Seeing the GP: Advice and tips for young people

Talking to the GP about mental health

Here, people talk about the following topics: 

•    what is mental health?
•    when to see the GP about mental health
•    young people’s experiences of symptoms
•    talking to the GP about mental health
•    getting the most out of the appointment
•    getting help and recovering from depression

What is mental health?
Mental health is about our emotional, psychological and social wellbeing, and it affects how we think, feel and act. It also affects how we handle stress, make choices, and relate to other people.

Mental health problems can affect people at any age and can be diagnosed by a doctor. They’re not personal weaknesses, and range from everyday worries to serious long-term conditions. Common mental health problems include depression, anxiety, and panic. Less common are ‘psychotic’ symptoms that interfere with a person’s perception of reality, and may include hallucinations such as seeing, hearing, smelling or feeling things that no one else can. 

When to see the GP about mental health
Feeling low or down now and then is a normal part of life. But when it’s ongoing and stops a person from getting on with their usual routine, it may be a good idea see the GP – whether that’s because of feelings of low mood, anxiety, panic, or depression. Talking to the doctor is the most direct way of finding out what’s wrong and getting help. GP consultations (appointments) are usually short but can still be helpful. Sometimes GPs will offer longer appointments if someone needs to talk. A doctor can help to:

•    diagnose whether someone has depression or another mental health problem
•    give information and recommendations that may help
•    prescribe antidepressant or other medications if necessary
•    refer a patient for counselling
•    refer a patient to other mental health services
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Read below
Young people’s experiences of symptoms
Some people we talked to went to the GP because of feelings of low mood, anxiety or depression which were ongoing and affecting their day-to-day lives. Often a family member or friend had suggested they see the doctor. Aphra, for example, felt very tired, hadn’t slept properly for weeks, and wasn’t eating well. A neighbour noticed that Aphra was very tearful when talking about work so made her an emergency appointment:
When Sophie was around 14, she noticed that she was constantly tired, felt low, lost motivation to see her friends or study, and didn’t enjoy doing things she normally enjoyed. She wasn’t sleeping well, and her sister was having problems with anorexia. Sophie confided in a friend, who told her to see the school counsellor. Later, Sophie went to see the GP, first with her parents and then by herself:
The symptoms of depression can vary but usually include feeling sad, hopeless, and losing interest in things that are usually enjoyable. People can also feel alone and reluctant to talk to others. The symptoms carry on for weeks or months and are bad enough to affect a person’s work, social and family life. 

Aphra made herself carry on with day-to-day life and hadn’t realised that she was probably depressed. Shane, on the other hand, knew quite a lot about depression but it was his family who advised him that he should see the GP:
People like Nikki and Lucy, who were still at school when they started having problems, spoke to a school counsellor first, and it was Lucy’s counsellor who recommended she see a doctor. Nikki had been bullied from a young age but, after a traumatic event when she was 14, she ‘went on a massive downward spiral’. Her step mum took her to the local surgery. Siobhan confided in her brother that she was making herself sick after eating, and she was later diagnosed with depression and anxiety.
After speaking to the school counsellor, Lucy saw a GP. She’d been feeling very anxious at school. She started missing a few lessons at first but later found it hard to go to most of them:
Psychosis is a mental health problem that can involve hallucinations and delusions. Fran started having problems, which were partly drug-related, when she was a teenager. She said that her teachers at the time saw the illness as bad behaviour and expelled her from sixth form. They later apologised for their mistake. Fran was at home when she had her first major psychotic episode. She wanted to set the house on fire, believing that ‘it was full of devils’.
A GP makes a diagnosis by listening to a patient and then asking questions about their thoughts, feelings and physical symptoms. If someone has severe mental health issues and needs extra support and care, they may be treated in hospital by a psychiatrist (a doctor who specialises in mental health). Auberon, who had depression and was self-harming, was under the care of a psychiatrist. He saw his GP when he needed medication or a repeat prescription.
When Fran had her first major psychotic episode, the GP came to the house and immediately recognised she needed help. She was taken to a psychiatric hospital. For the next ten years Fran spent three and a half years ‘on and off’ in hospital. Other young people had been to hospital overnight when they’d taken an overdose.
Talking to the GP about mental health
It can feel like a big step to see the GP about mental health. People are often unsure how they’ll explain the problem so it’s a good idea to plan ahead to get the most out of the appointment. Sophie, for example, said she found it hard to talk about her feelings to a doctor she hardly knew. It was also hard for her to talk openly with a parent in the room, in case she upset them; Aphra was glad she went on her own.  

Seeing a different doctor every time people went to the surgery was also hard, and it might take several appointments before some people felt they got the help they needed. Sophie, for example, went to the doctors’ six or seven times and, on the last appointment, said she wasn’t leaving until she was given help:
Nikki saw several GPs too. She didn’t like the first few she saw but later found one that she liked. Aphra, on the other hand, found that all the GPs she spoke to were ‘all really compassionate and really kind’. She chose to see one regularly who’d treated her mum in the past.

Getting the most out of the appointment

•    make an appointment well in advance, if possible, with a GP you like
•    think ahead about what you want to say to the doctor 
•    be prepared to talk about how you’ve been feeling. You might be asked about recent sleeping and eating patterns, weight, activity, and mood. 
•    write things down beforehand to help you, including questions you might want to ask
•    think about what help is available and what you might like (e.g. medication, online counselling)
•    don’t give up if your first experience isn’t very good. Try a different doctor.
Getting help and recovering from depression
Mental health problems can be treated in several ways, including with medication and talking therapies, such as counselling. Sarah was prescribed antidepressants but didn’t want to take them. The doctor also told her that she could contact the university counselling service, which she did, but she found that counselling wasn’t for her. Later, when she was feeling much worse, she saw another GP and started taking antidepressants.
Aphra was prescribed sleeping tablets at first, then diazepam (used to treat anxiety), and later antidepressants. She also had counselling. Siobhan took antidepressants, too, and recalled that the tablets took several weeks to ‘kick in’. The dose was increased a couple of times – the medication didn’t seem to be working at first and made her feel like self-harming more. She also did online CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy).
Shane was prescribed antidepressants and had informal counselling with his GP, who he saw weekly for about five months. He found her empathetic and related to the fact that she’d had depression herself in the past. She also put him in touch with local counselling services.
A GP is one of several professionals that people can talk to if they’re worried about their mental or emotional health. If appropriate, the doctor will refer the person for counselling. Young people can also speak to school counsellors, university counsellors, or look online for support. Siobhan and Sophie recommended phoning or texting the Samaritans. Siobhan also felt that it was important for GPs to tell young people about all the options available to them, not just medication.   

Many people have depression at some point in their lives. But with the right support, especially if it’s early on, most recover and get on with and enjoy life again. Sophie, for example, had a hard time for a few years when her sister was ill but felt a lot better after she’d had help.
Fran had mostly stopped taking drugs, was planning to move house, and trying to live as healthily as she could:
See more young people talk about their experiences of depression and low mood.

See young people talk about their experiences of drugs and alcohol.

See young people talk about their experiences of eating disorders.

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