The biggest regret of those who have lived through a depressive or bipolar disorder episode is that they didn’t obtain a rigorous diagnosis and treatment plan early enough.
Lora Inman is one such person, interviewed in my book Back From The Brink. A long-time depression sufferer and passionate mental health advocate, she went for decades without a proper diagnosis or treatment, which prolonged her suffering and made postpartum depression even harder to manage.
Lora’s story perfectly illustrates three very good reasons why you need a trusted mental health professional.
Not all doctors are well-versed in mental health issues
In the 1960s and 1970s, precious little information was available on depression and bipolar disorder. The Internet didn’t exist as we know it today. Lora visited medical experts in several states in America who couldn’t diagnose or help her. She was eventually diagnosed with postpartum depression by her OB/GYN.
Today, mental health issues are better understood and information is more accessible. Despite this, levels of training in mental health, particularly among primary care physicians — already under significant pressure and who have to deal with a huge range of medical conditions — can be alarmingly low.
For example, medical students in Australia training to be primary care physicians (general practitioners) receive formal lectures about depression and bipolar which account for just one percent of the content in their six years of study.
Finding the right mental health professional can and should be the first and most important step toward preparing an effective treatment plan. Your primary care physician may be, but is not necessarily always, your first point of call, but you need to assess their competence in mental health matters. This may mean the difference between being leaving the clinic with nothing more than a prescription for antidepressants — which should never be exclusively relied on for a ‘cure’ — or a referral for formal assessment and diagnosis as well as more treatment options on the table for discussion.
Some people, such as Lora, may approach other mental health professionals directly for assistance and support. In Lora’s case, she credits her psychiatrist in Chicago with saving her life.
A mental health professional can help unlock and navigate the mental health network with you
A good mental health professional is the gatekeeper to the mental health network. He or she can help you understand your illness, how it may affect you and discuss and refer you to treatment options. Crucially, the mental health professional can monitor how you are responding to treatment and modify, stop or change it as needed.
While some mental health professionals may advocate particular medical treatments or therapies over others, only you can decide, in consultation with the professional, your carer (if you have one) and your own research whether you feel a particular course of action is right for you.
If you don’t feel a medication or therapy is working, you should feel comfortable and safe enough with your mental health professional to communicate this. But if your mental health professional doesn’t discuss other treatment methods with you or seems reluctant to refer you to other professionals to try something different, this may be a warning sign that he or she may not be right for you.
Lora’s psychiatrist put her on four or five different medications, sometimes in combination, as part of her treatment plan. Before that, she had even tried electroconvulsive therapy in her quest to battle postpartum depression.
Working with a trusted mental health expert gives you the emotional support you need
Beyond medicine and therapies, Lora cites the support of her psychiatrist as a crucial component of her recovery. In fact, she says her psychiatrist saved her life. This correlates with my own research in writing my books — that emotional support from a mental health professional is often more important than whatever treatment or therapy ends up being recommended and tried!
Why was this so important? Because the psychiatrist offered Lora hope, reassurance and compassion. Most importantly, she listened.
An expert’s opinion can be highly influential and a powerful motivator. Both Lora and her psychiatrist believed she could get better.
Sure, Lora’s psychiatrist was a mental health professional and had an objective interest in Lora’s recovery. But the way she manifested that professional service was through warmth and support, listening to Lora and taking a genuine interest in supporting her management and recovery from postpartum depression.
If your mental health professional doesn’t offer you hope, says that depression or bipolar is incurable or provides a perfunctory service and medication prescription, you’re unlikely to commit yourself wholeheartedly to a treatment plan. At worst, you may be so disheartened that you may not try getting better at all. After all, you may reason, if even the experts aren’t optimistic, why should you be?
But the right mental health professional for you, rather than any mental health professional, can make the difference between an endless cycle of medications or treatments and a trusted ally with the training, reach and support needed to help you.
A good place to start for finding the right mental health professional is by asking your family doctor for a referral or, if you don’t feel comfortable speaking with them, referring to a suitable directory, such as Psych Central’s Therapist Directory or the DBSA’s Find A Pro database. For more information, including everything you need to help you locate a mental health professional, give them the information they need and decide whether they’re right for you, consult Back From The Brink.