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Seeking help: Why so many Australians with anxiety are holding back

It takes, on average, eight years for someone with anxiety to seek help.

It takes, on average, eight years for someone with anxiety to seek help. Photo: Getty

Experts are calling for Australians with anxiety symptoms to get help sooner as research reveals that people are putting up with the common disorder for almost a decade before seeking treatment.

Stigma, a fear of failure, not recognising symptoms and medicine concerns are some of the barriers holding sufferers back from a proper diagnosis, psychologists and patients say.

Perth resident and pharmacist Gemma Latter experienced her first panic attack when she was 10 years old.

By age 16, she was diagnosed with anxiety disorder – but says the stigma attached to mental health disorders led her to neglect counselling sessions for years.

“The problem was when I was younger I never really opened up about it or told people. And I found that, if I did, I was shut down or people didn’t think I had problems and I was just being a bit of a sook,” the now 23-year-old said.

Like many others in her situation, Gemma was also concerned about taking medicines to treat the condition.

“I didn’t want to go on medicines for a long time and it was a last resort for me because it feels like you’re losing or giving in,” she said.

Gemma Latter

A fear of failure held Gemma back from dealing with her anxiety disorder for years.

Gemma is among the one in seven Australians between 16 and 85 years old who have anxiety disorder.

While anxiety is a normal response to stress, people with the disorder will have symptoms that linger or resurface over a long time.

A feeling of being ‘on edge’, constant worry, a pounding heart and shortness of breath are some of the symptoms to be aware of – especially if they are frequent and affecting a person’s day-to-day activities, psychologists say.

Antidepressants and counselling are the two main approaches to treating anxiety disorders, which can range from social anxiety, to debilitating panic attacks, often with no obvious trigger.

GP and NPS MedicineWise medical adviser Dr Jeannie Yoo said it’s not uncommon for patients to be worried about taking medicines for mental health disorders.

Their reasons might range from being worried about side effects, being seen as a failure, to concerns around not feeling like themselves or being as alert as usual.

She said it’s important that people understand that there is a range of treatments and interventions available – medication being only one.

“For anxiety, in the majority of cases, it’s psychological treatment that’s the mainstay. And in some situations, where there’s moderate and severe anxiety, medication is appropriate then,” Dr Yoo said.

Clinical psychologist from St Vincent’s Hospital Dr Alison Mahoney said there is not a ‘one size fits all’ approach to treatment but patients will see results by sticking to a program that works for them.

She said that online cognitive behavioural therapy is very effective and  is particularly useful for people who are wanting to avoid face-to-face counselling, or don’t have access to a clinic.

However, a recent survey by NPS MedicineWise found that few Australians are aware of the benefits of online therapy.

“Online treatment programs are as effective as face-to-face programs, particularly when they’re clinician-guided,” Dr Mahoney said.

“Even if you do these programs on your own, without any support from anyone, as long as you stick to the program you’re likely to get comparable benefit as someone who is being supervised or receiving treatment face to face.”

Gemma credits a combination of medication, cognitive therapy and lifestyle changes for helping her to cope with symptoms.

“I’m still anxious every day to some extent. Sometimes it’s quite severe.”

“[But] now I know my symptoms and habits, and my triggers, so I have ways to try and cope,” she said.

Where to seek help

  • “Confiding in a GP is a good start, and then finding a psychologist you trust is important,” Gemma said.
  • Browse the eMHPrac services page for a list of evidence-based programs
  • For a free, evidence-based program try MindSpot
  • Low-cost online courses are available through St Vincent’s Hospital’s This Way Up website 
  • If you experience panic attacks, you may be eligible for the UNSW One-Week Panic Program free trial.
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