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Just like you look after your physical health with good nutrition, regular exercise and routine health checks, it’s also important to check-in on your mental health – and that’s where a psychologist comes in.
About 1.68 million Australians took advantage of a Medicare-subsidised visit to a psychologist last year as part of an in-clinic session, a telehealth consultation or a group therapy meeting. And the Government’s healthdirect site explains that a psychologist can help with a myriad of challenges or problems including financial stress, breakups, grief, depression and anxiety, addiction, phobias and low self-esteem.
So, what can you expect from your first visit to a psychologist? We spoke with Clinical Psychologist at Life Matters, Matthew Stanton, to answer all your biggest questions.
A psychologist is a specialist in the assessment and treatment of mental health disorders. And while they are there to guide you through difficulties, it’s very much an active process.
Research shows that although the ‘type’ of therapy you do is important, it’s the trust and connection you have with your psychologist that really determines the level of success from the therapy. That’s why it’s essential that you feel comfortable with your psychologist, explains Matthew.
“People might want to disengage with therapy in order to not disclose their vulnerability to their psychologist.”
To facilitate trust, Matthew says your psychologist should “create a compassionate, non-judgemental environment that enables you to take the risk to discuss the things that you may be afraid to acknowledge.”
Before you make an appointment, think about what you want to get out of the sessions and look at a range of different psychologists’ areas of specialisation.
“Getting a personal recommendation is a very good option,” says Matthew. It’s important to know that you don’t have to see the first psychologist your GP refers you to – you can use your referral to see one that you choose yourself.
A few things to ask yourself before you head into your first psychology appointment:
It’s also a good idea to have a list of questions for your psychologist so you can get a better overview of what your treatment plan will look like. This could include things like: How many appointments do I need? How often? How much does it cost and what payment options do you have? Will I require any complementary treatments or therapies?
Something else to remember is that it’s completely normal to feel nervous in the lead-up to your first appointment.
“It can help to acknowledge to yourself that you’re distressed and accept that it’s ok to feel anxious at the first appointment,” says Matthew. “But be assured that the psychologist understands that the first session might be difficult, and they’ll make you feel welcome.”
During your first appointment, you may be given a questionnaire that asks about your concerns and what you’re hoping to achieve from the appointment. Once the session begins, the psychologist may discuss the type of therapy they do.
Don’t hesitate to ask questions along the way. Remember that it’s your session, and the psychologist is there to help you.
“Part of the first session is to build trust and openness, and understand the motivation, expectations and fears the person has in building that connection with a psychologist,” says Matthew.
They’ll also talk to you about confidentiality: psychologists are not allowed to share anything you say to them.
There are, however, a few exceptions to this obligation of confidentiality, which your psychologist should explain to you at the beginning of the session. We’ve addressed a couple of these exceptions below.
“If your psychologist feels you are unsafe, that information can be shared,” says Matthew. "Psychologists are also mandatory reporters if we think that children may be at risk.”
The first session is about trying to understand the difficulties happening right now
“The first session is about trying to understand the difficulties happening right now, and later sessions might be spent looking across a person’s history and how it could be influencing their current situation,” says Matthew.
“Together we’re trying to understand what’s causing the distress. It’s about people looking to find insight into what in their life and personality is contributing to their mental health deteriorating, so when those events come up in future, they don’t lose ground.
“We talk with clients about how we improve their mental wellbeing with them, so it’s an open partnership to define goals and carry forward therapy.”
It’s okay to tell your psychologist if you don’t like part of the process – for some people, in fact, asserting themselves and being open about experiencing a conflict can be an important step!
Your psychologist won’t dismiss or disapprove of you, interrupt you or tell you what they think you should do. But they may occasionally guide you into territory that feels difficult.
“If you want to create lasting change, it’s important to communicate to clients that the process of improving their mental health can bring up feelings that cause them distress,” says Matthew. “But we can support them to learn to tolerate these feelings and develop better ways to respond to difficult emotions.”
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to seeing a psychologist. While some people may only need a couple of sessions, others may need ongoing support to get through a challenging situation.
“People generally seek help for mental health conditions with mild to moderate conditions or levels of distress. These people might just need eight to 10 sessions over three to 12 months,” says Matthew. “It could be that they’re going through a difficult transition in their life or a single episode of ‘poor’ mental health.
“For someone with a moderate to severe anxiety disorder or major depression, they may need fortnightly sessions for a year or more to help them maintain mental health or to avoid hospital stays.”
If you feel that you could benefit from seeing a psychologist for personalised advice and a treatment plan, the next step is to talk to your GP about getting a referral.
Alternatively, if you or someone you know needs help, please call:
Matthew Stanton is the Clinical Director and Owner of Life Matters Psychologists. He has over 20 years of clinical experience, psychologically assessing and providing therapy to children, adolescents and adults with mild, moderate and severe mental health disorders.