How to find help when you’re struggling with mental health

There ought to be an obvious answer to the question of how to seek help with your mental health, but the reality isn’t quite so simple.

A spike in the number of people experiencing mental health challenges during the pandemic and a subsequent surge in demand for psychological support has overwhelmed the system.

Mental health challenges are a normal part of life and seeking help can be a game-changer.Credit:Getty

One in three psychologists have been so busy they have had to close their books, according to an Australian Psychological Society survey of its members last month.

Today, average wait times for a new appointment can be as long as three months, according to Dr Zena Burgess, CEO of APS.

“We’ve always had a lack of mental health services, but it’s absolutely acute now,” Burgess says. “Recent research shows between the ages of 15 and 25 there is about 3.2 million Australians looking for some help. That’s a lot of young people.”

State and federal governments have announced millions of extra dollars in funding to support the mental health sector, but in the meantime, what do you do?

Taking the first step

Accessing high quality mental health treatment is important for a couple of reasons, says Dr Grant Blashki, the lead clinical advisor at Beyond Blue.

“All the evidence tells us these treatments work really well and if you can help a young person you can literally change the trajectory of their lives. A kid who is going through anxiety, which is going to cause all sorts of bumpiness for them, they learn some CBT [Cognitive Behavioural Therapy] and slow breathing and understand what’s going on and that’s a game-changer.”

The first place to start is with your GP (if you don’t have a GP HealthDirect’s search engine can help you find one locally).

“When you’re trying to find a GP who is helpful, it’s worth speaking with the medical receptionists – they’re gold,” Blashki says. “Even if you don’t know the clinic well, ring them and ask which doctors are into mental health because some won’t be.”

Request a mental health plan

Burgess suggests being clear when you’re making the GP appointment that you want a mental health plan, as that allows you to get up to 20 Medicare subsidised sessions with a psychologist.

The APS National Schedule of Recommended Fees 2021-2022 has the standard 46 to 60-minute consultation fee at $267, but costs vary, so it is important to check the price and ask how much you will pay after the rebate when making an appointment. The rebate is between $88-$129 per individual session, so it’s not unusual to be more than $100 out of pocket for an appointment.

Some people qualify for extra help with payment through the Better Access initiative which you can talk about with your GP.

APS has an online tool to help people find a suitable psychologist. Within that, a section called PsychEngage allows people to directly contact psychologists and ask them about low/no gap fees.

Finding someone you click with

A preliminary conversation with a potential psychologist over the phone can also help to establish whether they are a good fit and, most importantly, if you feel comfortable talking with them.

“Ask them a bit about their background, the kinds of patients they see, what their waitlists are like – if you talk to them a little bit it gives you a sense of what the person is like,” Burgess explains. “Psychologists understand it is about a match between the patients and themselves.”

Dr Grant Blashki, lead clinical advisor at Beyond Blue.Credit:Simon Schluter

GPs can also help navigate the local services.

“They know how to get you into this psychologist or that psychologist,” Blashki says, who adds that it is “not unusual” for people to try two or three mental health professionals before they find a person they click with. “The GP can be a bit of an anchor and go ‘OK let’s find another person’.”

Opting for a telehealth appointment slashes the wait times, but if you’d prefer to see someone face-to-face, then there is a “menu of support” available in the interim.

At-home therapy

“There are quite a lot of effective e-therapies. My favourite is Moodgym, but there’s also MyCompass,” Blashki says. “You can learn to challenge some of your [negative] thoughts before you’ve even spoken to a counsellor.”

Also while you wait for a psychology appointment, Kids Helpline, ReachOut, and Beyond Blue all provide high-quality resources and information. And school counsellors and Headspace centres, which are Australia-wide and specifically designed for young people, can provide in-person support.

“Also, don’t forget about all the boring, common sense stuff that has a lot of evidence, stuff like regular exercise, routine, getting enough sleep, turning down the volume on all the socials and phone obsession, staying off drugs and alcohol if they’re an issue,” Blashki says.

“Another thing, in light of the pandemic, is a lot of kids have lost their confidence. My motto for the year is avoid avoidance. Go and sit with it – if you wanted to go to the footy or see friends or to a party, go and sit with it, even if it’s a bit annoying. Try, even with small steps, to get back into engaging rather than avoiding life.”

Burgess also suggests spending time with the people you feel safe with: “Those basic interactions with people that make a difference.”

“I really encourage people to write about their feelings and thoughts because sometimes just putting it down on paper helps you see it and think about it differently,” she says.

“Everyone in their life at some point has issues that affect their mental health – that is completely normal … and the sooner you deal with it, the sooner you have some new skills to manage differently.”

Support is available from Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636, Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 and Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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