Navigating the mental health system can be difficult. Here’s how to seek help with anxiety
It’s a condition most of us have either experienced first hand or seen in our friends and family.
Anxiety is the most common mental illness in Australia, with more than three million people living with it.
And with the ongoing, panic-inducing coverage of the NSW and Queensland flood crises and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many of us are probably worried about the future.
Despite this, many people do not know how to start seeking help.
There are many different ways to get support — including online resources, in-person services, and healthcare professionals experienced in managing anxiety.
What is most useful depends on the severity of the anxiety symptoms and what type of support you are comfortable with.
In most cases, however, the best place to start is with your GP. Here we explain how you can start getting help.
Where to start looking for help
When our physical health begins to decline, most people know to go straight to their family doctor—but these doctors are also trained and ready to support patients with mental health issues.
GP Chris Moys, who is also vice president of the Australian Medical Association, says the process usually starts in two ways: sometimes a person goes to their doctor because they know their anxiety is a problem, but often GPs are the first to notice the symptoms during the consultations.
This is because “anxiety manifests itself in many, many, many different ways,” says Dr. Moys. Common symptoms are overwhelm, panic attacks, sweating and trembling through to “very severe” out of body experience, dissociation and amnesia.
Assuming you made an appointment to discuss your mental health, doctors begin by taking your medical history.
This includes noting what symptoms you have, when and how often they occur, how severe they are, whether there is a family history of mental illness, and whether external factors may be contributing to your anxiety. They will also make an assessment to determine if you pose a risk to yourself or others.
At this stage, they will also try to rule out physical conditions that could be causing the symptoms.
You can also use an objective test — like the Depression Anxiety Stress Scales (DASS) — that asks patients to rate a series of prompts about their mental state, ranging from “never” to “almost always.”
The result of this test is used to determine how severe a person’s distress is and whether the patient is suffering from anxiety, another mental illness such as depression, or a combination of both.
Once a diagnosis is established, Dr. Moys, GPs will then “work with patients to figure out what they want to do.”
This may mean being referred to a psychiatrist, experienced doctors who are able to prescribe anti-anxiety medication and arrange hospital admissions, or a psychologist who specializes in treatments such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, mindfulness, and hypnotherapy .
“Typically, you send a patient for a specific treatment,” says Dr. Moys. “Some people think it’s just a framework for a conversation, and while it’s important to have a good relationship with the psychiatrist or psychologist you’re consulting with, it’s more about making progress – about treating anxiety .”
Often, says Dr. Moys, the best plan involves a combination of all three—GPs, psychiatrists, and psychologists—and short-term crisis management alongside longer-term therapy.
This will likely involve a mental health plan created by your GP that allows patients access to subsidized treatment.
What is a mental health plan?
Mental health plans are provided under Medicare and allow participants to reclaim a portion of the cost of up to 20 sessions with a registered psychologist per year. The program previously only had 10 sessions, but this has doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This may include individual sessions with a psychiatrist or psychologist, group sessions, or access to a social worker or other health professional. The plan should cover the types of support you and your GP feel you need and your goals in seeking help.
Because these professionals can set their own prices, the rebate — accessed through Medicare — can cover some or all of the cost, depending on where you want to go.
A recent report by consumer organization Lived Experience Australia found that the median Gap fee for a psychologist was $176, with most people paying between $51 and $200 out of pocket.
GPs can recommend local services, or you can look for one yourself — even if you’ve received a referral to a specific psychologist. Online tools such as BeyondBlue’s Service Findercan assist in finding a suitable mental health service.
First and foremost, the mental health plan consists of six sessions. After that, you’ll need to return to your GP for a check-up, where you’ll decide together if any more referrals are needed.
What else is available?
If you don’t have access to Medicare or can’t afford the gap in specialized services, there are many other ways to get help.
Again, a good place to start is your GP – many are trained to treat mental health conditions and, like psychiatrists, can prescribe medication.
“General practitioners handle the majority of the treatment for anxiety, especially mild anxiety,” says Dr. Moys. And for many people, working with a family doctor might be enough to manage their symptoms.
“The GP will definitely be able to give you advice, they will make sure you are safe and then work with you to find out what treatment you might want.”
It is also possible to get help through the public health system or through mental health organizations such as BeyondBlue and headspace for young people under the age of 25. These organizations can provide help over the phone, online, and in some cases in person.
There are also a number of online anxiety management programs that can be useful when you are unable to see your doctor. those of the Ministry of Health Go to health The database contains links to a number of online therapies.
For mild anxiety, there are also many strategies you can use at home. The organizations above have extensive resources on anxiety management, including mindfulness exercises and tips for staying healthy.
“When you’re dealing with anxiety, it can feel like there’s no hope. It can be like you’re in a fishbowl, it cuts you off,” says Dr. Moys.
“But there is actually a lot of hope and a lot of help out there.”
This story is part of ABC’s Anxiety Project, a special series exploring the rising prevalence of anxiety in Australia.
Keep an eye out for more stories in the coming weeks.