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Navigating the mental health care maze

Jessica Brennan describes what it's like to work with many different mental health professionals and provides some tips that have helped her. 


I sit down in the doctor’s surgery and immediately a clock starts ticking, aggressively informing me how much time I have to relay the last five years of my life. I look at the doctor – someone I’ve never seen and may never see again who nonetheless has an essential role in my future – and take a deep breath.

I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety at university in 2013. A diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder followed in 2015. In that time, I’ve lived in Scotland, Oxford, and four London boroughs and have told my story to dozens of professionals to get the help I needed. The overwhelming demand on mental health services has had an undeniable impact on the way we experience our care: we rarely see the same doctor at each appointment, meaning we have to divulge personal experiences casually and without context; we are bounced around as we work our way through a maze of red tape, having to familiarise ourselves with new jargon and new procedures with each agency; and when we move we often have to start the whole process from scratch. It’s easy to see why so many people – especially young people – become disillusioned.

Despite these challenges, I will always encourage others to reach out. I’m now on the right medication and receiving Mentalization-Based Treatment which would never have been possible without the brilliant mental health professionals around me. Over the years I’ve gathered some tips which have helped me with the process and may help others struggling to find their voice:

  1. Take notes beforehand – this probably sounds like homework but bear with me! It can be daunting to be faced with a small window to get your point across and for those who feel uncomfortable discussing emotions with strangers it can be impossible to know where to begin. Before your appointment, write down what you’re experiencing and what you want to get out of it. Your notes can help you to focus and, if you’re struggling to find the right words, you can pass them over to the professional to fill in the gaps.

  2. Ask questions – for many years I spent most of my appointments nodding confidently only to leave more confused. It was only after an avoidable mix up left me temporarily without medication that I realised how important it is to make sure you understand what’s happening with your care. Truthfully, I avoided asking questions because I was scared to sound stupid. Now I remind myself that I’m not the first person to ask this and won’t be the last. You might feel silly getting your doctor to repeat themselves three times but that feeling is temporary and, in the long run, will help you to feel more in control of your health. Once again, don’t be afraid to take notes. Make a check list of questions and only cross them off when you’re sure you know the answer.

  3. Know your rights – we have a traditional idea of health care appointments: book a time, go alone, and let someone else decide what help you can get. Naturally this structure isn’t right for everyone. Many presume it’s written in stone, but the system is more flexible than you may think. Six months after my initial diagnosis, my symptoms worsened. A medical student friend suggested I take someone with me to the appointment. Like many young people, I assumed a companion for doctor’s appointments was only for children, but my friend accompanied me and told the doctor her concerns. Her moral support and willingness to back up my experiences gave me the confidence to ask for treatment. You deserve to know how the healthcare system can be adapted to work for you. From what to do if you disagree with your doctor to protecting your confidentiality, there is plenty of guidance on Know Your Rights in On My Mind.

I know firsthand how frustrating it can be to navigate mental health services, but we deserve high quality support. By focusing on what you can control and trying out simple ideas like those listed, you can build a support system which works for you. 

On My Mind is a new website that aims to empower young people to make informed choices about their mental health and wellbeing. The pages were co-produced by young people to help other young people.