Alex Krist, MD, is a board-certified primary care physician. He chairs the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, which makes the national guidelines for preventive care. He also directs a primary care practice-based research network in Virginia and practices family medicine at Fairfax Family Practice – An Inova Partner.
Every once in a while, the stress in our lives causes anxiety and depression that become difficult to cope with. It’s completely natural and happens to everyone. But when those feelings show up too often or stick around too long, you may wonder if it’s time to get some help.
One out of every five American adults is diagnosed with a mental health illness each year. So how do you know if what you are feeling is a fleeting phase or a serious issue? If you’re asking that question, it’s usually a sign that you should talk to someone. The good news is that you don’t need to look any further than your primary care provider (PCP).
Your doctor is a trusted professional who already knows you. PCPs are trained to assess and treat mental health. You simply need to take the first step and schedule an appointment. Once that’s done, follow this advice to get the most from your meeting:
Evaluate Your Emotional Health
Before you meet with your PCP, take some time to assess your feelings of sadness, stress or anxiety. When you see your doctor about a sore throat or a virus, you’re prepared to share the symptoms, how often they occur and how long you’ve been feeling sick. Treat your mental health the same way.
Before your appointment, pinpoint what’s been bringing you down. Be sure to include:
- Examples of any symptoms of depression you may be experiencing, including changes in appetite, trouble sleeping or loss of energy
- Examples of any symptoms of anxiety you may be experiencing, including an increased heart rate, difficulty concentrating or hyperventilation
- How often you feel this way
- When your symptoms began
- Any factors that may be contributing to these emotions, such as a change in career, health, lifestyle or season
- What kind of treatment you’re open to
Trust Your Primary Care Provider With Your Mental Health Issues
Your physical health and mental health are part of your whole health. Treating both is part of your PCP’s expertise, but you need to be honest about how you feel. Your doctor has extensive experience with mental health issues and a wealth of resources to match your needs.
Think of your PCP as a point person who can suggest lifestyle changes and connect you to specialists, social workers and therapists. Many primary care offices have mental health providers on site and offer both virtual and telehealth appointments.
Your evaluation will likely include a thorough conversation about your symptoms and a review of your health history. Your doctor may use blood tests to rule out medical issues that sometimes cause emotional changes, such as anemia or thyroid conditions. After your assessment, your PCP will discuss how to address your symptoms, possible treatment options and how to handle referrals to a mental health specialist.
Follow Up With Suggested Treatments for Depression and Anxiety
Before the appointment ends, make sure you understand the next steps. Your doctor will likely provide a treatment plan, which may include:
- Lifestyle changes, involving sleep, eating, exercise or socialization
- Healthy-thinking exercises that focus on changing your perspective or developing a positive outlook
- Therapy, using advice from your PCP on who to see and what type of therapist will be most helpful
- Medication to help stabilize your anxiety or depression
Your mental health affects both the quality and length of your life, so make your treatment a priority. Ask questions to clarify any instructions provided by your doctor. Plan a follow-up appointment, usually in a week or a month, depending on the severity of your condition.
Schedule an Appointment
Inova PCPs offer appointments in the office and virtually. To set up a time to talk with your doctor about your mental health, schedule an appointment through your MyChart patient portal, book an appointment online or call your doctor’s office directly.