5 Tips When Talking About Mental Health With Your Doctor

Mental health, whether intact or disturbed, is about how we think, feel, and behave. That definition covers all of us. Mental disorders are common. In any given year, almost 20 percent of Americans have one or more mental illnesses. That’s one in five people. About four to five percent of Americans have serious mental illness.

Good mental health is essential for maintaining personal and family relationships and functioning socially. It enables people to perform well at work or school. It means to continue learning throughout life, no matter age or intellectual level, and means the ability to participate in important activities and events.

When there are significant, unfavorable changes in your ability to function, it may be time to discuss your mental health with your healthcare provider. The following changes deserve attention:

  • Substantial changes in personality
  • Changes in eating or sleeping patterns
  • Feeling unable to cope with daily activities and responsibilities
  • Feeling disconnected or withdrawn from normal activities
  • Excessive anxiety
  • Prolonged sadness, depression, or apathy
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • Thoughts of harming others
  • Substance misuse
  • Extreme mood shifts
  • Excessive anger, hostility, or violent behavior
  • Feelings of guilt, helplessness, or worthlessness
  • Moving or talking more slowly
  • Restlessness or agitation
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • Body aches or pains, headaches
  • Digestive problems

Ideally, your healthcare provider would ask you about your mental health at every visit. If, however, you see your provider only once or twice a year, you may need to make an appointment and start the discussion about your mental health rather than waiting for a check-up. There are five important things to remember about these conversations:

Start with your primary care provider

There is no dividing line or separation between physical and mental health. Medical conditions, such as hypothyroidism, may increase your risk of developing a mental health disorder. A mental health disorder may increase your risk for other medical conditions, such as heart disease or diabetes. Your primary provider’s office is the place to start sorting out your conditions. Your provider can refer you to a mental health professional or services if necessary.

Prepare for your appointment

It’s vital to prepare ahead of your visit for important reasons: to make the most of the limited time you have with your provider and to have valuable information written down. It’s easy to forget essential information when you’re in a healthcare setting and may feel anxious. Before your appointment:

  • Make a list of what you want to discuss and any questions or concerns.
  • Make a list of your medications, including over-the-counter (nonprescription) drugs, herbal remedies, vitamins, and supplements.

Review your family history. Certain mental illnesses tend to run in families, and having a relative with a mental disorder could mean you are at higher risk for particular mental health conditions. Knowing your family’s mental health history can also help your healthcare provider recommend ways to reduce your risk and enable you and your provider to look for early warning signs of disease.

Consider bringing a friend or relative

Even when functioning at your best, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to absorb all the information your healthcare professional provides during a visit. Concerns about your mental health can make it even more difficult. It’s helpful to bring a close friend or relative to your appointment. A companion can be there for support, help you take notes, and remember what you and the provider discussed.

They also may be able to offer input to your provider about how they think you are doing. You may want your friend or family member there throughout the appointment, or you may prefer to first meet with your provider alone and then have your friend or relative join you at an appropriate time during the discussion.

Doctor talking with patient
Even when functioning at your best, it’s difficult to absorb all the information your healthcare professional provides during a visit. It’s helpful to bring a close friend or relative to your appointment. (© WavebreakMediaMicro – stock.adobe.com)

Honesty is essential

This may be the first time you have talked with a professional about your mental health. Due to the stigma still associated with mental illness, you may hesitate to describe all your symptoms and concerns, fearful of experiencing judgment or shame. You may minimize the dysfunction you are experiencing – you just don’t want to look that “sick.”

It is unlikely that anything you say will shock the doctor. Remember, one in five adults has a mental illness, and you are not unique in that respect. Your healthcare provider can help you get better only if you are open, honest, and thorough in discussing your condition. It’s what you need to do to move through and out of your illness, to begin feeling like your best self.

Communication with your provider is private and protected by strict regulations and laws. Your permission is required before information about you is shared. Not even a spouse has a right to health information without the individual’s explicit consent. The only exceptions to privacy are when you are at risk of harming yourself or others. In those circumstances, the provider is required to take action to ensure your safety and the safety of others.

This is the time when the list you prepared before the appointment is vital. Describe all your symptoms. Be specific about when they started, how severe they are, and how often they occur. You should also share any major stressors or recent life changes and circumstances that could be triggering or worsening your symptoms.

Countless people have walked this path before you and recovered or learned to manage their conditions to improve their quality of life. You can, too.

Ask questions

Ask the healthcare provider for more information about your mental health diagnosis or treatment. You and your provider will jointly plan a course of action, whether that means treatment, testing, or referral to mental healthcare providers and services.

Not all primary care providers are comfortable with or equally capable of managing mental health conditions. If you feel like you need more guidance than you get from your primary provider, ask for a referral to other professionals or services. Your provider will not be offended by your request for referral – he or she may even be relieved. Check your health insurance to understand your options for mental health providers and services.

Follow on Google News

About the Author

Dr. Faith Coleman

Dr. Coleman is a graduate of the University of New Mexico School of Medicine and holds a BA in journalism from UNM. She completed her family practice residency at Wm. Beaumont Hospital, Troy and Royal Oak, MI, consistently ranked among the United States Top 100 Hospitals by US News and World Report. Dr. Coleman writes on health, medicine, family, and parenting for online information services and educational materials for health care providers.

The contents of this website do not constitute advice and are provided for informational purposes only. See our full disclaimer