How to access a mental health treatment plan via Medicare

How to access a mental health treatment plan via Medicare

Did you know that you might be able to access free one-on-one sessions with a psychologist, if you have a mental health care plan? Dr Preeya Alexander explains how to go about getting one, and how it might help you feel a whole lot better. 

I think it’s safe to say that the global COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent social distancing restrictions haven’t been great for our collective mental health.

A recently conducted, nationally representative study conducted by Panadol found that post-COVID, 51% of Australians admitted to being more stressed and found it hard to ‘switch off’. And it’s not surprising, considering in the same study showed that the outbreak has caused financial difficulty for 60% of the general population, with up to 27% of respondents enduring a ‘great deal of financial difficulty’.

Similarly, a recent study by The Black Dog Institute found that for 78% of respondents their mental health had worsened since the COVID-19 outbreak. That’s a LOT.

One of the good things to come out of coronavirus (thankfully, there were some…) was the government making online therapy sessions easier to access and free via the bulk-billing of Telehealth services. Which could be helpful for those unsure of visiting a psychologist – even if you take the risk of COVID-19 infection out of the picture (which we all hope we can, soon).

Once you shake off any stigma you might have surrounding seeing a psychologist, you might want to look into getting a mental health treatment plan – which enables Australians to get up to 10 free appointments with a mental health professional, under Medicare.

We spoke to Dr Preeya Alexander, AKA the The Wholesome Doctor, about exactly how it works, and how to get one from your General Practitioner.

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What is a mental health care plan, and why should more Australians know about it?

Firstly, mental health care plans are a wonderful initiative that allows Australians to access either free or subsidised interventions with a psychologist for instance. It’s important to point out that the plan will not always lead to “free” treatment (sometimes it does) – but a significant subsidy in many cases.

Mental health care plans make interventions like psychology easier to access for the people who need it.

How do you get a mental health care plan?

There is a very clear step by step process that needs to be followed in order to attain a mental health care plan. Firstly, you need to have a chat to your GP about your mental health issues (be it anxiety, depression, stress, sleep issues etc). In order to qualify for a mental health care plan, you must have a diagnosed mental health condition – not every single person who is stressed will qualify for a plan (and that’s where the confusion can often arise).

There are many potential diagnoses when it comes to mental health issues, but your GP needs to attain whether or not the criteria for a formal diagnosis is met. If you do qualify the GP will do a mental health care plan for you – I usually do this over a double appointment with the patient; the required paperwork is filled AND clear lifestyle interventions (such as prescribed exercise, caffeine reduction and sleep hygiene) and medication interventions (if required) are clearly listed. The plan should give the patient, psychologist and GP a clear idea of what the management plan is.

Paperwork is then given to the patient and it allows them to access either free or subsidised sessions with a psychologist for instance. Initially, the patient gets six sessions with the psychologist and then a review is conducted by the GP (yes, more paperwork! But it’s to ensure everything is going on track and things are not worsening) to unlock the further four sessions. The patient is able to gain access to 10 sessions in total in a calendar year with a mental health care plan.

Are the sessions free, or is there a ‘gap’ that will need to be covered?

Lots of psychologists will heavily subsidise the sessions with a mental care plan (so the gap cost is less). As a GP who sees a lot of mental health in the clinic –completely “free” sessions are not overly common in metropolitan Melbourne for instance.

Dubious that your GP can actually help?

“There is so much we can do to help; from prescribed exercise and meditation, to regular GP and psychology reviews, to medication (if required). There is not a one-size-fits-all approach to mental health management. If you chat to a GP you have rapport with, you can work out what management plan might be right for you.

Lots of people with mental health issues mention they don’t feel like themselves – I would say if you want to try and get back to the “old you” chatting to your GP is a great first step in the right direction. You are not alone in feeling like this, and we can help.

I also mention, if people are reluctant, that I myself have been where they sit. I openly share my journey with generalised anxiety disorder over 10 years ago – simply to highlight that none of us are immune to mental health issues and having been there, I know how much intervention and the right kind of support can help.”

Who is the best candidate for the mental health treatment plan?

Anyone who qualifies, to be honest. If someone is struggling with mood issues then a mental health treatment plan can be a wonderful way to access additional support.

Patience is a virtue…

“Not EVERY single person will qualify for a mental health plan. Often a patient will come in and ask for a mental health care plan – it can take time to assess a patient and determine if they actually qualify.

Going into the GP and requesting a plan on the day does not often work – we need time to do an assessment, to exclude organic causes for mood issues (often with a blood test) and then a double appointment (in many cases) to actually do the plan with you; so don’t expect to ask for one and get one on the same day!”

Dr Preeya Alexander is a medical doctor, practising in Australia. She is passionate about preventative medicine, and specialises in depression, diabetes and sexual health, amongst other topics.

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