When you’re living with mental illness, the people you surround yourself with that form your support network are invaluable. In my case, I have a team that consist of a Psychiatrist who I see monthly that manages my medication, a Psychologist I see weekly for an outpatient program called CBT for Obsessive Thoughts, who reports to aforementioned Psychiatrist about my progress, another Psychologist I see monthly who offers me both CBT and talk therapy, and my G.P who pivots between them all as my most direct and frequent point of contact for nearly all my issues. Each of them are in touch with one another in some capacity. They write letters to each other, call each other on the phone, CC each other in on pathology that gets ordered, like bloods for medication levels and liver function, ECG’s that sort of thing, so everyone knows what’s going on at every juncture in my journey.

The benefit of having all these professionals in touch with one another is that if I begin to slip, someone generally picks it up pretty quickly. I basically see one of my support network at least once a week. Usually it’s my GP. She’s my home base. She’s an easy going, brunette woman about my age. She never makes me feel rushed when I see her for an appointment, even when I know she’s in a hurry. I’d be lost without a good GP like her. There have been times when I’ve been really low and she’s made me promise to come see her the following week just so see how I’m doing. She’s like the safety net under the high wire. It took me quite a while to find someone I felt so at ease with, and I saw quite a lot of interesting types before I was recommended to her by a friend.  Personal recommendations can be amazing when it comes to finding a new support system whether that’s a GP, Psychologist or Psychiatrist. Don’t be afraid to ask people around you if they have any suggestions they might have when it comes to choosing your own support network. My Psychiatrist came recommended by another patient of his. My Psychologist was suggested to me by someone online. I gained all my referrals from just asking the people around me.

Some things you might want to consider when choosing the individuals who’ll form your support network are the following:

If you’re seeking new GP, or are happy to see your own current doctor, are they able to provide you with a Mental Health Care Plan & Review themselves, or will they refer you to a Psychiatrist to have it done? When you call up to make an appointment with your doctor for this, you’ll need to specify you’re coming in for a Mental Health Care Plan so they allot enough time to the session.
A Mental Health Care Plan is an Australian Medicare Item that provides individuals with a diagnosed or suspected mental illness up to 6 heavily subsidized sessions with a Mental Health Care provider of your choice over 12 months. If after the first 6 sessions, you and your GP decide that you’d benefit from a further 4, they can write a Review and you’ll receive the following 4 at the same subsidized rate. So, essentially that’s 10 individual sessions you’re entitled to. You’re also eligible for up to 10 group sessions at a subsidized rate through this same Medicare Mental Health Care Plan scheme if that’s something you’d be interested in participating in.

Do you feel more comfortable with a therapist of a particular gender identity? Or prefer an individual familiar with issues specific to the LGBTQI community? Would you prefer someone who had a knowledge of culturally specific issues you might face, or a working understanding of certain religious practices and faiths? Some people find these requirements really important, and others don’t care too much who their new professionals are, as long as they’re good at their job. You just need to find what’s most comfortable for you.

How much per session do they charge? Do they Bulk Bill? If you have a Health Care Card/Pension Card will you get a discount? Do they offer a sliding scale? How much will you be out of pocket per session?  How much of the appointment is subsidized if you’re being seen under a Mental Health Care Plan?

Their availability. Do you need someone who’s able to see you during the day? Certain days? After school hours? Inside or outside of Business Hours? On the weekend? Of an evening?

What kind of therapy do they offer? Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)? Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)? Talk therapy?

Do they take a special interest in any particular subjects you’re hoping to address, eg. Trauma, OCD, PTSD, Personality Disorders etc?

How long is their waiting list? If it’s quite an extensive wait, can you be put on the Emergency Cancellation List?

It can feel overwhelming considering everything you may need to think about when it comes to putting your support team together, but you don’t need to do it all at once. Have a google for Psychiatrists/Psychologists/Counsellors/Social Workers in your area. Most places now have a webpage or a FB page that you can have a little look through to see if they fit your vibe. You can always email them with your queries, or give them a call on the phone to chat about some the questions you might have. And if you feel like they’re a good fit, you can then take that information to your GP, and request a Mental Health Care Plan that will refer you to the therapist of your choice. Or if you haven’t managed to find someone on your own, don’t stress. Your GP will refer you to someone they believe will be of help to you. They might give you a letter to take with you to your first appointment that will have a little bit about you and why  your doctor has referred you to them, or alternatively, they may fax it for you directly to the therapist’s office.

All that’s left now it to make an appointment. Like I said above, don’t be afraid to ask them to put your name on the Cancellation List, so if someone cancels their appointment, they can contact you and offer it your way.
Sometimes it’s nice to bring a pen and notebook with you to your session, just in case the therapist or doctor says anything you’d like to note down. It might be a diagnosis, or a medication or a psychological term you might not have heard before and want to come home and do some more research about. Remember, knowledge is power, and you can never know too much about your condition. It helps you become a good advocate for yourself. If you’re scared or nervous, you can always take a friend or partner or parent with you to the first session. Even if they just sit outside in the waiting room, it’s always nice to have support when you’re doing something scary and overwhelming for the first time.

Hopefully this is the beginnings of your support network. Establishing a relationship with your new Doc/Shrink/Therapist is very personal. Sometimes you hit it off straight away, and other times it develops over time as trust is earned and gained. What’s important is that you feel comfortable with them so you can work through your mental health journey together. Give it time. Don’t expect miracles overnight. And be prepared for it to feel confronting at times. It’s entirely normal to have a cry sometimes during therapy. Sometimes the discussions you may have with these professionals can dredge up feelings you haven’t thought about in a long time, if at all. They might be things you’ve never spoken to another person about, even. On the days where my therapy session is tough, I come home and have a long hot shower and make myself something nice or put on The Golden Girls and just give myself some aftercare. It might be a good idea for you to make a plan on what you’ll do on a rough session day too. Stock up on some bath bombs so you can take a soak. Or have a good book you can lose yourself in. Or a copy of Steel Magnolias on DVD so you can just have good ol’ cry.
People might ask you how your therapy is going. They mean well, but don’t ever feel obligated to go into detail about the things you share with your therapist. If you want to share those things, of course go right ahead, but you don’t owe it to anyone to disclose what goes on in your sessions. “Yeah, good thanks” is a completely acceptably vague answer.

I hope this has given you some insight into how to put your support network together. I’m not a mental health professional, just a patient who’s done it a few times before. These are just some of the things I’d want to know if I was facing the situation of finding someone to talk to for the first time. I can’t stress enough how vital your GP is going to be in helping to manage your illness, so get friendly with them. You’ll probably see them a fair bit. The more interest they take in your recovery, the more supported you’re going to feel and that’s a vital part of managing mental illness.