Mental Illness: Preparing For Your First Appointment

If we’re worried about our mental health, it’s often helpful to speak to a healthcare professional. But booking and attending an appointment can be a real challenge. The closer the appointment gets, the more intense our anxiety around it can become. Preparing for it can help us to feel more in control, and to reduce our anxiety to a more manageable level.

Mental Illness: Preparing For Your First Appointment

Finding A GP

When booking our first appointment, it’s preferable to see a GP who understands mental health. Our surgery’s website might list their GPs specialist areas, which could include mental health, or we could ask the reception desk for advice. We could also chat to friends or family about any recommendations they might have.

Booking An Appointment

In the UK, GP appointments are free but can be hard to book. Different surgeries have different systems; some book two or three weeks ahead, some only book appointments at certain times or on certain days, others might have ‘stay and wait’ clinics or release a certain number of appointments each day. To book an appointment, some ask us to phone them, others require us to use a website or app. It can be confusing, stressful, and we might find ourselves spending a lot of time on hold.

Most surgeries will have some information about how to book an appointment listed on their website. We could also speak to friends or family who attend the same surgery as us, to see whether they have any advice; some people have a knack for working out the best times to ring.

If we’re planning to call in, and know we might be on hold for a while, then it’s often helpful to ring from a comfortable, safe space where we won’t be rushed, rather than trying to grab a quick phone call from the work toilets on our lunch break. Alternatively, we can ask someone we trust to call and book an appointment for us.

When booking our appointment, it’s useful to remember that they’re usually around 10 minutes. If we have a lot to discuss, it’s sometimes possible to book a double appointment.

Needing An Appointment Quickly

Sometimes we don’t feel able to wait for a routine GP appointment. We might feel unsafe, or our loved ones might be becoming increasingly concerned about us.

Most GP surgeries hold back some appointments for emergencies. These are usually bookable either around 8am on the day, the evening before, or sometimes around lunchtime.

When booking an urgent appointment, we need to clearly communicate our needs. The receptionist needs to understand the symptoms and thoughts concerning us and why we can’t wait for a routine appointment. We need to be honest; the receptionist is there to help us, not judge us. The questions they ask are designed to help them get us the support most suited to our needs. When explaining our situation, we might like to have someone by our side who’s able to support us because it can be difficult to advocate for ourselves, particularly when we’re unwell.

If available in our area, another option is to use the ‘111’ website or give them a ring. The operator will ask us questions to determine what our needs are and direct us to the most appropriate support.

We might choose to travel to A&E. There should be staff the A&E department can call on who are trained in mental health.

Finally, if we’re at crisis point, feel unsafe and can’t get ourselves to A&E, then we can ring 999.

Getting To The Appointment

It sounds like an obvious one, but we need to make sure that we leave enough time to get to our appointment, factoring in traffic at that time of day. There’s nothing worse than seeing the minutes slip by as we’re stuck in a traffic jam getting increasingly stressed.

Knowing exactly where the surgery is and where we can park (if driving) can prevent any surprises. Sometimes we might have to park somewhere else and walk for a bit; if this is the case then we’ll need to factor the ‘parking and walking time’ into our overall travel time.

For those who feel particularly anxious about getting there, it could be helpful to do a ‘dummy run’ and go to where the surgery is on a day that we don’t have an appointment.

If we’re unable to leave the house, a GP might be able to do a home visit. This is something that we would need to speak to the surgery about when booking our appointment.

Do You Want To Go It Alone?

Some of us like to go to appointments alone. Others value the support of having someone alongside us. Sometimes we appreciate someone doing the journey with us, but would prefer them to stay in the waiting room while we have our appointment. We don’t need to be afraid of asking someone along for moral support; booking and going to an appointment is a big step and there’s no shame in being anxious about it.

It Doesn’t Need To Be Public Knowledge

If we don’t want to tell people where we’re going or why then we don’t need to.

Sometimes our appointment means we have to leave work a little early or get in a little late, colleagues might ask where we’ve been or where we’re going.

As long as we’ve cleared it with our boss (where necessary), we don’t have to tell anyone anything. If we want to, we could say “I had/have an appointment”, if we don’t want to mention an appointment, saying “I had/have a ‘thing'” is always a good substitute!

Lists

In the run-up to our appointment, it can help to list our concerns, symptoms we have, and questions we want to ask. Appointment-preparing apps such as DocReady can be great for giving us a set formula to work through.

