Preparing for Your First Visit to a Psychiatrist

So you’ve found a psychiatrist, hopefully one who’s board-certified and well-reviewed by his or her patients, and you’ve scheduled your first appointment. Now what? There are several things you can do to get the most out of your first visit:

Enlist a comrade.

If you’re feeling especially nervous about your upcoming appointment, you might ask a friend or a family member to go with you for moral support. This is common, so don’t worry about your companion being asked to wait outside while you face the gauntlet alone. Your friend might even think of things to tell or ask the doctor that didn’t occur to you yourself, especially if you’ve confided in him or her before.

 Write everything down.

There are certain specific things the doctor will need to know in order to diagnose your symptoms. Do not rely on your own memory. Going to the psychiatrist for the first time is stressful, whether you’re consciously worried or not, and it’s harder for some people to remember things under stressful circumstances; plus, impaired memory is a common symptom of many mental illnesses. Writing down this information before going to your first visit will aid you in painting the clearest possible picture of your situation, so that your doctor can make an accurate diagnosis and recommend effective treatment. So grab a pen and some paper, and make a list of each of the following things:

1) Your medications

When listing your medications, include any vitamins or supplements that you take and any over-the-counter medications like Nyquil or ibuprofen in addition to your prescribed medications; some psychiatric medications interact badly and even dangerously with other medications, so you should definitely make sure your psychiatrist knows what else you’re taking. Don’t forget to write down what each medication is for, how often you take it and in what dose.

2) Your health issues

It’s very important that you tell your doctor about any health conditions you currently have, whether they’re something “big” – like arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, or a heart murmur – or something “small,” like seasonal allergies or a yeast infection. You’ll also need to divulge any issues you’ve had in the past, like mononucleosis, frequent ear infections, or surgery. Health issues below the neck can complicate treatment for mental illness, and mental illness can make managing your physical health more complicated as well; for example, the mood stabilizer I take for bipolar disorder II causes my blood sugar levels to run high, and I have to monitor them more closely as a result. If you make it a point to inform your psychiatrist about everything that is going on in your body, he can adjust your treatment to take your overall health into account.

3) Family medical history, including any history of mental illness

Remember that your mission here is to identify your enemy. Your family medical history will aid your psychiatrist in narrowing the field, but learning it can make for some awkward conversations. Try to broach the subject with relatives as tactfully as possible; they’re more likely to be comfortable telling you about their acid reflux or bouts of gout than they are sharing personal accounts of struggling with depression or hearing voices, but if you show them the same understanding and respect that you’d want to be shown yourself, they may open up to you, especially if you explain that you’re trying to get help for your own mental health. However, if asking questions about your family’s medical history is far outside your comfort zone or likely to provoke a reaction that would cause you undue harm, it’s all right to skip this step and explain the situation to your psychiatrist. Your diagnosis won’t be totally thrown off by the absence of a family history.

4) Your current symptoms

Try to be as specific and descriptive as possible when listing your symptoms. Make notes about how the symptoms make you feel physically as well as emotionally and how they affect your day-to-day life. If you can, give the approximate date the symptoms started or that you first noticed them. Think back to the times you have experienced the symptoms: Were they “triggered” by something? If so, write that down too. One thing that might help when making this list is asking your significant other or someone who spends a lot of time with you whether they have noticed anything odd or different about your behavior recently; you may have been exhibiting symptoms that you yourself weren’t aware of, but which could be indicative of a mental illness.

5) Your questions or concerns

Your upcoming appointment is your chance to get answers to all the questions that have been keeping you up at night since you decided to seek help for your condition, so do yourself a favor and write them all down! Here are some questions you might want to ask your doctor:

What do you think is causing my symptoms?

Is it possible to recover from my condition?

What kinds of treatment are available for my mental illness?

Will I need to see a therapist?

What is the success rate for recovery?

In what ways can I expect my life to change because of my diagnosis?

Are there any steps I need to take or circumstances I need to avoid in order to help myself get better?

 6) Compatibility questions

Think of your first visit like a first date. There are obviously certain things you would want to know about the person sitting across the restaurant booth from you before deciding to ask him or her on a second date, like which political party your date aligns himself or herself with and what his or her favorite football team is. (My father always warned me against Republicans, and my mother preferred my dates to be Steelers fans.) Seeing a psychiatrist is no different – well, maybe a little different, because he’s not going to pick up the tab and you won’t get a kiss goodnight, but the point is that you need to be compatible with one another, and to determine if he or she is “the one,” you should ask questions like:

How often can I expect to be seen?

How much time do you usually spend with patients during an appointment?

How easy would it be to contact you in an emergency?

Do you provide therapy? (If not, ask if he or she can recommend a therapist.)

What is your stance on alternative (non-medicated) methods of treatment?

What plan do you have in mind for my treatment and recovery?

As evidenced by this blog, I’m obviously not someone who has any reservations about spilling her guts in public, but I understand that for most people it’s a lot harder to divulge personal information to a complete stranger, especially when your symptoms are embarrassing, damning, or downright weird. One way you might handle your discomfort is to think of your psychiatrist as an android, like Data on Star Trek; his or her brain is a computer, and all you are doing is entering your information into a private, secure database so that you can be issued with a diagnosis. I don’t recommend doing this on every visit, though, because it’s important to remember that psychiatrists are people, too – and what’s more, they are people who chose to become psychiatrists, meaning at least some of them possess a heartfelt desire to help people like you and me. (The rest might just be in it for the money, but even they aren’t going to judge you for having a mental illness, because you’re the one paying them.)

What I’m trying to say is, don’t be frightened and don’t be worried. This is the step you have to take to get out the door and start down the road to getting better; as soon as you put your foot down, you’re on your way. You can do this.

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