We all know to see a doctor when we are unwell physically, but did you know that our General Practitioner (GP) is also there to support us with our mental health? GPs are a bit like the gatekeepers to wider healthcare services. It is important that you feel about to talk to your GP about mental health because this is often the first step to being able to access treatments, such as medication or referrals into other services.

As a therapist supporting many individuals over the years, I’ve noticed there can be a real reluctance to see a GP when it comes to mental health. This guide aims to myth-bust some of the assumptions made, offer pointers on how to get the most from your GP appointment, and help manage expectations about what kind of support they may offer.

 

Why we Don’t Talk to the GP about Mental Health

I have conversations every week with clients about contacting their GPs and am often met with resistance. Some of the assumptions underlying this resistance are that:

  • GPs won’t be able to help with mental health, they focus on physical health.
  • The only treatment available is medication.
  • A 10-minute appointment is useless.
  • I don’t know how to explain how I feel, so there’s no way a GP will get it.
  • I don’t want to waste their time, other people have bigger problems.
  • They won’t believe me.
  • I can’t get an appointment.

 

Myth-Busting: Why we Should Talk to the GP about Mental Health

There are many assumptions that may get in the way of booking that GP appointment. You may well have your own to add to the list. We know that assumptions are based on opinion and generalisations rather than fact. So let’s work our way through some of these to make a more informed choice.

GPs can’t help with mental health, especially not in 10-minutes

GPs are highly trained and have a breadth of medical knowledge and experience. Some may even specialise in mental health. If they cannot offer the level of support required themselves, they may be able to make a referral onto other more suitable services. Mental health is complex and difficulties can feel consuming and overwhelming. While a ten-minute appointment may feel like an insignificant amount of time to talk to a GP about your mental health and relay the way you are feeling, GPs will be used to this. They will be routinely seeing patients with common mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, and are skilled at being able to gather information and make assessments within this time frame.

Others have it worse

The assumption that others have bigger problems and so seeing the GP is a waste of time is something I hear a lot. Seeking medical support is not a waste of time. You have as much of a right as anyone else to contact your GP. As a healthcare professional myself, I can honestly say that I would much rather someone came to me a problem that turned out to be nothing, than didn’t come to me when I could have helped. Sometimes ruling out a problem in itself can be helpful.

They won’t believe me

Talking to a GP about mental health can feel daunting, especially if we are meeting them for the first time. Concerns about not believed or being judged tend to come up most frequently when it comes to taking time off work. There can be fears of being perceived as ‘skiving,’ being ‘work-shy’ or ‘not ill enough’ to be off work. If you are struggling emotionally to the point where you are questioning whether you can be in work, this is reason enough to speak with your GP and gain their input on next steps. You also don’t need to be a breaking point before pressing pause on work. Prevention is better than cure and if you think taking time off work would help to take care of your mental health and prevent burnout or illness, then it a conversation worth having.

Can’t get an appointment

Difficulty getting an appointment is a more challenging problem to solve because the reality is that the NHS is under a huge amount of pressure. Booking systems at GP surgeries are changing, and I think many of us are noticing that getting an appointment is harder than it used to be. It may be helpful to familiarise yourself with your surgery’s booking process so that you have one less thing to figure out when you do need an appointment. You may need to register for an online account, or know what times the phonelines are open for bookings.

Doing this life admin in advance may save you some stress further down the line. However, it is also important to note that sometimes the assumption that booking an appointment will be a challenge is an unnecessary blocker. You don’t know until you try. And even if it is a challenge once, that doesn’t guarantee it will be every time.

 

What Can a GP do for Mental Health?

You may be surprised to know how many different ways you GP may be able to offer support for mental health. These options could include:

  • An assessment of any underlying physical factors that may be impacting your mental health.
  • A follow-up appointment to further discuss and review symptoms.
  • A referral to a mental health service for further assessment.
  • A referral to a therapy service for treatment, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.
  • A prescription for medication.
  • Discussing time off work if necessary.
  • Signposting to self-help resources.
  • Signposting to local mental health services.
  • Lifestyle advice.

How to Get the Most out of Your GP Appointment

GP appointments are generally 10-minutes long which often doesn’t feel like enough time to talk about how you are feeling and explore different treatment options. Here are some tips to help you get the most from your appointment.

 

Tips for Booking a GP appointment

You may assume that you contact your surgery and take what you can get. But actually, there are often multiple options worth knowing about. These things can vary across surgeries but they’re worth asking about if you would find them helpful. Here are some pointers:

  • Some GP surgeries now have a mental health nurse, so when you book, find out if this is an option available to you.
  • Ask if there is a particular GP at your practice recommended for mental health appointments. Some GPs have specialisms, and this can include mental health.
  • Ask if you are able to book a double appointment.
  • If you already have a good relationship with your GP, try to see the same GP for continuity if possible.
  • Ahead of the appointment, make note of the most important things you want to talk about and any questions you have.
  • If a GP appointment isn’t available for some time and you feel you need support sooner, you can request an urgent appointment or to speak with a duty doctor.
  • Consider if you would like someone to accompany you to this appointment and if so, check they are available.

Tips for Attending your GP Appointment

You may feel nervous to talk to a GP about mental health, especially if it’s for the first time. Uncertainty makes lots of us feel uneasy. In first appointments, I’m often told, “I don’t know how this works’ and I respond, “Well, that’s OK, why would you?’ Here are few pointers that may help you feel more prepared are comfortable:

  • It’s OK if you’re not sure how to explain how you feel. It is the role of a medical professional to ask the right questions to gain this understanding.
  • If you have questions, ask them.
  • If you’re unsure or unhappy with the treatment option, ask what other options are available.
  • If you don’t understand the treatment options, ask the GP to clarify or explain them again.
  • It is harder to process and retain information when emotions are high, like when we are stressed or upset. Note down any key points or next steps that are discussed in your appointment.

 

Book and Stick to Your Appointments

GPs will often advise booking a follow-up appointment to review symptoms and, if you are taking medication, they will likely request you arrange an appointment or a phone call to review this. This is to make sure the plan is working for you, and to make adjustments if not.

From experience, people often don’t book this because they forget or feel it’s a waste of the GP’s time. It’s not a waste of time – it’s an important part of your care and making sure you are receiving the right treatment. Some people don’t book their follow-up appointments because they feel better. That’s great, let your GP know you’re feeling better in your review appointment! If your GP knows what has and hasn’t worked for you, they are better placed to support you in the future.

On the flipside, others may find the treatment doesn’t help and not realise that other options are available. For example, if you a prescribed a medication and find it doesn’t help or you suffer with side effects, it is important to let the GP know so alternatives can be considered. By changing treatment plans yourself, such as stopping medication or changing the dose, it is possible that this could worsen symptoms or side effects or cause withdrawal symptoms.

Let your GP know if you are not happy with the advice or treatment given, so that alternatives can be considered. Your GP can’t offer you something different if they don’t know that the advice or treatment isn’t helping. Requesting a second opinion from another GP is another option if you are either unsure or want to confirm the advice you have been given.

 

Ongoing Support: Keeping Talking to Your GP about Mental Health

If you see a GP you get on well with, ask whether you can book subsequent appointments with them if possible. On the flip side, if you are unhappy with your GP, you can book in to see someone different for next time. If you are unhappy with your GP practice overall, you may be able to register at another GP practice local to you.

 

 

 Updated June 2024.