Conditions like depression, anxiety and substance abuse in young adults are getting more attention than ever after the traumas of living through a pandemic and coping with political and climate instability.

Many logically assume the first step is to find a therapist or psychiatrist, which can lead to time spent on online research and phone calls to find someone in-network with your health insurance, followed by multiple weeks or months of waiting for that first appointment.

What you might not think to do is save that time and energy by starting with a simple visit to your primary care team.

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Dr. Pulak Patel

“We talk about mental health all the time,” said Dr. Pulak Patel, a family medicine physician at Novant Health Primary Care South End in Charlotte, who has seen an uptick in mental health symptoms at her clinic. “Sometimes I feel like we’re primary care psychiatrists. We’re kind of the quarterbacks of a patient’s health. We’re trying to initially evaluate, assess and manage everything that we can.”

Primary care physicians are equipped to manage a lot of concerns beyond physical health. They include a variety of mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, postpartum depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and panic attacks. (Note, you’ll see the phrase “behavioral health” used to refer to mental health in many health care circles.)

Patel also has a nonoperative sports medicine background, so she commonly treats sprains, strains and arthritis, and she can administer injections for orthopedic conditions. Bonus: She speaks both English and Spanish to reach more patients.

“In general, what I love about family medicine is the variety of patients and illnesses we get to see,” she said.

Patel explains what young adults should know about their primary care physician’s variety of capabilities when they’re concerned about their mental health.

If you’re having symptoms, your primary care physician can assess you.

If you have a serious concern like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, we can refer you to the right psychiatrist. But with more common concerns like stress, it’s similar to having high blood pressure – you don’t necessarily need to see a cardiologist right away.

We screen everyone for depression and anxiety. When people come for their first visit or for their annual physical, I have them do a questionnaire online or in the office. Depression is a nine-question screening based on symptoms, and anxiety is a seven-question survey. If either screening is positive (indicating depression or anxiety), we can talk about it further.

A lot of people are willing to talk about but don’t know how to bring it up or don’t know it’s something we can talk about. I can ask them how long they’ve been feeling this way, and it opens the door to a deeper discussion.

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