Talk to a Doctor

How can my family doctor help?

If you are not in crisis, a good first step to accessing mental health help is by visiting your family doctor. After all, you already have a relationship with this person and you have discussed your health with them in the past.

Talking with your doctor can help to clarify your options. It can also point out, or rule out, any physical causes for mental health issues.

Your visit with your family doctor can also open the door for you to access counselling services. In this section you can find tips on how to talk to your doctor, and what you can expect from the process.

Describing your situation

When you first start explaining, you may feel rushed, tongue-tied and not sure where to start. Just start talking and it will flow out of you. Take your time.

It helps to prepare ahead. Take a few minutes before the appointment to write up a list of things you might want to bring up:

Thoughts such as "I can't seem to focus on reading or computer games like I used to," "I can't remember details lately," "I think that people talk about me worse than ever." Mention also if you're having thoughts you can't slow down or turn off.

Feelings/emotions like "I don't care about things like I used to," "I feel numb most of the time," or "I am sad every day." Notice also if you feel irritated by the smallest things, or if you experience mood swings that come from nowhere – happy one minute and very upset the next.

Behaviours such as "I can't get out of bed in the morning," "I'm failing my classes," "I'm missing work," or "I cannot get to sleep." Notice also if you're eating all the time, or if you find that you cannot be alone, or only want to be alone. Changes in habits are also important, such as no longer exercising or playing sports, or not caring about your apartment or your appearance. Tell your doctor if statements like "I'm smoking pot to take the edge off every day now," or "I'm doing heavy drugs like MDMA or cocaine" apply to you.

Tip: sometimes it's easier to say how someone close to you might describe you. For example:

"My mom thinks I sleep too much during the day and I cannot sleep at night. She is worried that I'm down all the time."

"My roommate tells me that my nightmares are really bad and I worry too much."

It's tough to talk. What if I can't explain myself?

Sometimes it's a challenge to get out all the important information.

  • Just when you start talking, the doctor may interrupt your train of thought and ask questions. If you feel the need, stress how important it is for you to go back to the point you were making.
  • It will help your doctor to know if anything has changed in your life. Things to share include: my dog died a month ago, I was arrested for assault, I broke up with my girlfriend a few weeks ago, I'm thinking of dropping out of school, I got fired from my job and I can't find another one.
  • Be honest, and trust your doctor with your touchy topics. Have you been using any street drugs? You may feel uneasy, but your doctor's seen it all before, and is not here to judge. Doctors have taken an oath to help their patients, and are committed to respectful and ethical care. Your doctor will want to know of your drug use because, for certain people, drugs can cause symptoms that look like mental illness.
  • By law, doctors must keep your information confidential. If a doctor thought there was an imminent and immediate risk to your life or someone else's because of your symptoms, he/she would have to break confidentiality to make sure you and others are safe in the moment.
Sometimes it feels like my doctor and I don't speak the same language. What can I do?

Ask for explanations, or if you are not sure what your doctor is talking about, ask them to slow down or clarify what they meanSay: "I'm not sure what you are saying", or "Can you tell me that again?".

Other ideas include:

  • If you feel your doctor has not fully understood you, slow him/her down and explain yourself again.
  • Ask for the name of what he/she thinks your condition may be. This can be difficult to hear. Remember that you are more than a diagnosis. The diagnosis is part of you at this time, and directs the treatment the doctor will recommend.
  • Be honest. Talk about the dark feelings, thoughts you've been having or things you have been doing. Some people harm themselves as a way to try to feel something. Disclose this to your doctor.
  • This type of conversation can be very intimidating, or shake confidence that may already be low. But you'll get better at it. You'll also likely feel relieved after talking to someone.

The doctor may not realize or acknowledge the incredible effort and courage it took for you to reach out with him/her. Know that it was a courageous thing to do anyway.

Remember also that talking with a counsellor is another healthy way to restore the balance in your life. Ask your doctor to refer you to someone.

Questions to ask your doctor

Even if your doctor does not ask, bring up your questions and / or concerns. Questions to ask your doctor include:

  • When should I come back?
  • How often or regularly will I be seen?
  • How long will treatment last?
  • What are the most important things I can do to feel better?
  • What are my treatment options?
  • If medication is prescribed, what is the medicine designed to do?
    • How fast will it work?
    • What are some possible side effects?

Read Christina's blog, "Question you shouldn't be afraid to ask your doctor".

When your family doctor is your therapist

If your family doctor is a psychiatrist, or a physician & psychotherapist, you may be able to see him/her for mental health therapy. This can be a great advantage because his/her services may be covered by your provincial health plan (e.g., OHIP), and also because you already have a relationship with this doctor.

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor that specializes in mental illness. Patients experiencing moderate to severe symptoms of mental illness or that require medication are often seen by psychiatrists. Psychiatrists often work in hospitals and clinical settings with both groups and individuals.

A General Practitioner (GP) psychotherapist is a general practitioner doctor who also practices psychotherapy.

Note: only psychiatrists or medical doctors can prescribe medication. Counsellors and therapists are not medical doctors and cannot prescribe medication.

Last Updated: 
October 2012