Mental health is now the number one reason patients see their GP, accounting for 62 per cent of all consultations. Hospitals are becoming increasingly inundated with mental health patients, many of whom are left waiting. Most recently, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews promised to hold a royal commission into mental health, acknowledging “we don't have the best mental health system we can possibly have. Only when a person is in real crisis do they get tailored individual help.”
It is clear mental health issues are on the rise and this worrying trend is only set to continue.
I have been a doctor for over 20 years now and in the last few years, at least every second patient I see has a variation of a mental health issue, ranging from mild anxiety to depression. I believe doctors play a crucial role in normalising mental health issues and can make a real difference in the lives of people around the world. In this way, your relationship with your GP is one of the most important of your life.
Breaking down barriers
I have found one of the most common reasons people are hesitant to open up about mental health issues is because they’re concerned that someone will find out, such as an employer, insurance company or family member.
It is crucial to reiterate how diligent and mindful doctors are about doctor/patient confidentiality. Rest assured, if you want to talk to your GP about how you are feeling, that information will stay within those four walls, even if you fill out a mental health plan that is covered by Medicare.
The next thing to know is that doctors want to help – they know how debilitating mental health issues can be and they are both ready and willing to help. Often just talking to someone about issues such as anxiety or depression can make a massive difference. Even seemingly simple things like creating a plan focused on a healthy diet and exercise, or recommending certain supplements, can help patients feel like they are in control again.
If the mental health issue requires specialist attention, GPs are the only professionals who can fill out and submit a mental health plan. This entitles the patient to subsidised psychologist consultations. So even if you have someone you want to talk to in mind, make sure you see your GP first.
A shared experience
We have a long way to go until mental health issues are normalised within society. Yes – we have made progress, but not nearly enough. For example, I often get mothers coming in who are shouldering a lot of responsibility between raising a family, working and making time for themselves, who are stressed and burned out.
They often ask me, “is it normal that I’m feeling this way? What’s wrong with me?”
And my answer is yes – it is totally normal to feel overwhelmed when you have so much on your plate. More importantly, I want to make sure that you can keep doing the things you love, while preserving your mental headspace. Realising these feelings are common, and normal, will go a long way towards breaking down mental health stigmas.
A need for support services
The average time a patient spends with their GP is 17 minutes. While this may suffice for many consultations, mental health patients almost always require longer sessions, especially for high-risk groups such as children and the elderly.
Unfortunately, many of the systems in place do not support doctors and the need for longer consultations. The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) President-elect Dr Harry Nespolon recently noted: “As access to psychologists and psychiatrists can be restrictive, to say the least, GPs must not only work as the frontline of support – but as the entire support model, something which is currently not supported by patient Medicare rebates.”
The need for better support services for GPs will only continue to grow as mental health issues become more prominent. We want to get to a stage where GPs are able to focus more time on preventative health and wellness, and spend less time worrying about whether a consultation will go ‘overtime.’
Take action today
Your relationship with your GP is one of the most important in your life. They have a holistic view of your health and are ready and willing to support you throughout life’s ups and downs.
I derive the greatest joy from knowing that I have been able to help someone feel better. Just talking things through, or making a plan on how to move forward can have a profound positive effect. If you are at all concerned that you are struggling with a mental health issue – see your local GP. Having someone you trust and are comfortable with is especially important, so if you don’t have a GP you see regularly, be sure to ask friends, family or even your pharmacist for a GP recommendation.