Test Overview

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 may be done by your primary care
doctor. Or it may be done by a
psychiatrist, psychologist, or social worker. The results of your test are confidential.

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

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.

Physical exam

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).

Lab tests

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
  • 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 dependence. 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:

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
  • 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.


ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Kathleen Romito, MD – Family Medicine
E. Gregory Thompson, MD – Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Christine R. Maldonado, PhD – Behavioral Health

Current as ofMay 3, 2017