University life

Talking to a professional about your mental health: how to prepare for the first appointment

21 Jun 2023, 15:41

If discussing your mental health with somebody new feels daunting, some preparation might help. Here are some tips from a counsellor, GP and university tutor.

A student at their first appointment talking to a mental health professional

You might find initial mental health appointments tough or awkward and it can take a few before you start feeling comfortable. Nonetheless, you’re likely to be guided by the person you’re talking to; once you’ve attended your first session, your preparation for future appointments may be more obvious. But what about getting ready for this initial appointment?

As part of Student Minds’ ‘ripple campaign’, a national initiative to increase students’ knowledge and understanding of depression, they interviewed a GP, a university tutor and a number of people working in counselling to discuss what students can expect when arranging appointments and talking about their mental health. In this article, targetjobs takes these interviews and condenses them down into a few digestible considerations and tips, which will be relevant whether your appointment is face to face or (as a result of the pandemic) over the phone or video call.

If you’d like more specific information before attending an appointment – including how to prepare, what to expect and whether your conversations will be kept confidential – you should find Student Minds’ videos beneficial:

Take a friend for support

As GP Dr Laurence Leaver explains, you could choose to take a close friend or relative with you – if this is possible under pandemic restrictions. This might be especially useful if you’re worried that nerves or anxiety will lead you to back out of attending the appointment and you think your friend will encourage you.

Before the appointment, it’s a good idea to work out with the other person how much input you’d like them to have – along with how much they’re willing to have. Perhaps you’d like to discuss with them how you’re feeling so they can chip in if you lose your train of thought or miss anything out. However, you might prefer it if they simply sat next to you or in the waiting area, providing moral support before, during and/or after the session.

If your friend would like some support, targetjobs and Student Minds have helpful tips for supporting your friend with their mental health. You could read these if you’re helping someone out with their mental health, too.

Read, watch and listen your way through Student Minds' guide to student mental health and well-being by registering here – for a pathway that provides information about mental health and services, advice for looking after yourself and others and helpful insights into the experiences of recent graduates.

Get it down on paper

Some people find writing or typing out how they’re feeling or what they’re looking to gain from their sessions useful. Both University of Oxford tutor Nicola Byrom and Laurence Leaver suggest making a few notes or lists. Filling out a daily diary in the week running up to your appointment, along with making a list of things you’d like to talk about during the meeting, is one example approach.

Whichever approach you choose, making a note of how you’re feeling on different days, what you’d like to gain from your sessions and what you consider to be your main sources of difficulty and help (including both people and activities/interests) could enable you to get things a bit clearer in your head and explain your thoughts during your appointment. You can take your notes into the session or keep them next to you if it is over the phone.

Fill out the forms

Alan Percy, head of counselling at the University of Oxford counselling service, explains that many counselling services ask students to fill out a form before they attend. While these aren’t generally compulsory, they can help to ensure you’re placed with the right clinician for you. Often, too, you will be given exercises to complete before the meeting that will encourage you to think about the problems you are facing and some of the ways you might work through them. These can help you to gather your thoughts and explain things more clearly during your session.

Don’t miss your appointment if you forget to fill in a non-compulsory form, though – after all, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to think through your struggles and possible sources of help when you begin your sessions.

Try to put yourself in a calm mindset

Nerves are normal and it’s likely that you’ll be talking to someone who is used to seeing plenty of people displaying a wide range of emotions each day. So, step one in trying to stay calm is: don’t beat yourself up if you find your mind or heart racing faster than usual.

If possible, spend some time right before your appointment doing something that relaxes you – whether that’s watching your favourite series on Netflix or listening to your relaxation playlist. Repeating this after your session could also help you to unwind. Find out further ideas for looking after your well-being – whether you have just five minutes, ten minutes, thirty minutes or one hour – by reading this advice from Student Minds .

Give advance notice that you want to talk about your mental health

This is most likely to be helpful if you’re seeing someone who doesn’t know that you’ll be talking about your mental well-being – such as a university tutor or GP. Nicola Byrom suggests sending a tutor a quick email to let them know what you’re planning to discuss, just so they can prepare in their own minds and therefore be as helpful as possible during the meeting.

You’ll probably be asked to give a quick description of the reason for your appointment when you contact your GP. Don’t worry: this can be as general as ‘mental health’. Laurence Leaver also recommends making a double appointment if your reason is mental health-related, in order to allow plenty of time to discuss your options.

But remember – these are ideas, not instructions

While the above considerations may help you to ensure that your first session is as useful as it can be, remember that they are not compulsory. You should be walked through the process so you know what to do. Often, the person you talk to will understand if you’re new to this and that you’re coming to them to get help: you’re not expected to have all the answers or to know yourself inside out (who does?). Whether or not you have decided or managed to carry out any of our suggestions, you should still go along to your appointment if you think it might help you.

Further ideas for mental well-being support

targetjobs editorial advice

This describes editorially independent and impartial content, which has been written and edited by the targetjobs content team. Any external contributors featuring in the article are in line with our non-advertorial policy, by which we mean that we do not promote one organisation over another.

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