When you are struggling with a mental illness, it can be really difficult to talk to people about what you are going through. The doctor is often the first port of call when we feel unwell, physically or mentally, but taking this step can feel daunting and full of unknowns. To help you navigate the process of speaking to your GP about your mental health, we’ve put together some practical advice and suggestions for each stage- from making the appointment and how you can prepare to what might happen after.
Much of this is based on the assumption that you are looking using the NHS rather than a school nurse or a private surgery, but a lot of it will still apply.
Please note, whilst we have tried our absolute best to research and pull together different sources and information, everybody’s experience is different, and you may find that your experience does not reflect what is written here. This is just meant to provide some information and broad advice.
If you feel you are having a mental health crisis, please talk to someone as soon as you can.
Call your GP surgery and ask to speak to someone urgently
Call the Samaritans on 116 123 (24-hour helpline)
Go to your nearest A&E department
More information on dealing with a mental health crisis or emergency available on the NHS website.
Making the Appointment
When is it ok for me to go to see my GP about my mental health?
It is always ok. If you have noticed changes in how you feel or what you are thinking that are causing you distress and making it difficult to cope with your day-to-day life, seeing your doctor could be the first step to sorting it out. Even if they do not diagnose you with a mental illness, it can be really helpful to talk over things and see what they can do to help.
Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. Never feel guilty about taking up the doctor’s time, like your problems are too small or you are making too much fuss. This is what doctors are there for- to take care of you! On the other side of the coin, don’t worry that the doctor is going to think that you are “crazy” or “weird”. Mental health charity, Mind, estimates that roughly one in three GP appointments have a mental health component. Most doctors are used to dealing with all kinds of mental health issues and they are trained to find you the best and most appropriate care for whatever you are going though.
What can a GP help me with?
GPs are trained to help with all sorts of medical problems to do with your general health and wellbeing. They don’t normally specialise in a certain type of medical issues such as mental health, but they can help you with your mental health concerns. They typically will:
- Chat to you about your thoughts and feelings to help you to better understand what you are going through, possible causes and what support is out there to help.
- Offer you advice on lifestyle changes that can reduce the severity of your symptoms and prescribe medication or therapy programmes as appropriate and preferred.
- Check over any physical symptoms you may be having to make sure there aren’t any other underlying causes.
- Make another appointment in a couple of weeks’ time to see how you are doing and check you are on track with your mental health care. They may also refer you on to specialist care if they think that would better help you.
How do I find an NHS GP service near me?
You can change GPs whenever you want and you have the right to choose your own GP, even if a parent or carer has registered you somewhere else.
Do I have to talk about my issues with the receptionist?
Not at all. It is unlikely they will ask and if they do, you can just say you would prefer not to say.
However, there may be times when you might want to explain why you are making the appointment. You may want to know if there’s a GP with an interest in mental health, for example. If you decide you want to, you are well within your rights to request to speak to the receptionist privately or do it over the phone.
Am I able to ask for a certain doctor or appointment time?
When booking an appointment, you have the right to request to see a female or male doctor, or even a specific doctor who you like and trust. You can also book a double appointment (20 minutes, rather than 10) if you feel like you need it.
How long will I have to wait for an appointment?
Waiting times will vary and depends on how busy the surgery or your chosen doctor is. However, if you need to see someone urgently, many surgeries offer emergency, on-the-day appointments (although please be aware that it may not be possible for you to guarantee a certain appointment or doctor).
What if I am under 16? Can I make an appointment for myself?
You can make an appointment to see a doctor at any age to talk about your mental or physical health, and all the confidentiality rules apply (see below). They might want to ask some questions about why you have seen them on your own. You don’t have to go into detail but sometimes it helps to be honest, so the surgery can make sure you are seeing the right person.
The doctor might suggest that you speak to your family or carers about your problems, if you haven’t already. This is because sometimes it is important for those that are looking after you to understand what is going on, so they can support you properly. They can even do it for you if you wanted, but they will not force you. Childline offers lots of information on visiting your doctor, so check that out.
Can I make an appointment to talk about someone else’s mental health?
A doctor might be able to give you some general information about symptoms or the process of diagnosing someone, but they won’t be able to share specific advice or details about someone else without their consent.
