Seeking professional help for your mental health can be life-changing, but it can feel like a scary and sometimes bewildering process for those who've never been through the system. Luckily, it's a lot easier than you'd think to get started on the right path. Here's what you need to know.
Your GP Will Help
The easiest way to get help for your mental health is through your GP. Even though they're not specialists on mental health, and it can be weird talking about feelings with the same person you ask about runny noses and weird rashes, your GP is your first port of call.
If you're anxious about this session, try writing notes or questions you want to ask your doctor about treatment for mental health.
GPs will often recommend dietary and lifestyle changes, or supplements that can help if you're feeling low. If constant fatigue or tiredness is one of your symptoms, it's worth asking for a blood test to make sure your feelings aren't being exacerbated by a vitamin deficiency.
If your situation or condition is particularly dire, your GP may recommend starting on medication straight off the bat. GPs can prescribe many common anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications, though some drugs for other conditions must be prescribed by a psychiatrist.
Don't feel pressured to go on medication straight away even if you're prescribed it, you're allowed to ask questions or research the drugs before you make that decision.
Most commonly, your GP will put you on a mental health plan. If you want to get on a mental health plan as soon as possible, mention this on the phone when booking your appointment with the GP, as starting a plan will often require a longer appointment.
All About Mental Health Plans
A mental health plan is mainly used to allow you to claim psychology sessions back through Medicare, but it also involves a handy structure that allow your GP and your therapist to both track your progress.
Your session with the GP will involve talking about what it is you're having problems with, and what it is you hope to achieve through your mental health plan. If you believe you're suffering from depression or anxiety, your doctor may have you do a DASS (depression, anxiety, stress) test to see what your symptoms most align with and how severe your condition is.
The goal of this first session is to set you up with a diagnosis and refer you to a therapist.
Once you have your mental health plan set up, you can claim Medicare rebates on up to 10 sessions with a psychologist or therapist each year. After six sessions you'll need to see your GP again to reassess and see if you still need the last four sessions - though in reality this appointment can often be replaced by a phone call between your therapist and GP.
Your mental health plan will give you a rebate on the cost of therapy sessions, meaning you'll still have to pay some out of pocket unless your therapist bulk bills.
Psychologists are trained medical professionals who are not doctors (like psychiatrists are). While every psychologist will have a different approach, they will largely focus on talk therapy and CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy).
While psychologists can and do recommend supplements that may help you, they can't prescribe medication. If they think it's necessary, they may ask you to book in with your GP to talk about the possibility of medicating.
When meeting with your psychologist for the first time it's useful to talk to them about what kind of help you're looking for. For example, I benefit from being given 'homework' at the end of each session, because I like having something to work on to feel like I'm progressing well. Other people may want to focus on the talking part of the therapy, however, or learning new skills and methods to help control their thoughts.
It's okay to cry in front of your therapist: most people will at some point!
Medication can be helpful for severe forms of anxiety and depression, and can often be vital in other mental illnesses, but not all mental illness requires medication. For milder symptoms, CBT can be just as effective - if not more effective - as medication.
Going on medication can be a big decision to make. If you're someone like me who is sensitive to drug side effects, you could be out of action for up to a month during the 'easing in' period of some SSRIs, a type of drug often used for anxiety and depression. Talk to your doctor about any questions or doubts you have.
Remember that even the best meds aren't a silver bullet - you can't beat mental illness with meds alone, you still need help from therapy, CBT and a healthy lifestyle to get better. Meds can just help give you the headspace to be able to work on those other things.
In some cases, your GP may refer you to a psychiatrist. Many people often ask whether psychiatrists are 'better' than psychologists, but the fact is they both perform different roles.
Psychiatrists more often deal with more severe mental illness and disability, often with a focus on medication. Some medications can only be prescribed by a psychiatrist, like psychostimulants for ADHD. Some psychiatrists also provide therapy, but they're also more expensive to see than a psychologist.
You can get a Medicare rebate on all your psychiatry sessions if you're initially referred by a GP. There is no limit to yearly psychiatry sessions under Medicare - however prepare to still pay quite a bit out of pocket.
It's possible and even highly recommended to see a psychiatrist and a psychologist at the same time, as they target different areas of mental illness. Therapy can also be vital during difficult settling-in periods on psychiatric medication. Many people end up with a small team including a GP, therapist and psychiatrist all working on different aspects of their mental health treatment.
People under the age of 25 can access psychiatrists for free through Headspace, though there is often a lengthy wait unless your case is urgent.
While your GP will often be able to recommend therapists and psychiatrists in your area, you can also do your own research with BeyondBlue's resources for finding a mental health professional who will suit your needs.
If you're reading this right now, you're probably not in the best headspace, but know that it gets better. Seeing a mental health professional for the first time, though intimidating, can be life-changing.
If you or someone you know is in need of more immediate help, contact the Lifeline Australia hotline at 13 11 14, the Suicide Call Back Service at 1300 65 94 67 or the Kids Helpline (for ages 5-25) at 1800 55 1800.