A mental health assessment gives your doctor a complete picture of your emotional state. It also looks at how well you are able to think, reason, and remember (cognitive functioning). Your doctor will ask you questions and examine you. You might answer some of the doctor's questions in writing. Your doctor will take note of how you look as well as your mood, behavior, thinking, reasoning, and memory, and how well you can express yourself. Your doctor will also ask questions about how you get along with other people. This includes your family and friends. Sometimes the assessment includes lab tests, such as blood or urine tests.
A mental health assessment for a child is geared to the child's age and stage of development.
Why It Is Done
A mental health assessment is done to:
- Find out about and check on mental health problems. This can include anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, dementia, and anorexia nervosa.
- Help tell the difference between mental and physical health problems.
- Check a person who has been referred for mental health treatment. This might be done for problems at school, work, or home. For example, it may be used to find out if a child has a learning disability, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or a conduct disorder (CD).
- Check the mental health of a person who has been in the hospital or arrested for a crime, such as drunk driving or physical abuse.
How To Prepare
If you are having a mental health assessment because you have certain symptoms, you may be asked to keep a diary or journal for a few days before the test. You may be asked to bring a family member or friend with you. They can describe your symptoms from their view.
If your child is being checked for behavior problems, you may be asked to keep a diary or journal of how he or she acts for a couple of days. Your child's teacher may need to answer questions about how your child acts at school.
Be sure to tell your doctor about all the medicines you take, even over-the-counter ones. Many medicines can change the results of this test.
Talk with your doctor about any concerns you have regarding the need for the test, its risks, how it will be done, or what the results will mean. To help you understand the importance of this test, fill out the medical test information form ( What is a PDF document? ).
How It Is Done
Health professionals often do a brief mental health check during regular checkups. If you are having symptoms of a mental health problem, your doctor may do a more complete assessment. Or he or she may refer you to another doctor, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist.
You will have an interview with a doctor. You may also get a physical exam and written or verbal tests.
During the interview, your doctor notes your mood and how you present yourself. You will be asked to talk about your symptoms and concerns. Be as detailed as you can. If you have kept a diary or journal of your symptoms, share this with your doctor.
Your doctor may ask you questions to check how well you think, reason, and remember. He or she may ask you questions to find out how you feel about life, and if you are likely to hurt yourself.
You may get a physical exam. Your doctor will ask about your past health as well as that of your family members. He or she will ask what medicines you take.
Your doctor may test your reflexes, balance, and senses (hearing, taste, sight, smell, and touch).
You may have lab tests done on a blood or urine sample. If your doctor thinks you may have a nervous system problem, you may get tests such as an MRI, an EEG, or a CT scan. Lab tests to find other problems may include thyroid function tests, electrolyte levels, or toxicology screening (to look for drug or alcohol problems).
Written or verbal tests
You will be asked some questions and will answer out loud or on a piece of paper. Your answers are then rated and scored by your doctor.
Written tests most often have 20 to 30 questions that can be answered quickly. These are often in a "yes" or "no" format. You can do them by yourself at a regular office visit.
Many mental health tests are available. They look at:
- Specific problems. For example, the Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression, the Beck Depression Inventory, or the Geriatric Depression Scale can be used to check for symptoms of depression.
- How well you are able to think, reason, and remember. The Mini Mental State Examination can be used to check this.
- How well you are able to carry out routine tasks, such as eating, dressing, shopping, or banking.
Sometimes a longer mental health test, such as the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, may be needed. The test may be given by a specialist such as a psychologist.
How a child's mental health is looked at will depend on the age of the child and what problem the doctor thinks the child may have. Young children may be asked to draw pictures to express their feelings. They may also be asked to look at images of common subjects and talk about how these make them feel. Parents or teachers may be asked to answer a checklist of questions about the child.
How long does it take?
The time it takes will depend on the reason the test is being done. An interview with written or verbal tests may last 30 to 90 minutes. It can last longer if several different tests are done. An in-depth test such as the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale may take 1 to 2 hours.
How It Feels
A mental health assessment is used to find out how you think and feel.
- You may feel resentful, angry, or hostile if you are being checked for a problem, such as alcohol use disorder. You may not want to have the test.
- You may feel afraid if you are being checked for a health condition, such as Alzheimer's disease.
- You may worry or become upset if your condition is not quickly or easily found. Some mental health problems are hard to diagnose.
Lab tests usually don't cause much discomfort. The blood sample is taken from a vein in your arm. An elastic band is wrapped around your upper arm. It may feel tight. You may feel nothing at all from the needle, or you may feel a quick sting or pinch. And if you have a urine test, it is not painful to collect a urine sample.
Your doctor may not be able to find the cause of your symptoms. Some mental health problems are hard to diagnose. More than one mental health assessment or other tests may be needed.
A mental health assessment gives your doctor a complete picture of your emotional state. It also looks at how well you are able to think, reason, and remember. Your doctor may discuss some of the results with you right away. Complete results may not be ready for several days.
Many conditions can change the results of a mental health assessment. Your doctor will talk with you about how your results relate to your symptoms and past health.
A mental health assessment can help find:
- Mental health problems, such as anxiety disorders, depression, schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, conduct disorder, bipolar disorders, and eating disorders.
- Developmental problems, such as learning disabilities, intellectual disability, and autism.
- Substance use including substance use disorder.
- Diseases of the nervous system, such as Alzheimer's disease, Huntington's disease, Parkinson's disease, and epilepsy.
- Other problems, such as thyroid disease and brain tumors.
What Affects the Test
You may not be able to have the test, or the results may not be helpful, if you:
- Are not able to work with and trust your doctor.
- Are not willing to have the test done.
- Have physical or emotional problems that prevent you from being able to complete a written test. In most cases, other testing tools can be used.
- Use some medicines, alcohol, or illegal drugs.
- Have trouble reading, writing, or understanding English.
What To Think About
- Some mental health problems can be hard to diagnose. You may need more than one mental health assessment and other tests to diagnose your problem.
- What your family and friends see or think about your symptoms can sometimes help your doctor diagnose a mental health problem. Think about having a family member or friend come with you to your appointment.
- The results of your mental health exam will be confidential.
- Contact your human resources department or local health department to find out what support services are available in your area.
Other Works Consulted
- U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (2003). Screening for dementia: Recommendation and rationale. Available online: http://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/3rduspstf/dementia/dementrr.htm.
Current as of: May 28, 2019
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Christine R. Maldonado PhD - Behavioral Health