Can we overcome the stigma of mental health plans?

Health Agenda
Mental Health

Can we overcome the stigma of mental health plans?

Why don’t people use their mental health care plan? Here’s how to overcome the stigma of mental health diagnosis and find the right psychologist for you.

Sophia Auld
January 2020

Have you, or someone you know, received a mental health treatment plan from a GP only for it to end up in the bin? You’re not alone – about 100,000 people who got a mental health care plan in 2017/18 didn’t use it, according to a recent report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

A mental health treatment plan is a form completed by your GP, which allows you to access Medicare-funded treatment with an eligible health professional.

While mental health problems are common, it seems there’s still a stigma around having a mental health diagnosis, especially among men with depression. This is one of several reasons why people don’t use their plans. But on the flip side, there are so many reasons to seek help and get the treatment you need to lead a more fulfilled life.  

Why are mental health treatment plans are going unused?

President of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, Dr Harry Nespolon, explains that GPs are usually the best starting point for getting help with a mental health condition: “They can assess your situation, provide treatment and where necessary refer you to other services,” he says. This could include a registered psychologist, social worker or occupational therapist.

However, of the nearly 1.3 million Australians given a mental health treatment plan by a GP in 2017-2018, 100,000 didn’t seek treatment. Some people don’t use their plans because they believe it indicates a mental health diagnosis, which could negatively affect them, explains psychologist Peter Hayton.

“They may fear that a diagnosis may affect things like future insurances, their career or study options.” But many people aren’t aware that it’s your choice what information is in your My Health Record, and who you share it with. You can let your doctor know during your visit if you don’t want them to upload documents, reports or certain information to your record.

Stigma is another major barrier to seeking help, says a spokesperson for the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW), as is lack of knowledge, or a reduced ability to access services in the first place. Yet people might also feel significantly better simply because they’ve spoken to a doctor and received a plan, says Leesa Morris, psychologist at Forensic Psychology Canberra.

She adds that lack of time, a long waiting list to see someone or a gap fee can be off-putting (gap fees don’t necessarily apply – it depends what the psychologist charges or if they bulk bill).

Also, “GPs generally refer to one psychologist and many people don’t understand that is not their only option.” You have the right to request a referral to a different psychologist.

No shame in improving your mental health

Dr Nespolon emphasises there’s “absolutely no shame in reaching out and getting help” for your mental health. Leesa points out that bottling things up is not helpful and early intervention is best.

“Left unassisted, small issues tend to compound and end up in a big heap. I always remind people they don’t need to be unwell to see a psychologist, they need to want different ways to think about or manage something – just like they’d go to a coach to improve their sports performance. What do you have to lose by giving it a try?”

How to face your fears

Peter says seeking emotional support from a psychologist is no different to seeking help for a twisted ankle from a physiotherapist. He recommends a step-wise approach towards positive changes. “For example, start by visiting your GP, then researching your options for psychology, then book an appointment. Breaking the process into smaller steps will help it feel less overwhelming.”

Everyone needs someone they can trust and talk to about their problems. If mental health issues are ongoing, and are interfering with your ability to function in everyday life, it’s time to get professional help, says the AASW.

Also, some people prefer seeing a different doctor about their mental health than their usual GP.

How to find the right psychologist for you

Social workers who specialise in mental health are known as Accredited Mental Health Social Workers (AMHSWs). “They’re particularly well placed to help people experiencing mental health issues because they have specialist experience and qualifications.” There are more than 2,200 AMHSWs working across major cities, regional, rural and remote regions. You can find one on their website.

Peter says all psychologists should be registered with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA). He recommends asking about a psychologist’s experience, treatment options and specialty areas, and not being afraid to let them know if the therapy isn’t meeting your needs, becoming an active participant in your own healthcare decisions.

“Finding a good psychologist can be like finding a good tradesperson – it’s good to go on the recommendation of others, but ultimately spending two or three sessions with a psychologist is the best place to start in determining whether they’re a good fit for you.”

Leesa suggests thinking about it like a massage: “Do you want someone gentle, medium or firm? Raise what you’re looking for with the receptionist; they will be able to suggest the most likely fit. And don't be afraid to change psychs – it happens all the time and we don’t get offended. Our priority is that the client is comfortable and able to get the help they need.”

If you require urgent mental health support or emotional assistance, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.


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