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How to Talk to a Doctor About Your Mental Illness

The mentally ill avoid seeing doctors because talking to doctors about mental illness is so unpleasant. Here are six things to remember when talking to doctors

Okay, I admit it, I don’t like doctors. At all. In fact, one might suggest I downright hate them. I hate going to their appointments, I hate being in their waiting room and I hate talking to them.

What to Expect When You Talk to Your Doctor

But the reality of the situation is this: sick people need doctors. The mentally ill need doctors. I need doctors. The doctor went to medical school; I didn’t. The doctor treats people like me every day; I don’t. The doctor carries a prescription pad; I can’t. No matter how smart I might be, no matter how much research I do, no matter how much knowledge I assimilate, I am simply not an actual doctor. Talking to a doctor is, however, still decidedly unpleasant. Here are some things I have learned.

  1. Don’t expect your doctor to care about you. It could happen, but it likely won’t. It’s nothing personal, it’s just the way it is. Not only are doctors explicitly taught not to care about their patients, it really behooves them not to care. They don’t want to cloud their clinical judgment of you and your mental illness by liking you. They don’t want you liking them, as they will probably have to do things you’re not going to like. And quite frankly, there’s a decent chance you’re not going to get well, or you might even die and if a doctor lets that affect him, he’d never be able to do his job.
  2. This leads me to number two, don’t get upset and cry in your appointment. True, sometimes this can’t be avoided, but if you can avoid it, you should. You crying sitting across from an icy lump of stone is just awkward and unpleasant for both of you. All you’ll be getting out of that is the offer of a very scratchy tissue.
  3. Speak as clearly and specifically as you can about how you are doing. Saying “I’m anxious” is not nearly as helpful as saying, “I’m so anxious I pulled out all my eyelashes in the last month”, or “I’m twice as anxious as before the new med”. Facts are things the doctor can more easily work with. If you don’t tell your doctor what’s wrong he can’t possibly help you.
  4. The same goes for side-effects. You have to clearly tell the doctor what side-effects you are experiencing and how tolerable they are. Saying, “I have headaches” is not the best, but “I have headaches that kept me in bed two days in the last month so I missed my son’s birthday” is a lot clearer. Your doctor can’t adjust your meds or address your side-effects unless you make it clear what’s happening, and how much it bothers you.
  5. Don’t get angry. Getting angry really ticks doctors off and makes them dislike you, not to mention the fact that it may factor into your diagnosis in a not-so-nice way. Try to be calm and rational. You might feel angry with your doctor, but likely it’s not really his fault. You’re likely expressing anger because you’re not getting better. Understandable, but not his fault, and not helpful in an appointment.
  6. Know what you need to say and ask. Your doctor has a very limited amount of time to spend with you so don’t prattle on about your cat. Be clear on what you need to communicate before you go in, and make sure you say it. Make sure you ask all the questions you need. Write things down ahead of time, or bring a friend if you need help. It might be a long time before your next appointment so make each one productive for you.

Just Talk to Your Doctor So You Can Get Better

And to reiterate, your doctor is your source of medical information – use him. I get a lot of questions about what people should do with their treatment. Random people on the internet are not the people to ask, no matter how much you might like or respect them. Only you and your doctor know your personal medical history and only you can ask the right questions and get the information pertinent to you.

Yes, talking with your doctor sucks, but seeing as you have to do it, you might as well make it work for you.

You can find Natasha Tracy on Facebook or @Natasha_Tracy on Twitter.

Author: Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is a renowned speaker, award-winning advocate and author of Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar.

Find Natasha Tracy on her blog, Bipolar Burble, Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.

24 thoughts on “How to Talk to a Doctor About Your Mental Illness”

  1. Thank you for such a well-written article. I’m one of the lucky few who actually ended up being friends with my doctor. The upside of that is that she has dropped by the house a time or two if I can’t get out. She also knows me well enough to know when I am not telling her exactly how bad it is… so then she asks, and asks.

    The truth is, I could have used this article for many years, for many different doctors I’ve seen over the years, and most especially when my daughter was having a lot of trouble. We know we must be clear about our own issues, but as advocates for young people, we must also be very clear about their issues. And we must teach them to be clear as well!

  2. Natasha,

    you’re awesome! Keep blogging and posting, you’re putting info out there that others, i.e. mental health professionals and insurance companies won’t or don’t give out so readily. Being bipolar and accepting that and finding a way to deal with it has to be the hardest thing I’ve ever attempted to do. So again thanks for all the good info!

  3. Hi Tina,

    It depends on what you mean by “holistically and naturally,” technically, lithium is as natural as it gets as it’s a salt.

    If you leave a comment on my personal blog, not affiliated with HealthyPlace in any way, I can be of more help: http://natashatracy.com/

    (Sorry for the redirect.)

    – Natasha

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