Feeling down every so often is a normal part of life. But if you’re feeling trapped by an unrelenting sadness, anxiousness or hopelessness that keeps you from your usual routine, it’s time to speak to your primary care physician (PCP).
Your PCP, really? Yes, really.
“There are many reasons patients may prefer to see their primary care provider for complaints that may seem more ‘psychological’ than ‘physical,'” said Patrick Aquino, MD, a psychiatrist who is leading Lahey Hospital & Medical Center’s efforts to more closely integrate primary care and behavioral health services. “We’ve made a lot of progress fighting the stigma attached to mental illness, but many patients still worry about being judged for needing help. They’re more comfortable seeking care in a place where they get their ‘regular’ healthcare. Patients already have a relationship with their primary care providers, so it’s easier for them to open up about their emotional struggles”
In 2010, approximately one in five visits to a primary care provider was related to a mental health issue, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More and more PCPs — internists, family physicians, pediatricians, physician assistants, and nurse practitioners — are providing behavioral health care for issues that may not require a psychiatrist or psychologist, such as depression and anxiety.
“Often, patients don’t come in specifically because they’re feeling anxious or depressed,” said Aquino. “Instead, they come in because they’re not feeling well and, following a conversation to better understand the nature of their complaint, the doctor might uncover an issue and prescribe an intervention that is behavioral in nature.”
Depression and anxiety are common issues your PCP can help you address. In addition, PCPs also help patients who are struggling with behavioral health concerns such as grief, insomnia, smoking cessation and medication dependence. For many of these concerns, treatment plans focus on behavioral changes, including increasing exercise and improving sleep.
In recent years, Lahey has been bringing on more behavioral health experts to primary care teams. Patients often find they’re more comfortable talking to a behavioral health specialist in the same setting where they get their primary care and Lahey’s integrated, team-based approach enables its providers to better care for the whole person.
“Better integrating the care of the body and the mind is a win-win situation because behavioral health struggles can have a huge impact on how patients take care of their other medical problems,” said Aquino. “If you’re depressed and diabetic, you may not have the energy to keep your blood sugar levels in control or take your medication regularly. Your PCP can also uncover whether there is an underlying physiological cause — a hormonal imbalance, for example — to your psychological symptoms,” added Aquino.
For any health concerns, behavioral or physical, begin by speaking with a physician and he or she will connect you with the right care.