Both this article and the accompanying art were first published in Lot’s Wife Edition 5, 2021.
Content warning: mental health, illness
I remember the first time that I called to book a counselling appointment. I don’t remember exactly what drew me to the phone, but I do remember it being a spur of the moment decision that required me to momentarily swallow the ‘my problems aren’t large enough yet’ rhetoric for just long enough to input the number.
The phone rang, and rang, and rang. My brain went into overdrive trying to protect me from this uncomfortable feeling – the gap between knowing I had to do something and actually going through with it.
“Hang up. You don’t need this support, Charlotte.”
“What would you even talk about?”
“Someone definitely has it worse than you.”
Before I could act on any of these thoughts, a receptionist picked up my call, asked me a few questions, and I was suddenly booked in for a few days’ time and entered the world of professional mental health support (which is not as scary as it sounds!).
Two years on, I am one of the Welfare Officers at the Monash Student Association and spend many of my waking hours advocating for stronger student mental health outcomes. Making that split-second decision to explore my mental health professionally has exposed me to a larger conversation. How do we make mental health services more accessible? How do we fight the stigma associated with asking for help?
Firstly, I hope that if we make the process of receiving professional help blue-water clear for students, we can progressively suffocate the confusion and societal taboo around openly discussing mental health. However, more importantly, I’d like to acknowledge that seeking professional support is not for everyone. I have certainly learned in my role this year just how intersectional of a topic it is. My subject position is not to persuade you into seeking help, but rather gently walk you through the process, should you or someone you know wish to join me.
We’re often told to “ask for help”, but not actually told what this looks like beyond that first decision. I’m not going to focus on the reasons why people may ask for help, as if the person reading this is anything like me, I’d just scan down the list to find my particular issue and determine whether I ‘qualify’. Instead, I’m going to start this journey by returning to the initial decision to seek professional support in the context of Monash Counselling services.
Before you book your first appointment – be prepared
Spend a moment thinking about what you’d like to get out of your experience. Would you prefer to see a psychologist of a particular gender? Is there a particular area you’d like your psychologist to specialise in? How about language requirements? All the information about Monash counsellors can be found here. Alternatively, your priority may be getting in as soon as possible, so you may not have preferences as to who you see.
Have the following information ready: your full name, student ID and phone number. You may also be asked if you’ve attended the University Health Service before for a GP appointment – this is just so all your information is consolidated in one file.
At Monash, you have two choices for seeking mental health support. You can go down the Monash Counselling route or obtain a Mental Health Care Plan through your GP.
Monash Counselling: Monash contracted psychologists work to equip students with mental health tools and support students. It is a free service, and you can see a Monash counsellor for anything that remotely concerns your mental health.
Mental Health Care Plan: A MHCP is a plan made between you, your GP and psychologist to determine your current mental state and outline your mental health goals. Monash has several Medicare-funded psychologists, but you can also use a MHCP at a practice outside of Monash. You can view a template MHCP here.
Monash Counselling or a Mental Health Care Plan – which one should I choose?
The short answer is that it depends on your needs. I have personally used both services – I went through Monash Counselling the first time I ever received mental health support because it was free, on campus (now, predominantly telehealth) and I could get in quickly. Through Monash Counselling, you can receive up to six sessions at a time. Also, although the name suggests otherwise, the majority of the Monash counsellors are registered psychologists. Whereas I think the MHCP route is helpful if you are working through a particular issue and would like longer term support. However, it is important to note that wait times are typically longer (as there are less Medicare-funded psychologists at Monash) and if you leave Monash Counselling services, you will more than likely have to pay an out-of-pocket fee (you get a rebate, but the entire session isn’t covered).
Booking your first appointment
If you decide to go down the Monash Counselling route, you’ll have to ring Monash University Health Services on 9905 3020 (open 9am-5pm weekdays) and book a new patient appointment. This should be a straightforward process, as you’ve done the preparation already and know what you’ll be asked. Alternatively, you go through HotDoc for a MHCP. Simply search ‘Monash University Hot Doc’, choose a GP and book a long session (45 minutes). Booking a long session is essential – I didn’t do this when I first booked for a MHCP and was turned away because there simply isn’t enough time to go through all the questions in 15 minutes. You can get a MHCP at any GP practice, still book in for a 45-minute session. When you have found a psychology practice, your GP will write you a referral letter to send to them.
Preparing for your first session
Everyone’s first psychology appointment will look different and largely depends on the psychologist’s approach. However, here are some points you may wish to reflect on going into the first session:
- What would you like to get out of this? It is okay if you’re unsure. But asking yourself what you’re hoping to gain from this experience may also help you work out what you need to put in (whether that be sharing a particular experience or being open to changing an aspect of your life).
- Who do you normally ask for help from and why? This may help you determine what your ‘asking for help’ style is like. You may value the friend who allows you to vent and listens non-judgmentally, the one who kindly gives you tools on what you can do next, or a mixture.
- What is the gap you’re trying to fill? There is absolutely a place for friends, family, and a psychologist in your support network. However, it may be worth asking yourself which gap a psychologist can help you fill.
After your first session
You may experience what Brene Brown calls a ‘vulnerability hangover’ – you just did a big thing! Issues may have come up that you’d previously pushed deep down your chest, and that can feel disorienting. Whatever you are feeling right now is completely valid, including if you think you just wasted an hour of your time. If you’re wondering whether this ordeal is worth going through again, I kindly suggest you give your psychologist at least three sessions to get to know you – we wouldn’t expect to click with a stranger in an hour, and our psychologist is no different.
However, after a few sessions, if you still don’t feel like you clicked with your first psychologist, try to use the insights you’ve gained to explain to a new psychologist what you’d like from the experience, rather than seeing this as a ‘wasted’ effort.
I’d like to conclude by reminding you that whatever your decision is around seeking professional support, it is valid. Personally, I had to acknowledge that my thoughts and beliefs around my problems not being large enough was never going to go away. I realised that my behaviour didn’t have to match this belief and I went ahead and booked the appointment anyway. Ultimately, you know what you need, and should professional support be on your radar, I hope this article has demystified the process.
Disclosure statement: Charlotte Barber is a MSA Welfare Office Bearer, and a Project Officer for Monash Counselling & Mental Health Programs.
Art by Kathy Lee @xraelia