Unless it is an emergency or the person is under 18, we cannot force some to get help, no matter how frustrating or upsetting that can feel when you are trying to care for someone who is suffering. The best thing to do is be patient with them, offer them your support, inform them of how they can get help when they are ready, and make sure you are taking care of yourself.
This page on the Mind website offers some really helpful guidance on how you can help someone else to seek help.
Before the Appointment
What can I do to prepare?
Thinking about what you want to say can help you feel prepared and get the most out of your appointment. Write down any mental or physical symptoms you are having, how it is affecting your life, any key personal information that might be relevant such as any major life events and any key medical information such as existing conditions. Try to use words or phrases that feel natural to you to explain what you are going through. If there is a bit of time before your appointment, keep a written or video diary about how you are feeling. You can show these to the doctor as examples of what you are thinking and feeling.
There are some great online tools you can use to do this too. Doc Ready can help you build a checklist of the things you want to talk to your GP about and Mind’s Find the Words guide (available in English, Welsh, Urdu, Punjabi and Polish) can help you express how you are feeling.
Also, it can be helpful to write down a list of questions you want to ask. Take all these notes with you on the day and use them during your appointment. You could also talk through them with someone you trust beforehand to make sure you are covering all the points you want to.
I keep feeling like I should just cancel my appointment. Should I?
Please don’t. It sounds really clichéd and sappy but learning how to live with and overcome a mental illness really is a journey. There will inevitably be ups and downs, and moments of doubt, but by taking ownership of your health and your treatment, you are making a huge step towards the life and happiness you deserve. Be brave. If you are concerned that you might cancel or not turn up your appointment, ask someone supportive who you trust to hold you accountable and make sure you go.
What if I don’t want a diagnosis?
For many, being able to put a name on what they are experiencing is a big relief. However, not everyone will feel the same. Remember that a diagnosis doesn’t have to shape your entire life or identity. Sometimes we might not even receive a definitive diagnosis, or we might not agree with what we are told, however the advice we receive may make a huge difference. It’s always worth talking through symptoms.
During the Appointment
What do I need to do on the day?
You are likely to feel a bit nervous, especially if this is the first time you have spoken to someone about your mental health, so try and make it as stress-free as possible. Wear something comfy that won’t irritate or distract you. Take some water to avoid the dreaded dry mouth. Give yourself plenty of time to get to your appointment and be mindful that often appointment schedules often don’t run exactly on time. Maybe bring something calming to do whilst you wait, like a book or a game on your phone.
What do I need to say?
Right at the start of your appointment, tell them what you want to talk about. If it helps, you could mentally plan what you want to say and how you want to say it in this initial moment.
Throughout the appointment, the doctor will probably ask you some questions about your mood, lifestyle or any recent life events, sleeping and appetite, and your medical history. Be as honest as you can. Don’t play down anything, brush over something that feels really important to you or leave it to them to infer what you mean. No matter how much training they have had, the doctor is only human and won’t be able to guess how you have been feeling. They will use what you say to try and work out the best way to help you, so being open is really helpful.
They also might want to check over your physical health by taking your blood pressure, weight or doing some blood tests. You can also talk to them about any alcohol or drug issues.
Your appointment should be a two-way conversation. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, refer to the information you’ve brought in or ask for clarification if the doctor says something you don’t understand. You could also take a notepad to write down things that you want to remember and ask the doctor if they have more information you can take away with you.
The most important thing is to focus on how you have been feeling- don’t worry about fitting in with a particular diagnosis or saying the right things to make sure you get help. As this great animation from Mind says, there’s no secret code or passwords to getting help and you should use the words and phrases that you feel really explain how you feel.
Can I bring someone to the appointment with me?
Of course. If you are feeling nervous, having someone you trust by your side can help you feel more confident in talking openly with the doctor. They can even help you if you get stuck explaining some of the symptoms or challenges you are facing or give an outsider’s perspective. They can also write down some notes for you.
Will everything I say be totally confidential?
Broadly, yes. Everything you say in a consultation cannot be discussed with other people, and the same goes for reception staff. Sometimes a GP might suggest you speak to others or ask if you would be happy for them to contact them if it would be beneficial to you. If you don’t want this to happen, you can say no. They won’t and can’t contact anyone without your permission.
