Our new show 'The Therapist' airs Friday nights at 10.30PM on SBS VICELAND, and via SBS On Demand
Getting a high score on a test is good, right? Not always. Last year, I went to see my GP because I wasn’t feeling well in the head. She gave me a questionnaire to fill out, which we worked on together. I aced it. The score was my greatest academic achievement to-date, with one hitch: the point of the test is to score low. On the bright side, I’d taken the first step toward improving my mental health. Depression was no longer my secret shame. I’d begun the process of outsourcing my sadness to others who would be able to help manage the depression that had been eating me alive for decades.
The craziest part was I never knew this pathway existed. For most of my teenage and adult life, I’d simply languished in my own dark thoughts, and it was getting worse. I made a pact with my partner to do something about it before I sunk deeper into depression or hurt myself. But as I discovered, every Australian has a shot at dealing with anxiety or depression; the first step is to talk to your GP. There’s so little public awareness of the way Medicare and mental health go together, and I hope my story will encourage others to just go ahead and book that appointment.
It’s odd visiting a GP when you don’t have a runny nose or a blotchy rash. We associate going to see a doctor with having physical pain, and even then we tend to put the whole thing off as much as possible. On that first visit, I looked around the waiting room at people who appeared worse off and wondered if I was just another burden on the health system taking up an appointment someone else may have needed more than me. I think a lot of Australians look at the health system on similar terms. “Walk it off”, “she’ll be right, mate”: it’s the “suck it up” attitude that leaves most waiting until their arm is dangling off to see a doctor. Take that mindset and apply it to mental health, and you’ll see the dangers. Many Australians, and particularly Australian men, are wallowing in depression while living in fear that talking to someone about it might make them weaker. I am here to tell you that it’s absolute bullshit. You’re not a burden, and GPs are trained to be mental health allies. Actually, when I mentioned my depression to my GP, she looked excited to not have to pick up the stethoscope for once. So how does it all work? After getting the initial test result, my GP announced we were putting together a mental health treatment plan outlining my mental health needs and goals, treatment options and the support services available. Everyone’s plan is different, but mine leant toward chatting with a psychologist. But aren’t those just for neurotic New Yorkers in movies? Nope. Boom, another myth busted. I’d assumed a therapist would be too expensive for me, but here comes the twist. The government, though Medicare, helps pay part of the cost. You qualify by getting a treatment plan drawn up by a GP along with a referral. In one calendar year, you can receive Medicare benefits for up to ten individual consultations with a mental health professional. It works in stages, with a maximum of six sessions offered at first, and the sessions can be extended to a total of ten upon review. This is an imperfect system, but it’s better than nothing, and definitely worth giving a go. Remember, this is a way to identify people who can benefit from treatment within a short time frame and be empowered to take control of their mental health with professional guidance. View each session as preventative, like applying an antibiotic ointment to a cut to avoid infection. You can do it on your own and be proactive without visiting the hospital later. There may be times when your mental health plan goes beyond these sessions, but I can’t stress more the importance of taking the first step. I got to pick from a group of psychologists my GP recommended, and within a week I met my head doctor for the first time. It was exactly like the movies: clean modern office, a big couch, and a chair a little off to the side where my new psych sat. The sessions were life changing, and it was heartening to have an impartial person listen to my story. Family and friends are great as a support network, but they are going to have their biases and most aren’t properly equipped to deal with whatever burdens you ask them to carry with you. It’s actually pretty unfair to ask your mates to shoulder this stuff, too. One of the revelatory parts of each session was understanding my depression is part of who I am. Depression doesn’t go away. It never gets better in the way a bone heals after a break. The sessions with my head doctor were about understanding the nature of depression and how to tame it. Acknowledging depression is always going to be part of your life is the first part, and learning how kick its arse is the second. The methodology is going to vary from person to person, but I worked on meditation, mindfulness and living in the moment. For me, calming my own dark thoughts led to a great amount of clarity. Managing your own mental health in the shadow of depression isn’t about finding instant happiness. In fact, happiness is never the ultimate goal. I felt better when I was thinking clearly, which helped me be more creative, present and active. Mix it all together and the recipe for happiness might be in there somewhere, but clear thinking allows you to function rather than hitting a wall of melancholy in your own head daily. Already I could feel all my perceptions about mental health changing, and I was learning the tools to face the world on my own. And all of it was done within ten sessions. I couldn’t believe it. The system … worked? I still get blue, but feel I can work through rough patches in hours rather than days—sometimes it used to be weeks or months. My GP and head doctor are always there if it ever gets to be too much, and my partner is supportive and understands there may be times where I’m just not feeling great mentally. But I can work through it now. Therapy ain’t just for the rich and neurotic. All you have to do is talk to your GP.
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