Advocating for yourself during mental health appointments
Isabel outlines the steps she took to ensure she received the mental health treatment and support she needed.
Written by Isabel Schulte-Austum
Voices - Experiences
Young people share their personal experiences.
Realising you need help for your mental health is a huge first step and you can be proud of yourself for being able to admit that something isn’t quite right. Deciding to talk to someone about how you are feeling can be overwhelming and anxiety-provoking, especially since you don’t always know how the person will react.
Something I wasn’t prepared for when reaching out for help, be it at school, to my GP or to adult mental health services, was how much I would need to advocate for myself to have my needs listened to. It is often said to reach out if you are struggling, but finding someone who will listen and help, can be a battle in itself.
Tracking my symptoms
Sometimes, it can be hard to get across what is going on for you, especially since it’s invisible to the outside observer. Tracking certain symptoms such as anxiety, low mood, sleep, appetite, exercise, and certain thoughts and behaviours on a daily basis over multiple weeks gave me a better idea of the impact my mental health was having on my daily life.
It also allowed me to see if there were certain factors that made things better or worse. It can give an easier overview to the person I was talking to of what I was dealing with and can be easier than having to explain everything. Having concrete examples of situations where I struggled also allowed me to highlight my difficulties even when I didn’t always have the words to describe my feelings.
Putting words on feelings
Putting words on our internal world can be hard, especially if you aren’t used to talking about it or come from a background where it isn’t acknowledged. There are emotion wheels you can download that start with the primary emotions (fear, anger, joy, sadness, surprise and disgust) and move outwards with the different more complex feelings that are part of each family of emotions.
Putting words on feelings and sensations can also help take away some of their power because emotions always pass. Remember, there are no bad emotions. All emotions play a role and are like an internal compass giving us messages about our needs, boundaries and the world around us.
Writing a list
I found writing down a list of what I wanted to talk about before appointments useful since sometimes my mind would go blank, especially when appointments tend to be short and not very frequent. You can also ask for someone to come to appointments with you, be it a friend, a family member or another adult you trust.
If you tend to forget what was said afterwards you can also take notes during appointments. Having a list of important topics meant I also didn’t leave feeling frustrated that I had forgotten to mention something. Having someone with you can also help get your point across, especially if your experience isn’t being taken as seriously as you would like.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions or to disagree with what an adult or medical professional tells you. You are the person who knows you best, you are your own expert and it’s important to be fully aware and involved in your care. This is particularly important when making big decisions for example about taking medication, starting therapy or engaging with secondary mental health services.
You are allowed to go at your own pace and take time to think things over. There is no one size fits all answer, and you can research yourself or get a second opinion before making a decision. You can also ask to see someone else if you don’t feel supported or listened to. The relationship you have with the person is important, even if they are a medical professional, and if you don’t feel like you trust them or feel respected it will probably take longer for things to get better.
If you find yourself on a waiting list, try and build up a support network in the meantime. This can be in real life for example your GP, teacher, friends, family, faith community, sports coach, youth worker etc. There are multiple online possibilities too, be it through social media or apps.
Finding people online who have a shared experience helped me to feel less alone and less scared about what I was experiencing. I also got lots of good advice about how best to cope and advocate for myself to access the services I needed.
If you have reached out for help and not gotten the response you were hoping for or the help you need, keep trying until you find someone who will listen and take you seriously. Helplines such as 50808, Samaritans, Childline and Pieta House are always there to listen. It can be a frustrating process since it can be painful to have to describe what’s going on over and over again but it’s worth it in the long run to get the help you deserve.