Lists are often best as a ‘work in progress’. Adding to it as and when things crop up, tends to gather a wider picture of our mental health than hurriedly scribbling it down the night before our appointment.

Building Up A Picture Of Our Mental Health

Before our appointment, we could log any patterns we notice or triggers we identify.

We could try a mood diary, sleep diary, stress log, or a record of any panic attacks we’ve had. The things we choose to log will depend on the struggles we’re having. There’s no point keeping a sleep diary if we have no issues with our sleep.

Environmental influences can affect our mental health; such as a stressful job, bereavement, caring responsibilities, chronic illness, a house move, or relationship difficulties. Though rarely the sole cause of our difficulties, these things could exacerbate them.

Building up a picture of our difficulties not only helps our GP to understand what’s going on for us but can also help us to identify patterns ourselves.

Be Honest

We need to be honest so that our GP to give us the best help they can. If we don’t want to answer a question, then it’s better to say that, than to make something up.

Honesty isn’t always easy. Talking about our mental health can be difficult. There might be things we’re embarrassed or ashamed of. But our GP is there to help us and they’ve probably heard most things before.

Sometimes we worry about our GP ‘thinking we’re mad’ or ‘locking us up’. Our GP is there to help us and to act in our best interests. Very occasionally, if they think that we’re a significant risk to ourselves or others then they might ring mental health services immediately. But more often than not, mental illness can be managed safely within the community.

Adjust Expectations

With mental health and mental illness, it’s rarely a case of diagnosis-treat-better in two weeks. Our GP may need to see us again before making a diagnosis, or they might need to refer us to a specialist clinician.

They might suggest medication. If they do it’s a good idea to ask things like how long it might be before we notice any change, any side effects we need to look out for, and what to do if we do experience side effects. Sometimes a medication either won’t help us or gives us intolerable side effects. We might have to try numerous medications before finding a suitable option because we all take to them differently.

We might be referred to a charity or mental health team. Waiting lists can vary depending on the service, and where we live; our GP will sometimes have an idea of waiting list times so we can always ask them.

Our GP might have ideas of things we could try, such as worksheets, websites or apps. They might ask us to complete questionnaires either with them or at home or keep a log of certain things.

Though one appointment with a GP isn’t likely to ‘fix’ our mental health issues, it’s a big and important step in the right direction.

What Comes Next

Having an idea of the next steps can help us to feel heard, and hold onto some hope. If we’re not sure what the next steps are, we can ask. For example: are we being referred to anywhere? What do we do if things get worse? When are we seeing our GP again? What do we do if we react to our medication? Is there anything we need to do or anyone we need to contact?

Post-Appointment Fatigue

After our appointment, we might feel wiped out.

The anxiety build-up before an appointment can zap our energy. We might have feelings we can’t identify. There could be some reluctant hope that we’re not sure we want to believe. Our brain might have gone into ‘buzzing with thoughts’ mode, or could have gone blank.

We might have felt ignored and misunderstood which could leave us feeling angry or hopeless.

Factor in some post-appointment ‘wind-down’ time. Half an hour to sit in the car and listen to the radio, write down the messy thoughts in our head, have a snack, or to go and watch the ducks and the local park and breathe out.

Feeling Invalidated Or Ignored

Unfortunately, sometimes we have a bad experience with a GP. We might not feel listened to or heard. Perhaps we didn’t click. We could feel dismissed, invalidated, belittled or discriminated against.

Hopefully, these occasions are few and far between, but if this is our experience, it’s not a reflection on us. It’s not our fault.

In these situations, it’s often helpful to make our next appointment with a different GP. We need to try not to disengage (however tempting it might be!) especially if we’ve started a new medication.

If we want to make a complaint, our surgery should be able to point us in the direction of their complaints procedure. The Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS) service might be able to support us with our complaint depending on where we live, too.

Our First Appointment With A Mental Health Practitioner

If we’re referred to mental health services, we might find that we have similar feelings before our first appointment to those we felt before our first GP appointment.

We can usually prepare in a very similar way by finding out where our appointment is and how to get there, making notes or lists before we go, and keeping any logs we find helpful. During our appointment, we could ask about the next steps and it’s always helpful to prepare for post-appointment fatigue.

We’re Allowed To Feel Proud

We’re allowed to be proud of ourselves for reaching out; it can be such a difficult thing to do. Sometimes it takes us weeks, months, or even years to work up to it.

We deserve the help and support we need to feel better. We’re not alone.

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