Self-advocating can be a necessary practice when it comes to receiving proper medical care that is best suited for you. Doing so, however, can be difficult, especially when it comes to discussing issues related to your mental health.
As a psychiatrist, I’ve had several of my patients express fears over telling me how they truly feel about their medications, diagnoses, and treatment plan. They’ve also shared the negative experiences they’ve had when discussing their mental health treatment with other healthcare providers.
Research has shown that barriers to self-advocacy may include perceiving a power imbalance and fear of challenging the treating practitioner.
So the question is: How can you sufficiently advocate for yourself, as a patient, in order to get the best possible treatment for your mental well-being?
There are a few, basic tips that can help to jump-start this practice, from writing down your concerns and questions to bringing along an advocate to your sessions.
So whether you need to learn how to advocate for yourself, or have a close family or friend who finds themselves in this situation, consider the following five tips.
1. Bring a list of questions and discuss them at the beginning of your appointment
Since you typically don’t have much time with your doctor, it’s important to set the tone at the beginning of your appointment: Start by stating that you have questions you’d like addressed.
But why should you bring this up in the very beginning?
As doctors, one of the first things we do is take note of a patient’s “chief complaint,” or the primary problem and reason for the visit. So if you have specific concerns, let us know at the very start and we will prioritize it.
Moreover, creating a list can both help prevent you from forgetting questions you have and potentially decrease your anxiety over asking the questions in the first place.
And if, by the end of your appointment, your doctor still hasn’t addressed your questions, you can definitely interrupt your doc and simply ask, “Can we make sure we go over those questions I brought before I leave?”
2. Be on time
Discussing mental health concerns generally takes more time than other types of medical issues. Though arriving on time might sound like an obvious tip, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of having as much time as possible with your doctor in order to address your concerns.
I’ve had patients arrive late to appointments and, because of this, it meant prioritizing the most pressing concerns using only the remaining time we had left. This meant some of my patient’s questions had to wait until my next available appointment.
3. Bring along a close friend or family member
Sometimes we patients are not the best historians. We tend to forget certain things that have happened in our past, or even how they happened, especially in relation to our health.
For this reason it can be useful to bring someone with you to your appointment as a way to provide a secondary perspective, both regarding what has taken place and how it took place. Having an advocate can also be especially helpful to reinforce a patient’s concern when they don’t feel their issues are being heard or understood.
For example, if a patient reports trying numerous medications without much symptom relief, an advocate may provide support by inquiring about new treatment options to address the patient’s symptoms.
4. Practice self-advocating with someone you trust
Advocating for ourselves doesn’t necessarily come easy for everyone — for some, it may even take practice, which is entirely okay. In fact, practicing how to advocate for ourselves can be useful for any challenge we may encounter in life.
A great way to do this is to work with your therapist, or a close family member or friend, where they play the role of your healthcare provider and you spell out your concerns. This can help to minimize anxiety you might feel during your actual appointment.
5. Emphasize the severity of what you’re experiencing
Many of us tend to minimize our experiences, especially if our mood happens to be better at the time of our appointment. It can be hard to admit that we’re struggling.
However, being honest and as open as possible about the severity of symptoms can impact various components of your treatment plan. This can include level of care needed (think referrals for specialists or even intensive outpatient treatment), medications and adjustments to dosing, and even earlier intervals for follow-up visits.
Advocating for your mental health might be difficult — but it doesn’t have to be
Advocating for ourselves and our mental health might feel uncomfortable and anxiety inducing, but it doesn’t have to be. Knowing how to best prepare for an upcoming appointment and discussing your mental health concerns can help make the process easier and ensure that you get your questions answered and concerns addressed.
Strategies such as preparing a list of questions, knowing how to bring up these concerns during your appointment, and practicing how to advocate for yourself with someone you trust, can make the process less stressful and even help boost your confidence in taking charge of your mental well-being.
Vania Manipod, DO, is a board-certified psychiatrist, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Western University of Health Sciences, and currently in private practice in Ventura, California. She believes in a holistic approach to psychiatry that incorporates psychotherapeutic techniques, diet, and lifestyle, in addition to medication management when indicated. Dr. Manipod has built an international following on social media based on her work to reduce the stigma of mental health, particularly through her Instagram and blog, Freud & Fashion. Moreover, she has spoken nationwide on topics such as burnout, traumatic brain injury, and social media.