Navigating the mental health system can be tricky. Here’s how to seek help for anxiety

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It is a condition that most of us have experienced firsthand or seen among our friends and family.

Anxiety is the most widespread mental health problem in Australia, with more than three million people suffering from it.

And with the continued panicked media coverage of the flood crises in New South Wales and Queensland, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many of us are probably feeling worried about the future.

But even so, many people don’t know where to start to ask for help.

There are many ways to get help, including online resources, in-person services, and trained healthcare professionals to manage anxiety.

What will be most helpful depends on the severity of the anxiety symptoms and the type of support you feel comfortable with.

But in most cases the best place to start is with your GP. Here we break down how to start getting help.

Where to start to ask for help

When our physical health starts to deteriorate, most people know to go straight to their GP, but these doctors are also trained and ready to help patients through mental health issues.

General practitioner Chris Moys, who is also vice-president of the Australian Medical Association, explains that the process usually starts in one of two ways: Sometimes a person goes to their doctor because they know their anxiety is a problem, but often it is the general practitioners who first notice the symptoms during consultations.

Indeed, “anxiety manifests itself in so many different ways,” says Dr. Moys. Common symptoms include feeling overwhelmed, panic attacks, sweating and shaking, to “very severe” out-of-body experiences, dissociation and amnesia.

Assuming you’ve made an appointment to discuss your mental health, doctors will start by taking a history.

This involves noting what symptoms you have, when and how often they occur, their severity, whether there is a family history of mental illness, and any external factors that may be contributing to your anxiety. They will also undertake an assessment to determine if you pose a risk to yourself or others.

At this point, they will also try to rule out any physical conditions that might be causing the symptoms.

They can also use an objective test — like the Depression Anxiety Stress Scales (DASS) — that asks patients to rate between “never” and “almost always” a series of prompts about their mental state.

The score from this test is used to determine how distressed a person is and whether the patient is suffering from anxiety, another mental illness such as depression, or a combination of the two.

Once a diagnosis has been determined, Dr Moys says GPs will “then work with patients to determine what they want to do”.

This may mean referring you to a psychiatrist, to expert doctors who can prescribe anxiety medication and arrange hospitalization, or to a psychologist who specializes in treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness and hypnotherapy.

“Usually you send a patient for a specific treatment,” says Dr. Moys. “Some people think it’s just a framework to discuss, and if it’s important to have a good relationship with the psychiatrist or psychologist you see, it’s more about trying to move forward – to treat the ‘anxiety.”

Often, Dr Moys says, the best plan will involve a combination of all three – GPs, psychiatrists and psychologists – and short-term crisis management alongside longer-term therapy.

This will likely involve a mental health care plan, put in place by your GP, which allows patients to access subsidized treatment.

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What is anxiety and how is it treated?

What is a Mental Health Care Plan?

Mental health care plans are provided under Medicare and allow participants to claim a portion of the cost of up to 20 sessions with a licensed mental health professional each year. The program previously only covered 10 sessions, but these were doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This may include individual sessions with a psychiatrist or psychologist, group sessions, or access to a social worker or other healthcare professional. The plan should cover the types of support you and your GP have found necessary and your goals in seeking help.

Since these professionals are able to set their own prices, the discount — accessible through Medicare — can cover some or all of the costs depending on where you choose to go.

A recent report by consumer organization Lived Experience Australia found that the average average spread fee for a psychologist was $176, with most people paying between $51 and $200 out of pocket.

GPs will be able to recommend nearby services, or you can search for one yourself, even if you have been referred to a specific psychologist. Online tools, such as BeyondBlue Service Findercan help find a suitable mental health service.

Initially, the mental health care plan will cover six sessions. After this you will need to return to your GP for an examination, where you will decide together if further referrals are needed.

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What else is available?

If you are unable to access Medicare or cannot afford to access specialized services, there are many other ways to get help.

Again, a good place to start is with your GP – many are trained in mental health treatment and, like psychiatrists, are able to prescribe medication.

“GPs do the majority of treatment for anxiety, especially mild anxiety,” says Dr Moys. And for many people, working with a GP may be enough to manage their symptoms.

“The GP will certainly be able to give you advice, make sure you are safe and then work with you to determine any treatment you may want.”

It is also possible to access care through the public health system or through mental health organizations like beyond the blue and Head space for young people under 25. These organizations can provide help over the phone, online and, in some cases, in person.

There are also a number of anxiety treatment programs available online which can be helpful if you cannot see your doctor. The Ministry of Health Heading for health The database provides links to a number of online therapies.

For mild anxiety, there are also many strategies you can use at home. The organizations above have many resources on managing anxiety, including mindfulness exercises and tips for staying healthy.

“When you’re dealing with anxiety, you can feel like there’s no hope. It can be like being in a goldfish bowl, it cuts you off,” says Dr. Moys.

“But there’s actually a lot of hope and a lot of help out there.”

This story is part of the ABC’s Anxiety Project, a special series examining the growing prevalence of anxiety in Australia.

Keep an eye out for more stories in the weeks to come.

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