What happens when you see a mental health professional?

March 17th, 2021

When teens are struggling, people often tell them to “talk to a professional”. But some teens are nervous about seeing a doctor or a counsellor. Adults can make it easier by explaining what to expect.

Starting with a GP

A trusted GP is a good person to see first. GPs look at all the things that affect your health, such as physical illness, medication, or stress.

A GP can also help you develop a mental health care plan, which gives you up to 10 individual sessions and 10 group sessions each year with a mental health professional under the Medicare rebate. This means you get the sessions at a reduced cost or for free.

Your GP might manage your treatment directly or refer you to a specialist.

What do specialists do?

Counsellors help teens to talk about everyday problems, manage their feelings, find solutions and make plans.

Psychologists diagnose and treat mental health problems like depression or anxiety and counsel teens to cope during tough times.

Psychiatrists are medical doctors with specialized training in mental health. They treat teens with serious or complex mental health problems using different treatments, sometimes including medication.

What to look for in a professional

Some teens prefer to see a professional of a particular age, sex, or cultural background, someone they know already, or a new person.

GPs and parents should check the professional’s qualifications and background carefully.

A good mental health professional should:

  • Treat teens with respect and speak to them directly.
  • Make teens feel comfortable to talk about whatever they like.
  • Look at everything that’s happening in teens’ lives.
  • Help teens to see their own strengths.
  • Help teens to set achievable goals and build skills to reach them.
  • Listen and answer questions clearly.

Before your appointment…

Contact the health service to book an appointment. Ask them:

  • How long are the sessions?
  • Do you need to bring any paperwork?
  • Do they charge a fee if you cancel?
  • Do they offer telehealth sessions online if you can’t get there in person?
  • What’s the cost?

Some clinics bulk bill, which means it’s free. Others don’t. If you have a mental health care plan, the Medicare rebate will cover the costs of your sessions up to a certain amount. But if the clinic charges more, you might have to pay the “gap”.

Before your appointment, check:

  • Have you got your Medicare details? Teens can get their own Medicare cards from age 15 or use their family’s card.
  • Have you got cash or cards to pay any fees?
  • Do you know how you will travel there and how long it will take?
  • Is there anything you really want the professional to know? If so, practise saying it out loud – e.g. “I’m here because I’m feeling anxious and having trouble sleeping.”
  • Are there any questions you want to ask? If so, write them down and bring them.
  • Do you want to see the doctor alone or with your parents?
  • If it’s a telehealth session, have you got strong internet access in a quiet, private place? If not, tell the clinic. They might be able to find you another option.

At your appointment…

When you arrive, the receptionist might ask you to fill out a form with your contact details and emergency contacts.

The professional should explain to you how confidentiality works. In most cases, they will keep anything you tell them private, unless you give them permission to tell someone, or unless someone is at risk of serious harm.

However, the laws about confidentiality for teens vary between states and territories, so don’t be afraid to ask questions.

The professional should talk to you about:

  • Why you’ve come here and what your concerns are.
  • What’s been going on in your life.
  • How you’ve been feeling lately.
  • How long any difficult feelings have lasted for.
  • Whether you’ve felt like this before.
  • If relevant, whether you’ve experienced things like self-harm or suicidal thoughts.
  • What sort of approach they’d like to take to support you.
  • How long it should take before you start feeling better.

Try to be as upfront and honest as you can. The professional will not be freaked out – remember, they do this for a living!

When teens go to appointments with their parents, the professional often asks the parents to step outside for a while. This is in case the teens have anything confidential they want to say.

Keep in mind…

Everyone’s mental health is different and health services are different too. You might need to try a few before you find one that’s right for you. Persevere and try not to get discouraged.

Find out more

Check out these great tips on mental health professionals from Raising Children Network and ReachOut.

To find a professional near you, see this directory or your nearest headspace centre.