Self-harm: Parents' experiences

Going to the GP about self-harm

When parents and carers realise that a young person is harming themselves or having mental health problems they often seek support through their general practitioner (GP). The GP can refer them for further health service care if necessary. Some of the people we spoke to found their doctor very helpful, but others had mixed experiences.

GPs were praised by several parents and carers. Liz’s GP was ‘just lovely’; Pat and Jo both thought their GPs were ‘fantastic’. ‘I can’t stress enough that your first port of call has to be your GP and you have to get a GP that’ll listen to you,’ Audrey told us. ‘You have to get a GP that will sympathise, and want to be able to help you’. She described her husband’s current doctor as ‘phenomenal’. 
A few parents were reluctant to contact their GP. Sarah Z told us: ‘I suppose the missing bit is the GP, which we bypassed completely. That was really me being anxious about labelling her and getting her into a sort of system, where I felt that she didn’t need that kind of attention. She needed practical help and that’s what I wanted to get her straight away.’ On the advice of the school nurse Sarah arranged for her daughter to see a private psychologist. Jackie didn’t want details on her daughter’s records, and she had a low opinion of GPs.
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Sometimes the young person themselves decided to consult the GP. Dot’s teenage daughter went independently to her doctor, who advised her to tell her mother about her self-harm. Dot said ‘the GP must have been brilliant’ as her daughter was then able to talk about her problems. Bernadette felt excluded because her son was old enough to see the GP as an adult and wouldn’t let Bernadette go in with him. 

Parents were not always satisfied with GPs' decisions about involving mental health services for their children. Charles had reservations about this: the doctor was ‘so concerned with his [Charles’s son’s] mental state that she, without reference to us, which is something we rather disagree with, referred him to the crisis centre of CAMHS [Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service].’ By contrast when Susan Y asked her doctor to refer her daughter to CAMHS he refused because he didn’t think she was mentally ill. Alexis was told by her GP that he couldn’t prescribe medication for her 16 year-old daughter, but the waiting list for psychiatric treatment was very long. He gave Alexis contact details for an expensive private psychiatrist. Jane Z had a ‘very good sort of old male GP, very bluff and practical’, who said it was too early to go down the CAMHS route and advised in-school counselling instead. Jane thought this was the right decision.

A few parents talked about unfortunate encounters with GPs. Although Jane S’s doctors were usually helpful she thought they were ‘completely stumped’ by her daughter. Susan Y felt her GP ‘had absolutely no idea about young people’.
It is important to find a sympathetic GP you have confidence in. This may be easier in GP practices where there are several different doctors. Audrey and her husband saw many GPs before they found one who was helpful. ‘We went through so many GPs that have just passed the buck with more tablets and more tablets and more tablets and it’s a vicious circle. It’s not helping the situation,’ Audrey told us. ‘If you’re not happy with whoever it is that you see and you want a second or a third or a fourth or a fifth opinion, if you have to go through every GP in that practice, you do it.’ 

Last reviewed December 2017.

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