What Are Mental Health Assessments?

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on March 12, 2024
3 min read

A mental health assessment is when a professional -- like your family doctor, a psychologist, or a psychiatrist -- checks to see if you might have a mental problem and what type of treatment may help.

Everyone goes through tough times. But sometimes, the negative way someone feels inside -- depressed, anxious, wanting to avoid people, having trouble thinking -- may be more than the ups and downs most people feel now and then. If symptoms like these start to get in the way of your life, or that of a loved one, it’s important to take action. Research shows that getting help early can prevent symptoms from getting worse and make a full recovery more likely.

The first step is to get a mental health assessment. It usually involves a couple of different things. You may answer questions verbally, get physical tests, and fill out a questionnaire.

Physical exam. Sometimes a physical illness can cause symptoms that mimic those of a mental illness. A physical exam can help find if something else, such as a thyroid disorder or a neurologic problem, may be at play. Tell your doctor about any physical or mental health conditions that you already know you have, any prescription or over-the-counter drugs you take, and any supplements you use.

Lab tests. Your doctor may order bloodwork, a urine test, a brain scan, or other tests to rule out a physical condition. You will probably also answer questions about drug and alcohol use.

Mental health history. Your doctor will ask questions about how long you’ve had your symptoms, your personal or family history of mental health issues, and any psychiatric treatment you’ve had.

Personal history. Your doctor may also ask questions about your lifestyle or personal history: Are you married? What sort of work do you do? Did you ever serve in the military? Have you ever been arrested? What was your upbringing like? Your doctor may ask you to list the biggest sources of stress in your life or any major traumas you’ve had.

Mental evaluation. You’ll answer questions about your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. You may be asked about your symptoms in more detail, such as how they affect your day-to-day life, what makes them better or worse, and whether and how you’ve tried to manage them on your own. Your doctor will also observe your appearance and behavior: Are you irritable, shy, or aggressive? Do you make eye contact? Are you talkative? How do you appear, compared with others your age?

Cognitive evaluation. During the assessment, your doctor will gauge your ability to think clearly, recall information, and use mental reasoning. You may take tests of basic tasks, like focusing your attention, remembering short lists, recognizing common shapes or objects, or solving simple math problems. You may answer questions about your ability to do daily responsibilities, like caring for yourself or going to work.

Just like adults, children can get mental health assessments that involve a series of observations and tests by professionals.

Since it can be hard for very young children to explain what they’re thinking and feeling, the particular screening measures often depend on the child’s age. The doctor will also ask parents, teachers, or other caregivers about what they’ve noticed. A pediatrician can do these evaluations, or you may get referred to another professional who specializes in children’s mental health.

If you think that a friend or family member is having symptoms, don’t be afraid to start a conversation about mental health. Let them know you care, remind them that mental illness can be treated, and offer to help connect them with a professional who can help.

Although you may not be able to force a loved one to seek diagnosis or treatment, you can raise concerns about their mental health with their general physician. Because of privacy laws, don’t expect any information in return. But if your family member is in the care of a mental health professional, the provider is allowed to share information with you if your loved one allows that.

If you think your loved one may harm themselves, that is an emergency situation. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 (800-273-TALK) or 911 immediately.