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Seeking help for a mental health problem

A guide to taking the first steps, making empowered decisions and getting the right support for you.

What happens at the appointment?

In your appointment your doctor will probably make an initial assessment by asking questions about:

  • your mood, thoughts and behaviours – sometimes by using questionnaires or forms which measure depression and anxiety
  • your lifestyle and any recent events in your life that might be affecting your wellbeing
  • any sleep problems or changes in appetite
  • your medical history, and your family's medical history.

They might also check your physical health to rule out any physical illness. This could involve:

  • taking your blood pressure
  • measuring your weight
  • doing some blood tests.

What might the outcome of my appointment be?

The outcome of your appointment will usually depend on:

  • what you say
  • what your doctor thinks might help
  • what kind of support you would like.

For example, your doctor might suggest one or more of the following options:

  • Monitoring – your doctor might ask you to come back for another appointment before offering any treatment.
  • Diagnosis – your doctor might give you a diagnosis, for example of depression or anxiety. This doesn't always happen after your first appointment and may only be possible after monitoring you over time or referring you to a specialist.
  • Lifestyle changes – your doctor may suggest that making small changes to your exercise, eating and sleep habits may help you to manage your symptoms.
  • Referral – your doctor could refer you to another service, such as talking therapies (sometimes called psychological wellbeing services).
  • Self-referral – your doctor could give you details of a service you can contact yourself, for example psychological wellbeing services or a community mental health team (CMHT).
  • Medication – your doctor might offer to prescribe you psychiatric medication. If they do this they should should clearly explain what it's for and explain any possible risks and benefits, so you can make an informed choice about whether or not you want to take it.

If you drive, you might have to tell the Driver and Vehicle Licencing Agency (DVLA) if you're diagnosed with a mental health problem. (For more information on your right to drive, including when and how to contact the DVLA, see our legal pages on fitness to drive.)

Will everything I tell my doctor be confidential?

In most cases: yes. Your doctor should keep whatever you tell them confidential, and ask your permission before sharing it with anyone else. However, they may need to make an exception if they believe that you're at risk of seriously harming yourself, or someone else. In this case they should still try to tell you first so you know what's going on.

Depending on how big they think the risk is, they could:

  • Not tell anyone, but ask to see you again soon to check how you are, and keep seeing you regularly.
  • Not tell anyone themselves, but ask you to tell other people yourself. For example, they could ask you to volunteer to go to hospital as an inpatient (called being a voluntary patient).
  • Tell another health or social care professional, such as a psychiatrist or social worker, and ask for an assessment to see if you can be made to go to hospital under a section of the Mental Health Act (often called being sectioned). The decision to section someone is very serious and can only be taken jointly by a team of approved mental health professionals (AMHPs). (See our legal pages on sectioning for more information about when it may be legal to section you, and what your rights are.)
  • Tell the police – but this would only happen if they believe there is a very immediate, serious risk of danger.

If you care for children and are worried about what might happen if you tell your doctor how you're feeling, our pages on parenting with a mental health problem provide more information.

What's in my medical records, and who can see them?

Whenever you use an NHS service in England, a record is created for you. These records contain details about the care you've received. One of these is called your Summary Care Record (SCR), which lists key medical information about you, such as allergies, medication and bad reactions. You can also ask your doctor to add extra details into your SCR, such as your crisis care plan (if you have one).

Certain healthcare professionals can then access your SCR electronically in different places, such as in your doctor's office and in hospital (with your permission). This can help them provide better care – especially in an emergency.

There are data protection laws in the UK to ensure your health records are kept confidential and secure. You also have a legal right to access personal information held about you by an organisation, including GPs and hospitals.

To find out more, see:

What if I don't want a diagnosis?

Receiving a diagnosis can be a positive experience. You might feel relieved that you can put a name to what you're experiencing, and it can help you and your doctor discuss what kind of treatment might work best for you. However, not everyone feels this way. You might have complicated feelings about what a diagnosis would mean for you – or you might come to disagree with it entirely. It's important to remember that a diagnosis doesn't have to shape your entire life, and may come to be a relatively minor part of your identity.

(See our introduction to mental health problems for more information on diagnosis, stigma around mental health problems, and recovery.)

This information was published in December 2017.

This page is currently under review. All content was accurate when published. 

References and bibliography available on request.

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