If you are fortunate enough to be able to see a doctor on a regular basis, you're familiar with the forms. Usually they involve some sort of clipboard and contain pages that ask about our medical history. A necessary evil that we tolerate, the forms always ask: are you a smoker? If you answer YES to that question, you’re going to get an earful and rightfully so. Cigarettes are real bad news. I bet you knew that, I did. When I smoked, every doctor with whom I crossed paths had a lecture prepared. Every. Single. One.
We put other things on those forms, too. Things that—if we're honest about them—should trigger all sorts of uncomfortable and potentially live-saving conversations. Discussions that should be as important as any 10 minute lecture about smoking.
Here’s the part where I tell you about "my friend.” Though real and not me, I have experienced much of what she tells me about her recent doctor visits. She is still a smoker. Guess what: she knows it’s bad for her. She’s also honest about it on those medical forms. She puts other things on those forms, too. Things like:
I have suffered from crippling panic attacks, anxiety and depression for my entire adult life and most of my childhood, too.
Guess what: while every doctor remembers to lecture her extensively about her smoking, the vast majority fail to ever say:
- How are you coping with your mental health challenges today?
- Do you feel like you have access to adequate care?
- Are the medications you take working?
- Any side effects?
- Do you feel safe?
- Does your mental health negatively impact your relationships with friends and family?
- Do you think they could benefit from talking to someone?
- Can I help you find additional resources to manage your care?
- Any other concerns we should talk about today?
Pretty long list, huh? Guess what: I don’t think it’s an exhaustive list either—because I’m a writer, not a doctor. I bet there are a few conversation starters there, too? Those conversations are hard and personal and I think far too few doctors are willing to initiate them. When some doctor walks in on us as we sit cold and vulnerable in our paper gowns, it’s hard to say: hey, I see here that you have a significant history of pretty debilitating mental health issues. Can we talk about how things are going for you lately?
We put things on those forms for a reason. On every form I fill out these days, I list that two of my three sisters have survived cancer. You better believe that I am always asked about those little nuggets. And yet when I list that I have taken a medication for 13 years, it's rare that a doctor ever asks me why.
I'd surely be happy to tell them that if I didn't take it, I'd probably never sleep and eventually I'd have no desire to leave my house. That's probably a conversation I should be having with every doctor who treats me from now until the end of time even though it'll be awkward for both of us.
My friend and I both know that those conversations matter. I will go back to any doctor who shows compassion and a genuine concern for my health—physical and mental. Please ask me how I’m doing. Please ask my friend. Our mental health is every bit as important as our physical health.
Please ask us how we're doing.