When people are struggling with mental health issues, asking for the help they need can seem overwhelming. They may associate their symptoms with a weakness or character flaw, and feel ashamed they are not coping. As a result, they may be hesitant to open up and uncomfortable discussing the difficulties they are experiencing. Mental illness and psychological distress can be difficult things to talk about.
Medical advisors are sometimes more accustomed to discussing a patient’s physical health than mental health. GPs can also feel constrained by the time available to fully discuss a mental health issue, especially when it is often raised as the last matter during a consultation. People can be very sensitive to real or imagined judgment at this time. The response of their GP can impact on their readiness to open up about their mental health issues and access treatment.
Simple conversation starters and comments can be effective tools for encouraging discussion to extract information while handling a patient’s issues with empathy. They can help to assess a patient’s needs and refer them to the appropriate service in a sensitive yet efficient manner.
Some examples are:-
1. Ask how they are managing . . .
“How are you managing at the moment?”
“It sounds like there’s a lot on your plate right now, how is that for you?”
“How are these challenges affecting you?”
2. Empathise . . .
“I can understand why you’d feel that way.”
“It’s common to struggle when life isn’t going to plan.”
“It’s a lot to manage when you have continuous back pain.”
“Losing someone you love is a very painful thing.”
3. Ask if they want help . . .
“Do you think you could use some extra support?”
“Have you thought about seeing a psychologist?”
“Sometimes it’s helpful to talk with a professional when things are tough, do you think that would help?”
“You don’t need to deal with this on your own, there are effective treatments available if you would like some support.”
4. Connect them to treatment . . .
“It may be helpful for you to see a psychologist who can help you work through things more fully than we can today.”
“Let’s refer you to a psychologist so we can give this issue the attention it deserves.”
“It is great that you have been able to seek some support. Let’s put you in contact with a psychologist who can help.”
GPs are the first point of call for many people living with a mental health issue. By opening up the conversation about mental health, patients are more likely to receive the help they need and are more likely to recover.
Wendy Roncolato and Prue Foster