Counselling via the NHS Part 1: The doctor, the referral and the wait

One of the questions I've been asked the most by those close to me or by other people struggling with their mental health is what my experience of counselling has been.

I've been down both the private and NHS route, and by far the counsellor who transformed my thinking the most was the NHS worker I had 12 sessions with while living in Ilford, during the second half of last year.

I thought I'd share a bit about the experience in a three-part series, over the next three days:
Day 1: The doctor, the referral and the wait
Day 2: The sessions
Day 3: Afterthoughts

I hope this is helpful to anyone nervous about asking about help themselves, or those wondering whether this would be the right route for them.

My anxiety and depression journey has spanned about four years, and halfway through 2016 I hit one of my very lowest points, and really needed proper help. I was actually sent home from work one day as they were so concerned about me, and told not to return until I had got proper advice from a doctor. The support I received from my workplace at the time was absolutely incredible, and maybe something I will touch on at another time.

Unfortunately, my GP experience in Ilford wasn't the best. The receptionists were extremely rude, even when I told them I had already contacted 111 in a complete state and been told I needed an appointment the very same day. When I finally saw a GP a week later, he simply handed me a little card and said 'oh yes, you're meant to just refer yourself'.

Picking myself up from that, I gave the local Talking Therapies service a call. I fell under the borough of Redbridge, and was in the fortunate position that the waiting list wasn't too long in my area (about seven weeks. For comparison, I've been on a waiting list for eating disorder counselling in a new area now for well over three months with no hint I'll be seen any time soon).

The initial Talking Therapies phone call is mainly logistical. They'll take your details, ask a few questions to make sure you're not in immediate danger (either to yourself or those around you), and they'll book you in for an online consultation. Mine was arranged for three days later.

I was extremely anxious about this assessment call, but actually it was fairly straightforward. You're taken through a questionnaire which allows the counsellor you're speaking to to assess your mental state and decide what kind of treatment will be necessary. Some of the questions felt a little scary, but they have to rule out many conditions as well as assessing those you've contacted them about. They take the form of multiple choice questions, or questions where you have to rank you agreement with a statement on a scale from one to ten.

The call took about 20-25 minutes, and I was told I was in need of one-to-one CBT therapy, for an initial period of six weeks (the standard length), and that my anxiety and depression were both showing as 'severe'.

I was told I would be contacted within about eight weeks' time with the date and details of my first appointment.

Eight weeks.

At that moment, it sounded like forever. I was in such a state at that point that the thought of waiting for two months was pretty scary, but I was in the very fortunate position of having extremely supportive people around me both at home and at work.

Knowing I had made that call and an appointment would be coming did help me a little, and during the wait I did manage to pull myself up out of the darkness a little bit using techniques I had used in hard periods before that one.

I honestly don't know what I would have done in that wait without the support I do have, so I'm extremely grateful for the fact I do have that, and that my wait was much shorter than so many people experience.

At the beginning of week seven of the wait, I received a phone call from the man who was to be my counsellor for the next few months. We arranged a start date, and he sad this would be confirmed in a letter.

That call was a relief. I had a date, I had a name of the person I would be seeing, and on the phone he had a lovely, calm manner. The location was about a five minute car journey from my home.

It was time.

Tomorrow I will share more about the sessions themselves, and don't hesitate to message me with any other questions...


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