I sat in the waiting room staring at my hands, willing them to stop shaking. Anxiety was a fighter jet, roaring through my cells, dropping grenades from head to toe.
When the doctor called my name I shuffled after her, a shrunken version of a self I no longer recognised. Fixing her eyes on a computer screen, she hammered the keys and asked me to explain why I was there.
When I told her I was experiencing what felt like an acute recurrence of the depression and anxiety I’d grappled with since I was a teenager she pushed a sheet of paper across the desk and I began to tick boxes.
During the last 30 days, how often did you feel hopeless? … During the last 30 days, how often did you feel so nervous that nothing could calm you down? … How often did you feel so sad nothing could cheer you up?
Ten questions, scored from one to five, with one being ‘none of the time’ and five ‘all of the time’. Under 20 is well. Over 30 is a severe mental-health disorder.
“You got 25, which means you’re only mild to moderately depressed, so there’s not much to worry about,” she said, reaching for the prescription pad before asking if I was suicidal.
I thought about it for a while and said no. “Good. These ones aren’t prescribed very often these days because they’re much easier to overdose on. But you’re not suicidal, so that’s fine.”
Less than fifteen minutes after I sat down I stood on the street weeping. I had no support, no plan for how I was going to make it through the day, armed only with the knowledge that should I want my kill myself the drugs I’d been prescribed were well-equipped for the job.
I wish this was an isolated experience. But since documenting my mental health battles in my recent memoir Happy Never After, I’ve been inundated with messages from people across Australia telling similar stories.
Our complex emotional pain is being treated with six-minute medicine by time-poor GPs struggling to meet demand in a system woefully ill-equipped to deal with the mental health challenges of modern life.
It was revealed in recent days that GP waiting rooms are crammed full of patients with psychological problems.
Research released by the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners found that 62 per cent of people visiting a doctor are presenting with mental health problems – significantly more than any other medical condition.
College president-elect Dr Harry Nespolon said doctors are in an impossible situation, forced to either charge patients for more time to manage these complex problems or wear the out-of-pocket costs themselves.
“As access to psychologists and psychiatrists can be restrictive, to say the least, GPs must not only work as the frontline of support – but as the entire support model, something which is currently not supported by patient Medicare rebates,” he said.
How much longer can we continue like this? When will we stop treating emotional health as the poor cousin to physical health?
We are in the grip of a mental health crisis. We have the highest Australian youth suicide rate in a decade. More people are depressed, anxious and medicated than at any other time in our history. If trends continue, clinical depression will be the second most disabling condition behind heart disease by 2020.
Raising awareness is not enough. The time for wristbands and hashtags has passed. We have learned to ask R U OK but when the answer is ‘no’, too often there is nowhere to go.
Our Medicare system needs to better reflect the times we live in and the health problems we face. Doctors need the financial support to offer longer consultations for patients with complex psychological needs.
And as a matter of urgency, we must stop rationing psychological services to ten subsidised sessions per year.
When I was at my lowest point, I saw my psychologist twice week just to keep my head above water. I raced through my Medicare sessions in five weeks.
At almost $200 per hour, I then had to raise almost $400 a week just to stay in therapy and out of hospital.
There are few other areas of healthcare where we place such arbitrary limits on a patient’s ability to recover.
Through life’s lottery I was fortunate enough to have a supportive employer, and family who could afford to fund my therapy. Without their assistance I honestly don’t think I’d be alive.
Not everyone is so lucky. Many people are no longer here because they couldn’t afford their mental illness. It’s a devastating indictment on a system that is fundamentally broken.
We must demand better. The chances of surviving our emotional pain should not be determined by the balance of our bank accounts.
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Jill Stark is a Melbourne journalist and author of Happy Never After
(c) Fairfax Media Australia.