If you are new to therapy or are exploring different options for treatment, it’s natural to have questions about first steps. A common, but misunderstood initial step is the psychological or “psych” evaluation.
It may sound intimidating, but a psych evaluation is a simple way for your therapist or health care provider to understand what you’re going through at the moment.
What is a Psychological Evaluation?
A psychological evaluation is a mental health assessment, where a professional, such as a family doctor, psychologist, or psychiatrist checks to see if you are experiencing a mental health problem. This evaluation generally involves multiple components, which can include answering questions verbally, receiving a physical test, and completing a questionnaire. It becomes the first line of defense when seeking treatment for mental illness.
For psychologists, an assessment like this helps determine the exact nature and extent of a person’s mental illness. Using a variety of evaluation tools, mental health professionals can gain insight into a person’s personality. At no point in the process is a psychologist judging you, rather, they are working to help you understand and manage any issues or symptoms impacting your life.
Think of these types of assessments as serving the same purpose of medical tests. If you have physical symptoms, for instance, a doctor may order blood work or X-rays to better understand the cause of the symptoms and help inform an effective treatment plan. Psychological evaluations serve the same purpose, as mental health professionals use these tools to measure and observe your behavior to diagnose and treat specific issues.
What to Expect From a Mental Health Assessment
Mental health assessments may include a variety of components — formal questionnaires, checklists, surveys, interviews, and behavioral observations. Often, the depth of evaluation will depend on the client and what they need assessed.
In general, you can expect it to take between 20 and 90 minutes, depending on the reason behind testing. It can be completed virtually or in-person. For an example assessment, try this one from Psychology Today.
Types of psychological evaluations
Detailed below are just a few of the more common types of psychological evaluation:
In certain cases, a physical illness can cause symptoms that mirror that of a mental illness. A physical exam can help medical professionals determine if a physical disorder (such as a thyroid disorder) or a neurological issue are to blame. Be sure to inform your doctor about any conditions you already have or any medications you take.
During the evaluation, you may be asked to complete blood work, a urine test, or a brain scan to rule out any physical conditions. You may also be asked to answer questions about drug and alcohol use to confirm your experience is not a side effect.
Mental health history
You will likely be asked about how long you have experienced certain symptoms, your personal or family history of mental health, and any psychiatric treatment you may have received.
Medical professionals may ask questions about your lifestyle and personal history, to determine the largest sources of stress in your life or any major traumas. For instance, you may be asked about your marital status, occupation, military service, or your childhood.
In this instance, you will likely be asked questions about your symptoms in more detail, specifically around your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It’s also important to know how you have tried to manage them on your own. Your doctor will likely observe your appearance and behavior to help get a sense of your mental health.
This differs slightly from the mental evaluation, as your doctor will gauge your ability to think clearly, recall information, and use sound reasoning. You may be asked to take tests to measure your ability to think clearly, recall information, and use mental reasoning.
In some instances, you may also be asked to complete a self-assessment to help capture your thoughts, emotions, and symptoms before receiving support. For some virtual and online therapy providers, this is an important first step in matching with the best therapist to meet a person’s needs.
You will likely be asked to complete a survey that helps determine your individual therapy needs and preferred communication style. A person can expect to be asked about their current challenges or worries and how they impact their mental and physical health.
Psychological Evaluations Are an Important Part of Mental Wellness
It is important to know that psychological assessments are not one-size-fits-all, and mental health professionals pick and choose specific sets of assessments and tests for each individual. A licensed professional should administer the assessment, as they are trained to get the most accurate responses and best interpret the results. In some cases, the same psychologist who administers the test will help with treatment, but in others, a psychologist may simply specialize in only the assessment process.
To start the process of getting a psychological evaluation, reach out to a medical professional, such as a family doctor, psychologist, or psychiatrist. You may be referred to another professional for the assessment if it is outside their specialty area. By understanding the different evaluation methods, such as a physical examination, lab tests, and cognitive evaluation, it can help you better prepare to begin your therapy journey.