Defining, Communicating, and Advocating for Ourselves

Asking the Right Questions and Defining Our Diagnoses

I was lucky enough to come across Dr. Jaimie Hunter on Twitter (@jaimiephd). The tweet that caught my eye mentioned questions to ask your mental health doctor at your next visit. Throughout the course of my treatment with both psychiatrists and therapists, I've always kept a list of things I felt I needed to discuss, but so often, my lists fell short of getting the answers to questions I wasn't even aware that I needed to be asking. Dr. Jaimie's list really spoke to me, and I think it's a great starting point whether you are just starting treatment or if you've been a long-timer.

Dr. Jaimie was kind enough to allow me to share her list, but before I do that, I'm going to recommend that you actually spend some time getting to know her and her blog. Below is a quote from another of her posts, When Diagnosis Becomes Identity. This is such an important topic because we really frame our futures and our interactions based on the way we present and/or label ourselves.

Dr. Jaimie Hunter

Dr. Jaimie Hunter

We all need to belong. Have we considered, though, that we might be defining ourselves according to a medical condition rather than as fantastic writers with brilliant new releases, or as kind-hearted family people, or as talented singers with voices of angels, or perhaps as dog rescuers? We say we are not our medical conditions, and yet we define ourselves straight out of the gate according to “what has us.” – Jaimie Hunter, PhD, When Diagnosis Becomes Identity

I struggle with simply identifying with the fact that I have Bipolar Disorder. I don't know how to tell people about it, or when the appropriate time is to disclose. I certainly don't want to offer up the information as though it's the only defining characteristic of me. Yes, it has changed my life, at times it has ruled my life, and has ruined parts of my life. It's a big part of me and particularly my history when it was an undiagnosed but constant and prevalent companion. Now that I have a name to give to the demons of my mind, it is my responsibility to take an active role in keeping them at bay, getting treatment, and hopefully never allowing them to fully take over again.

Now on to the actual point of this post:

15 Questions to Ask Your Doc About Mental Illness

Graciously provided by Dr. Jaimie Hunter, PhD - Please read the full post on

  1. What condition do you think I have, and are there subtypes or “kinds” of this disease? If so, which subtype do you believe I have? (Sometimes your doctor may diagnose you with one type of your disease or another, based on your symptoms. For example, there are different types of bipolar disorder, characterized by the nature of the manias and depressions those affected experience. It is important to classify by symptoms for treatment purposes, but it also may help you understand your condition better.)
  2. Which symptoms or signs led you to this conclusion? What about my lab results?
  3. What can I expect from this disease? (What is this disease like? What do people with my condition go through or experience? Might it impact my lifespan?)
  4. What likely caused my condition? (Remember that pathology does not develop in a vacuum. There are often genetic, biological, environmental, behavioral, and/or social etiological factors.)
  5. How rare is my condition?
  6. Is this condition chronic? (Will I be handling it for the rest of my life, or is it something that will go away with careful adherence to treatment?)
  7. What will I need to do to control my symptoms? (Lifestyle changes may be necessary to help minimize your distress. For example, some people benefit from yoga or meditation. You may also need psychotherapy or medication.)
  8. What are the different treatment options that are available to me? (Note that this question reaches beyond simply, “What meds do I have to take?” Also: What is the gold standard treatment? Are any homeopathic treatments recommended? What do we know and not know about this medication or practice?)
  9. If medication is recommended, how do I take it? What happens if I don’t take my meds?
  10. What can I expect in the way of medication side effects, if medications are recommended?
  11. What can I reasonably expect from my treatment? (One positive approach to this question asks, will my condition go into remission? It is also important to know what the effects on your body will be over time, and my experience is that this aspect is frequently overlooked by physicians. You may also want to know what percent of people benefit from treatment.)
  12. Is there anything I should NOT do with my condition? (Examples may include drinking alcohol, staying up all night, exposing yourself to stress, and being sedentary.)
  13. Are you the right person to handle my treatment? [Don’t be afraid to ask doctors whether they feel comfortable treating you themselves. Sometimes, generalists (internists, family medicine doctors) will be more comfortable referring you to a psychiatrist, and even some psychiatrists may recommend you see someone else who specializes in treating your specific condition. You want to know this upfront so you can make a necessary decision to get the best care possible.]
  14. What are my next steps? (This question is critical! You should leave your doctor’s office with an explicit plan for what you need to do next to care for your condition.)
  15. How regularly will I need to engage with you, and when do you want to see me back? (Don’t forget to make an appointment before you leave—unless, of course, you are uncomfortable with your provider.)

Fortunately and unfortunately, we have to advocate for ourselves in regard to getting proper treatment. This means we have to inform and educate ourselves.  If you're anything like me, it's hard not to go into a meeting with a doctor or therapist without wearing a game face, and presenting yourself as though you're okay, or "tougher" than you really feel. It's hard to break down the wall and be authentic and vulnerable, but it's important for them to see the real you and not have to dig through an exterior.

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