk through everything and ask for the help you need. Being able to advocate for yourself at any point in time is valuable, but when services are stretched and strict appointment times need to be kept, feeling comfortable and informed enough to get your point across clearly is important – and that’s where this article comes in.

To give you the knowledge and confidence you need to get started, we asked Stephen Buckley, head of information at Mind, to share his top tips for advocating for yourself during a mental health GP appointment. Keep reading to check out what he had to say.  

When should you speak to a GP about your mental health?

Even if you’re not sure you’re experiencing a mental health problem, speaking to you GP about it will give them the information they need to make an expert decision.

One of the biggest worries many people have when it comes to booking that first appointment with their GP is that their problem isn’t ‘bad’ or ‘serious enough’ to warrant help.

That’s just not true; it’s always OK to ask for help, even if you’re not sure you have a mental health problem, and especially if you’ve been experiencing symptoms for two weeks or longer.

“Many of us worry about speaking to our GP,” Buckley points out. “We may feel embarrassed or worried that our experiences will be judged, and we might not be sure whether we’re experiencing a mental health problem.

“If you’ve been experiencing symptoms of a mental health problem for more than two weeks, or if symptoms keep returning, go to your GP, who can talk you through the support that’s available.

“You might want to speak to someone if you’re increasingly worrying about things you didn’t used to [worry about], you’re finding it difficult to sleep or enjoy the things you normally would or if you’re having thoughts that are difficult to cope with, and this is having an impact on your day-to-day life.” 

How to talk to your GP about your mental health

One of the best things you can do at your first appointment is be honest.

It’s completely normal to be nervous about opening up about the problems you’re facing, but if you’re worried about getting your point across – or find it hard to speak about in general – then there are a number of steps you can take to ensure you’re able to communicate your needs clearly.

Be totally, completely honest

Being as honest as you can about what’s going on will ensure your GP has all the information they need to make a decision about the help and support you need. This is especially important if you’re worried that your problem may sound silly or superficial. Chances are, it’s probably not – and giving your GP the whole picture could help them make a more accurate diagnosis.

To communicate what’s going on fully, Buckley recommends focusing on the basic symptoms you’re experiencing. “Try to be as open and honest as you can to help your GP offer the right support,” he says. “Focus on how you feel, rather than whether you meet a diagnosis.”

When you’re explaining everything, you’ll want to provide as much detail as possible about how your symptoms are affecting you, Buckley adds.

“Try to explain what has changed for you over the last weeks or months. You could talk about how you were feeling and how you feel now. Use words and descriptions that feel natural to you – you don’t have to say specific things to get help.”

Bring someone with you

If you’re worried about not being able to explain the situation fully, or if you just want some moral support, it’s totally OK to bring someone you trust into the appointment with you.

“All of us deserve support and respect,” Buckley says. “If you want to, you can take someone you trust with you to offer support and reassurance. This could be a friend or family member or you might find it useful to explore getting some support from an advocate to help you express your needs and wishes.”

To find out more about accessing support from an advocate, you can visit Mind’s website.

Give yourself more time

You can always ask to book a double appointment if you’re worried that you’ll need more time to explain everything that’s going on. Most doctor’s surgeries will be able to accommodate this extremely easily – just mention that you need more time when booking your appointment in the first place, and they’ll be able to designate two slots for you.

Make use of external material

These days, the internet is home to a wealth of information about a variety of mental health conditions. If you’ve googled some of your symptoms prior to your appointment or come across a social media post that sums up what you’re experiencing, then taking that with you to your appointment is a great way to get your point across.

“If you see any information that helps you to describe how you’re feeling, you can print it out or show it on your phone,” Buckley explains. “Sometimes other people’s words are very helpful for explaining our own emotions.”

Write things down

If you’re worried about forgetting things you wanted to say or if you’re just nervous about getting the words out once you’re in the room, then writing down a list of questions or concerns to take with you to the appointment could be helpful.

“Sometimes people find it helpful to write things down,” Buckley explains. “You could ask yourself some key questions, such as how you’ve been feeling lately, and whether anything has changed in your life recently. You could also think about whether you’ve noticed any changes in your routines, for example, changes to your sleep or appetite.

“Having the written answers in front of you can help you to be clearer about your situation and make it easier for the GP to identify the right support.” 

What happens next?

Make sure you ask your doctor questions about anything you’re not sure about.

Once you’ve explained your situation to your GP, they’ll be able to offer their thoughts about what might be going on, and may offer you a range of treatment options to consider moving forward. However, they’re obligated to make sure you’re fully informed on any treatments being offered to you, so make sure you take the time to ask any questions you have.

“If your doctor offers you any treatment, they should make sure that you understand what they’re offering,” Buckley says. “For example, they should explain the pros and cons of different options in a clear and balanced way.”

If you’re worried about a specific course of treatment – or aren’t sure whether it’s right for you – then don’t be afraid to say so.

Indeed, Buckley explains: “You can ask questions around the kinds of treatment being offered. If you have a preference for the kind of support you receive, such as talking therapy or medication, it’s OK to say so. You can also ask your doctor to give you information in a different format to help you understand it – for example in writing, Easy Read format or a translation.” 

What if I’m not ready to speak to a GP?

While your GP will typically be the best port of call for people experiencing mental health problems, if it doesn’t feel quite right at the moment, then it is possible to seek help elsewhere.

“There are other support options you could explore,” Buckley says. “See Mind’s information on seeking help for a mental health problem for more details, including suggestions for getting help from charity and third sector organisations.” 

Frame Of Mind is Stylist’s home for all things mental health and the mind. From expert advice on the small changes you can make to improve your wellbeing to first-person essays and features on topics ranging from autism to antidepressants, we’ll be exploring mental health in all its forms. You can check out the series home page to get started.

If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website and NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS’ list of mental health helplines and services.

If you are struggling with your mental health, you can also ask your GP for a referral to NHS Talking Therapies, or you can self-refer.

For confidential support, you can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email [email protected]. In a crisis, call 999.

Images: Getty

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