The only time confidentiality may be broken is if they are seriously concerned that you may be a danger to yourself or others. In this case, they should still try to tell you first, so you know what is happening.
What kind of treatment will they suggest?
This depends what you say, what the doctor thinks will help and what you want to do. They may:
- Monitor your situation before offering treatment, to make sure they are going to do something that will actually help.
- Suggest some lifestyle changes, such as to your exercise, eating or sleeping habits, to manage your symptoms.
- Refer you, or recommend you self-refer, to local psychological wellbeing services such as talking therapies (CBT, counselling etc.). If your issues are too complex for them to deal with or you are at risk, they may refer you on to a specialist mental health team. Availability of services and referral processes will vary in different areas.
- Prescribe you medication. In this case, make sure you understand what it is expected to do and what side effects you may have so you can make an informed decision about if you want to take it. Most drugs take a few weeks to start working so take care of yourself and keep note of your moods. It also can be good idea to try some therapy alongside medication too.
The doctor should provide you with clear information about each option and give you the opportunity to make a decision you are happy with. If there’s anything you don’t understand, tell them- they might not realise they are being unclear- or ask for more information. If you have already left the appointment before you realise you don’t understand something, pharmacists, friends or family, or external services can also be a good source.
Sometimes doctors might not offer you the treatment you had in mind. This could be because they do not think it will help or simply because they’ve overlooked it. If this is the case, ask them why. Remember, if at any point you don’t feel comfortable with the course of treatment they are offering, ask about alternatives. It is your health and you can, if you are able, take control of your treatment. Whether that’s asking to go on different meds or to see a different therapist if you don’t click with the first person you get. Dealing with mental health is a delicate balance and the first road you go down might not be quite the right one, but it is all progress.
The only time you might not be given a choice of treatment is in very specific circumstances, such as if you are in hospital under a section of the Mental Health Act, you are under a community treatment order (CTO) or if you are considered to ‘lack mental capacity’.
After the Appointment
What will happen next?
Again, this depends on your diagnosis and path of treatment. If you have been prescribed medication, the doctor will ask you to come back and see them in a couple of weeks’ time to see how you are getting on. You can also book a follow-up appointment if you have any issues with your treatment, you aren’t getting better or things have got worse.
If you have been referred or have been asked to self-refer to a specialist or therapy service, there may be a wait until you can see someone. In this time, it is absolutely vital that you monitor yourself, practise self-help techniques and don’t be afraid to go back to the doctor if things take a downwards turn.
What if I don’t feel happy with how the appointment went?
Whilst going to your GP should be a positive step to feeling better, sometimes things don’t work out straight away. You might feel like your GP didn’t listen to you, take your concerns seriously or explain things clearly, or that they’ve fobbed you off with patronising advice or an unwanted treatment plan.
It feels like another blow, but please do not give up.
If you don’t feel like your concerns have been addressed, its important to be assertive and active in your care. You could try making another appointment with them and having a think about how else you can explain how you feel, or you could try a different GP in the practice or even a different surgery if you would feel more comfortable. You could also see if you can self-refer to any therapy services in your area or seek private help if you can afford it.
Unfortunately, some people can have very negative experiences with their GP. If you feel like you have been treated unfairly or your doctor has failed to provide proper care, firstly don’t be disheartened. As with anything in life, sometimes you have to deal with dickheads. You might want to make a formal complaint about how you have been treated. You can complain directly to the practice manager or make a written complaint via the practice’s complaints procedure (information about this should be accessible on their website or at reception). More information on the NHS complaints procedures is available here.
What do I do if I feel like some different support?
There are lots of options out there and there’s no wrong way to go about it- do what’s right for you in that moment.
Chat to friends, family or someone you trust. Schools, universities and some workplaces also offer access to support services. As mentioned above, you could also look into finding a trained therapist or local support services in your area.
There are also lots of charity and third sector organisations that offer different services and information. We’ve collated a list of some here but these are some helplines that you can access 24 hours a day if you need to talk someone.
Tel: 116 123 (UK + ROI)
www.childline.org.uk (you can also email them through their website)
Tel: 0800 1111
Take care of yourselves, and if you have any more tips, please add them to the comments below.