I’m a veteran of the mental health establishment. My parents are a psychiatrist and a therapist (which mostly meant that I never won a single argument growing up). I worked in their office for several summers in high school and college — which I was in no way qualified or prepared to do — and I myself have sought mental health care as both a child and an adult (the ADHD didn’t go away!).
One thing I’ve learned from my experiences is that there are few things more stressful than showing up for your first psychiatrist’s appointment. New patients tend to have a fairly predictable set of anxieties about it.
There’s no need to feel embarrassed about your nervousness. Our culture has a powerful stigma around mental health care, and it’s full of misconceptions about what it actually entails. So, if you’re feeling anxious, here are a few common worries and questions many first-time patients have, along with some answers from someone who’s been there before.
1. What if someone in the office recognizes me?
Well, they too will be in the office, so you’ll be even.
2. What if the doctor doesn’t believe I really have a problem and can’t do anything to help?
That’s unlikely, since most people don’t wrench themselves away from Netflix and go to the doctor unless it’s for a good reason. But even if it turns out that this particular mental health professional isn’t a good fit, you can always find another one who understands you better.
3. Can I lie on my intake form?
I mean, you can, but you shouldn’t. You’re not really doing yourself any favors by fibbing about your history or habits, since a psychiatrist can only treat you to the extent they know the reality of your situation. And remember, you’re about to visit a psychiatrist. If you lie, you might find yourself fessing up and trying to understand why you lied to begin with.
4. Am I going to cry?
Probably not on your first visit. (They like to work up to the heavy stuff on visits 2 and 3.) But every good psychiatrist’s office has plenty of tissues on hand, just in case. It’s find to shed some tears — it’s expected and totally OK!
5. Are they going to make me lie on my back on a couch and talk for an hour?
No, you’re not seeing Sigmund Freud in 1911, and that style of analysis is no longer widely practiced.
6. Are they going to hypnotize me?
Again, that’s a very specialized kind of therapy. So, unless it’s specifically what you’re going in for, there’ll be no “You’re falling into a deep trance” stuff happening here.
7. Are they going to make me talk about my mother?
Do you need to talk about your mother?
8. What if the psychiatrist can read my thoughts? I mean, I know there’s a difference between a psychic and a psychiatrist, but what if they’ll somehow know every bad thing about me, even the ones I don’t tell them?
This is a surprisingly common worry among new patients, so for the record: Psychiatrists aren’t mind readers. However, they are trained and experienced observers of human behavior, so they might be able to pick up on the fact that you’re a little nervous. (But that’s normal.)
9. What if they’re an evil psychiatrist, like in the movies?
Unfortunately, pop culture is littered with “evil shrinks,” from “Get Out” to “Silence of the Lambs,” and they haven’t done any favors for the profession’s public image.
But as you’ve doubtlessly noticed, life isn’t a movie. In real life, there are good psychiatrists and less good psychiatrists. At the end of the day, they’re all doctors who want you to feel better, not sadists, body snatchers, or sophisticated cannibals.
10. What if they commit me against my will?
The parameters under which you can be involuntarily committed are very narrow and would involve you having a plan to harm yourself or someone else. If this doesn’t describe you, you won’t be committed. If it does describe you, getting inpatient care might be a good outcome until you sort those feelings out.
11. Does the receptionist think I’m weird?
No, sweetie. As long as you fill out your forms legibly, you and the receptionist will be cool.
12. What if they prescribe me medicine with terrible side effects and it’s worse than whatever problem brought me here?
Just like with any doctor (or car mechanic, for that matter), the best thing to do at your psychiatrist’s office is ask lots of questions and advocate for the kind of care you want. It may take some time to figure out what (if any) medications are right for you, but your psychiatrist isn’t going to be doing anything to you, so much as with you.
13. I CAN’T DO THIS. I’M TOO NERVOUS.
You can do it! For many people, the hardest part of getting mental health care is the anxiety that comes beforehand, so just tough it out through this appointment and then treat yourself with a reward afterwards. Get some ice cream! (Unless you’re here to address your terrible fear of ice cream, in which case, get some frozen yogurt!)
Remember, there’s no reason to be afraid or ashamed of getting the care you need. And whatever your worries are, you’re not the first person to have them. Now get in there and get to work feeling better!
Elaine Atwell is an author, critic, and founder of TheDart.co. Her work has been featured on Vice, The Toast, and numerous other outlets. She lives in Durham, North Carolina. Follow her at @ElaineAtwell.