The mental health assessment: What to expect

Article by Jessica Lyndsay

As part of your treatment for depression and anxiety here in Australia in the Public Health System, you’ll probably be asked a lot of probing questions.

It makes sense, as it’s the best way for them to work out how to help you. However, that doesn’t stop it from feeling invasive and strange, having to tell a complete stranger about your innermost thoughts.

I’ve been on the waiting list for mental health care for around two months now, and this week had my first phone consultation to decide what exactly that would entail. If you are brought in through Emergency the Mental Health Team is brought in immediately and you are assessed there otherwise you go on a waiting list.

A very calm and clinical woman called me up and asked me questions from a set assessment that she would then use to determine just how “bad” my depression and anxiety are.

It was scary, and awkward, and felt like I had to justify my problems to someone who I’d never even met. But, I know it was necessary, and will hopefully lead to some proper treatment in the long run.

If you’re in the same situation, and at the start of your journey to good mental health, here’s what you can expect.

Mental health treatment assessment.

After your initial consultation with your GP you’ll likely be referred to your hospital’s/community’s mental health department. This can change in different parts of the country, but will usually follow a similar pattern. You’ll be sent a letter with a questionnaire and a time for a phone appointment.

When they call, the healthcare professional will ask you a number of questions about how often you are affected by your issues, with the scale usually going from ‘not at all’ to ‘every day’.

They may ask you to clarify or expand on your answers, so they can get a full picture of how you’re feeling.Everything will be noted down, and they will get back to you after deciding the best course of action for your treatment.

Questions for me included ‘how often had you had little interest or pleasure in doing things?’ and ‘how often have you been bothered by feeling bad about yourself, or that you are a failure, or have let yourself or your family down?’.

There are also questions about your concentration, sleep, worrying, and restlessness.

Some people will be given the PHQ-9 and others the PHQ-2, which are different levels of a questionnaire designed to ascertain how much help someone needs and what treatment would work best for them.

It’s a really tough one, as it feels awkward to tell someone how bad you’ve been feeling, especially if you haven’t yet confided in friends or family.

At the same time, you know you need help, and downplaying your problems will get you nowhere fast in getting that.

The best thing to do is be honest as possible. The person on the other end of the phone will understand you completely and have dealt with numerous people going through the same thing.

Additionally, find somewhere quiet and private to speak, as it can be an emotional experience, and nobody wants to be crying down the phone in a public coffee shop.

As somebody who cries in most situations, of course, I ended up in tears in a car park to the woman assessing me. She reassured me that there’s nothing to worry about, so if you need to cry while you talk, just let it out.

Another tip is to write down some notes beforehand about specific things that have been troubling you. It’s much harder to recount everything in the moment, just like when you see people screwing up super easy questions on game-shows.

Essentially, just remember this isn’t a dead end if you feel what they choose isn’t right for you. Everything can be questioned and appealed, and forging a good relationship with your GP should help point things in the right direction.

If you go to your GP and choose to go through the Private system you get immediately referred to a private Psychiatrist or Psychologist and provided they don’t have a waiting list you get seen immediately. They will go through similar initial assessments and establish a therapeutic alliance with you and build a trusting relationship to work with. Both are good systems with their pros and cons and unfortunately, it comes down t0 money in the end.

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