Talking to Your Doctor About Mental Health
Primary care providers are often the first line of defense when it comes to helping individuals with mental health concerns. They can provide an initial assessment of your condition, help refer you to a specialist, and provide a comprehensive plan for treatment and follow-up.
In this article I will cover different mental health disorders and treatments, questions to ask your primary care provider, understanding your treatment plan, getting the most from your PCP, and your rights as a patient.
Different Mental Health Disorders and Treatments
Mental health is a broad umbrella term that encompasses a variety of conditions. Anxiety, depression, addiction, alcohol use disorder, borderline personality disorder, and bipolar disorder are some of the most common mental health disorders for which people seek treatment. Each of these conditions can have varying degrees of severity, and the right treatment plan is essential for recovery.
Anxiety disorders are characterized by excessive worry and fear. People with anxiety may experience symptoms such as racing thoughts, insomnia, increased heart rate, difficulty breathing, or shaking.
Depression affects how you feel, think, and handle daily activities. Common symptoms of depression include persistent feelings of sadness, loss of interest in activities, difficulty concentrating, insomnia, and oversleeping.
Addiction and Alcoholism
Addiction is characterized by the consequences of your substance use which can include but is not limited to cravings, problems at work or home, conflict in relationships, using in a context with high potential for physical harm such as driving under the influence, and physical health problems.
Borderline Personality Disorder
Borderline personality disorder is characterized by severe mood swings, reckless and impulsive behaviors, and significant difficulty with relationships such as intense conflict or a pattern of quickly turning on people.
Bipolar disorder is characterized by manic episodes which typically include excessive energy and confidence, an intense focus on goal-oriented behaviors, increase in socializing, and risky or impulsive behaviors. Bipolar may come along with depressive episodes but this is not the case for everyone.
Prepare for Your Appointment
Make sure to bring a list of any medications you are currently taking and bring a detailed list of symptoms you are experiencing. Ideally, you will be able to provide specific examples of how these symptoms have impacted you, e.g. missing work, difficulty maintaining healthy relationships, or no longer being able to enjoy fun activities. Try to avoid being vague or speaking in generalities- let your doctor know what your experience is like for you as an individual.
Understanding Your Treatment Plan
After your initial assessment, your primary care provider will develop a treatment plan that is tailored to your individual needs. Make sure to ask your provider to explain the treatment plan in detail and ask any questions you may have. Your treatment plan may include medication, therapy, lifestyle changes, or a combination of all three.
Getting the Most from Your Primary Care Provider
When meeting with your primary care provider, it is important to be open and honest. Make sure to provide them with accurate information about your symptoms. Additionally, it is important to take an active role in your treatment. Ask your provider any questions that come to mind and make sure to follow through with any recommendations they make. If you don’t feel your doctor is listening or taking your concerns seriously, it may be up to you to advocate for yourself.
Your Rights as a Patient
You have the right to receive confidential, respectful, non-discriminatory treatment, and you have the right to receive information about your condition, diagnosis, and treatment plan. Additionally, you have the right to ask questions, voice concerns, and receive a second opinion if desired.
Seeking Specialty Treatment
Primary care doctors, aka general practitioners, are qualified to treat mental illness but they typically don’t have expertise in this area. If medication is recommended, I tell my clients I believe it is ok to get started with your PCP but then follow up with a specialist who has more mental health expertise for long term medication. These specialists are called either psychiatrists or psychiatric nurse practitioners. Unlike counselors such as myself, these people have medical degrees and can prescribe medications. You can ask your doctor for a referral for one of these specialists or seek them out on your own.