Mental health conditions such as depression, panic, stress, and anxiety are extremely common and affect one out of every five persons living in the United States. Substance use disorders affect approximately one in every 10 people. Although these conditions can be very distressing, they are also highly treatable. 

But can your family doctor diagnose depression or anxiety?

Many persons living with mental health conditions initially seek treatment within primary care. Indeed, it is estimated that up to 70 percent of primary care visits are due to concerns related to mental health. This is due to many factors, including the fact that many people prefer to get treatment from their primary care provider who they know and trust, but also due to concerns about stigma associated with mental health treatment. Additionally, a shortage of mental health professionals in some parts of the United States increases the difficulty of getting into treatment with a mental health clinician. 

Because of their training, most primary care clinicians are familiar with how to diagnose and begin treatment for common mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, panic, and stress-related issues. This can involve administering a screening instrument such as the Patient Health Questionnaire 9 (PHQ-9). They can start appropriate treatment such as medications and make referrals to other mental health clinicians (psychologists, licensed counselors, social workers, and psychiatrists, to name a few). This is particularly important, as it may take some time to get into treatment with a mental health specialist.  

Additionally, some primary care offices maintain a list of other community-based resources that can support individuals with mental health conditions. Clinic social workers can also be extremely helpful in navigating the treatment and social services system.  

If you think you might be experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition and would like to get help from your primary care provider, it is best to make an appointment specifically to discuss this. In preparing for your visit, it can be very helpful to make a list of the symptoms that you are experiencing as this can help focus your interview. It is also very helpful to find out ahead of the visit if there is a family history of mental health conditions. Knowing which family members experienced what conditions and what treatments were effective for other family members can be very helpful.    

Finally, if a person is experiencing mental health distress, including suicidal ideation, it is best to call or text the national suicide crisis hotline, 988, or in Philadelphia call 215-685-6440. This provides access to trained counselors who can help to address the crisis or, if need be, dispatch mobile crisis teams to the individual’s location in the community to address the crisis. Remember, you are not alone; help is available. 

About the Author: Dr. Sosunmolu Shoyinka is Chief Medical Officer for the City of Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS).