Tag Archives: assessment

Practicing Humility When Conducting Mental Status Examinations

Perhaps more than any other assessment task, conducting a balanced mental status examination requires that professionals resist the natural temptation to make sweeping judgments about clients on the basis of appearance, specific behaviors, or single symptoms. For example, in a recently published book titled The mental status examination and brief social history in clinical psychology, Smith {{5681 III 2011;}} stated:

A Fu-Manchu mustache suggests the wearer doesn’t mind being thought of as “bad,” whereas a handlebar mustache tells you the person may be somewhat of a dandy or narcissist. (p. 4)

After reading the preceding excerpt, I decided to conduct a small research study by surveying men in Montana with Fu-Manchu mustaches. Whenever I saw men sporting a Fu-Manchu, I asked them to rate (on a seven-point Likert scale) whether they minded being thought of as “bad.” In contrast to Smith’s (2011) observations, I found that most men with Fu-Manchu’s actually thought they looked good and reported wearing the mustache in an effort to look attractive. Of course I didn’t really conduct this survey, but the fact that I thought about doing it and imagined the results carries approximately the same validity as the wild assumption that a mental status examiner can quickly “get into the head of” all clients with Fu-Manchu (or handlebar) mustaches and interpret their underlying personal beliefs or intentions, or even worse, extrapolate from a physical feature to a personality disorder diagnosis.

Although I’m poking fun at the sweeping generalizations that Smith (2011) made in his text, my intent is to point out how easy it is to grow overconfident when conducting MSEs. Like Smith, I’ve sometimes found myself making wild and highly personalized assumptions about the psychopathological meaning of very specific behaviors (some years ago I had my own personal theory about “tanning” behaviors being linked to narcissism).

The key to dealing with this natural tendency towards overconfidence is to use Stanley Sue’s (2006) concept of scientific mindedness. A single symptom should be viewed as a sign that the sensitive and ethical mental status examiner considers a hypothesis to explore. Another example from Smith (2011) may be helpful as another caution of the dangers of over-interpreting single symptoms. He stated: “If the person is unshaven, this may be a sign of depression, alcoholism, or other poor ability at social adaptation” (p. 4).

Smith may be correct in his hypotheses about unshaven clients. In fact, if a research study were conducted on diagnoses or symptoms commonly associated with unshaven-ness, it might show a small correlation with depressive symptoms, partly because poor hygiene can be a feature of some depressive disorders. However, in the absence of additional confirming evidence, an unshaven client is just an unshaven client. And when it comes to social adaptation, I should note that I know many young men (as well as a variety of movie stars) who consider the unshaven look as either desirable, sexy, or both. This could lead to an equally likely hypothesis that an unshaven client is particularly cool or has an especially high level of social adaptation.

In your own MSE work I encourage you to adopt the following three guidelines to help you avoid what might be called the overconfident clinician syndrome:

  1. When you spot a single symptom or client feature of particular interest, you should begin the scientific mindedness process.
  2. Remember that hypotheses are hypotheses and not conclusions; this is why hypotheses require additional supporting evidence.
  3. Don’t make wild inferential leaps without first consulting with colleagues and/or supervisors; it’s often easier to become overconfident and subsequently make inappropriate judgments when working in isolation.

Keep these preceding guidelines in minds as you conduct mental status examinations. You can find my DVD with a clip of a mental status exam at: http://www.amazon.com/Clinical-Interviewing-Skills-John-Sommers-Flanagan/dp/1118390121

Teaching Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories: Reflections on Week 1

Teaching Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories – Week 1

This past Monday evening in Missoula, Montana I met with my 80+ counseling and psychotherapy theories students for our first 3-hour class of the semester. Some student might have thought they’d get out early on the first day of the semester . . . but such was not the case. We had a nice evening together (my opinion). Although it was smoky outside (too many forest fires nearby) in the classroom the air was clear and the thinking sharp. Every year it feels humbling when I meet a new group of students in the fall and recognize their dedication and intelligence, not to mention the compassion for and interest in helping others that’s an intrinsic requirement of taking a class that’s all about counseling and psychotherapy theories and practice.

This group was especially generous – laughing heartily at my stories and gently confronting me when I misspoke and suggested I might spontaneously lie to protect my client’s confidentiality. One of my favorite moments was when, as we were talking about strategies for protecting client confidentiality in a public situation where someone might ask, “How do you know ______?” Several students shared excellent strategies (far better than my ‘spontaneous lying’ idea). One in particular said, “I just don’t respond to the question and make some comment like ‘Oh yeah, you know she’s really good at soccer’ and then hardly anyone follows that up by asking me how I know that person a second time.” Somewhat surprisingly, I was able to use that particular line several times later in class whenever students asked me questions I couldn’t answer. You should try it. Here’s how it works: Somebody asks you something you can’t or don’t want to answer, just say, “Hey, you know she’s really good at soccer.” It’s pretty much guaranteed you won’t have to answer the question.

As a method of providing a little extra intellectual stimulation, below I’m including two activities that go along with the content of Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice. Have fun and good luck in your personal quest for better understanding of yourself and others . . . a particular quest that never really ends.

Activity 1: Creating and Testing Personal Hypotheses

One of our graduate students told us his “personal theory” of why some people become good cooks and other people develop poor cooking skills. He said:

I’m a bad cook because my mom was a good cook. I never had any reason to learn to cook because my mom did it all for us. But my girlfriend is a really good cook. I think that’s because her mom was a bad cook and so she had more reason to learn to cook for herself.

Although you can probably see a number of flaws with the reasoning underlying this “theory,” most of us carry these sorts of ideas around with us all the time. Let’s briefly analyze and test our student’s theory and then move on to identifying some of yours.

First, we should ask: Is this student’s statement really a theory? The answer is “No.” The reason this isn’t a theory is because it’s too narrow and not very elaborate. Theories don’t just predict behavior, they also provide detailed explanations for why particular behaviors occur.

As described in the text, a theory involves a gathering together and organizing of knowledge about a particular object or phenomenon. Also, theories are used to generate hypotheses about human thinking, emotions, and behavior.  Although our student has developed an interesting hypothesis about one factor that contributed to why he and his girlfriend have poor and good cooking skills, he really doesn’t have an overarching theory for generating the hypothesis . . . but he could develop one. Perhaps his bigger theory is about how individuals compensate for their caregivers strengths and weaknesses. He would need to work on describing, explaining, and predicting how this process works, but his idea has potential.

Theorists work both deductively (from the theory to the hypothesis) and inductively (from the specific hypothesis or observation to the bigger theory). Our student appears to be operating inductively. He observed himself and he observed his girlfriend and he developed an interesting hypothesis.

It’s possible and reasonable for people to systematically test their personal theories or hypotheses. Most likely, if we asked our student to test his hypothesis, he would do so in a biased way. He would likely notice when his hypothesis is true and ignore or completely overlook evidence opposing his hypothesis. Social psychology has shown that humans just seem to operate that way . . . we look for evidence to support our ideas and ignore evidence that contradicts our ideas (see Snyder & Swann, 1978).

With all this in mind, take a few minutes to write down some of your personal hypotheses about human behavior. Pick anything that you tend to think is true about humans (e.g., women have greater pain tolerance than men; individuals from larger families have better social skills; pet owners have trouble relating to people) and describe it below.

Hypothesis 1:

 

Hypothesis 2:

 

Hypothesis 3:

 

After you’ve established a few hypotheses, think about whether they might fit together into an overarching theory—or are they just a few random and unconnected ideas about human behavior? Then, either way, think about how you might test the validity of your hypotheses. Also, think about how you could or would avoid being systematically biased toward validating your own hypotheses?

Activity #2: A Psychological Assessment Critique

Years ago, Rita had a cartoon on her office door that had two guys in their scientific lab coats in conversation. One of the guys was asking the other one something like: “Would you like me to come up with evidence to destroy this scientific argument or evidence to support it?”

The big point of the cartoon is that even science is subjective. Because science is subjective, it’s important to be able to criticize research in general and or own research in particular. For this activity, we’d like you to list five shortcomings or problems with measuring counseling and psychotherapy outcomes. For example, let’s pretend you’ve just conducted 10 sessions of therapy with a client. You’re interested in measuring your effectiveness and so you had your client complete a self-report questionnaire on depression at the beginning and again at the end of the therapy. Using a seven-point Likert scale, the client rated him/herself on 20 depression symptoms. If you used this scale or questionnaire, what might be the shortcomings or problems associated with this measurement system?

1.

 

2.

 

3.

 

4.

 

5.

 

At the end of this blog I’ve listed what I think are five of the most common problems with self-report outcomes measures. When you’re finished listing your five ideas, check out and compare your five ideas with my five ideas.

What are the Most Common Measurement Problems when Using Self-Report Measures in Therapy Outcomes Studies?

John’s Answers

  1. How do we know participants are giving us honest feedback about their feelings, beliefs, and response to the intervention? (Sometimes people lie, other times they deceive themselves, other times they automatically or intentionally respond in a socially desirable manner).
  2. How do we know participants are motivated to answer surveys, questionnaires, or interview questions with due diligence? (This variability in participant motivation can translate into a hasty response set or compulsive over-reflection on each item). It also results in a less than 100% response rate when surveys are administered.
  3. How do we know if participants are capable of defining or understanding what’s helpful for them? (Respondents may not have clear ways to distinguish whether what they received was helpful or they may not understand the question or they may misinterpret the question; even if they can make internal, individual distinctions of what’s helpful, how can we know how that compares with another person’s internal and individual standard for helpfulness)?
  4. How can we ever know if one person’s rating of a “5” on a 1-7 Likert (pronounced lick-ert) is ever really equivalent to someone else’s rating of a “5”? (For example, one of us has an issue with ever giving anyone or anything a perfect “7” or worthless “1” when completing seven-point Likert-type questionnaires and so his (or her) responses may not be comparable to people who don’t have such issues).
  5. Given that mood is highly variable and yet powerfully influential, how can we be sure that we’re not measuring, at least in part, something related to the respondent’s current mood, instead of current attitude or anything close to a behavioral inclination?

 

Two Sample Mental Status Examination Reports

JSF Dance Party

This is a photo of me checking my mental status.

Generally, mental status examinations (MSEs) can have a more neurological focus or a more psychiatric focus. The following two fictional reports are samples of psychiatric-oriented MSEs. These sample reports can be helpful if you’re learning to conduct Mental Status Examinations and write MSE reports. They’re excerpted from the text, Clinical Interviewing (6th edition; 2017, John Wiley & Sons). Clinical Interviewing has a chapter devoted to the MSE, as well as chapters on suicide assessment interviewing and diagnostic interviewing (and many others chapter on other important topics). You can take a look at the book (and some darn good reviews) on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1119215587/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i0

If you’d like to see a short video-clip MSE example, you can go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1lu50uciF5Y

Sample Mental Status Examination Reports

A good report is brief, clear, concise, and addresses the areas below:

1.  Appearance

2.  Behavior/psychomotor activity

3.  Attitude toward examiner (interviewer)

4.  Affect and mood

5.  Speech and thought

6.  Perceptual disturbances

7.  Orientation and consciousness

8.  Memory and intelligence

9.  Reliability, judgment, and insight

The following reports are provided as samples.

Mental Status Report 1

Gary Sparrow, a 48-year-old white male, was disheveled and unkempt on presentation to the hospital emergency room. He was wearing dirty khaki pants, an unbuttoned golf shirt, and white shoes and appeared slightly younger than his stated age. During the interview, he was agitated and restless, frequently changing seats. He was impatient and sometimes rude in his interactions with this examiner. Mr. Sparrow reported that today was the best day of his life, because he had decided to join the professional golf circuit. His affect was labile, but appropriate to the content of his speech (i.e., he became tearful when reporting he had “bogeyed number 15”). His speech was loud, pressured, and overelaborative. He exhibited loosening of associations and flight of ideas; he intermittently and unpredictably shifted the topic of conversation from golf, to the mating habits of geese, to the likelihood of extraterrestrial life. Mr. Sparrow described grandiose delusions regarding his sexual and athletic performance. He reported auditory hallucinations (God had told him to quit his job and become a professional golfer) and was preoccupied with his athletic and sexual accomplishments. He was oriented to time and place, but claimed he was the illegitimate son of Jack Nicklaus. He denied suicidal and homicidal ideation. He refused to participate in intellectual- or memory-related portions of the examination. Mr. Sparrow was unreliable and exhibited poor judgment. Insight was absent.

Mental Status Report 2

Ms. Rosa Jackson, a 67-year-old African American female, was evaluated during routine rounds at the Cedar Springs Nursing Home. She was about 5’ tall, wore a floral print summer dress, held tight to a matching purse, and appeared approximately her stated age. Her grooming was adequate and she was cooperative with the examination. She reported her mood as “desperate” because she had recently misplaced her glasses. Her affect was characterized by intermittent anxiety, generally associated with having misplaced items or with difficulty answering the examiner’s questions. Her speech was slow, halting, and soft. She repeatedly became concerned with her personal items, clothing, and general appearance, wondering where her scarf “ran off to” and occasionally inquiring as to whether her appearance was acceptable (e.g., “Do I look okay? You know, I have lots of visitors coming by later.”). Ms. Jackson was oriented to person and place, but indicated the date as January 9, 1981 (today is July 8, 2009). She was unable to calculate serial sevens and after recalling zero of three items, became briefly anxious and concerned, stating “Oh my, I guess you pulled another one over me, didn’t you, sonny?” She quickly recovered her pleasant style, stating “And you’re such a gem for coming to visit me again.” Her proverb interpretations were concrete. Judgment, reliability, and insight were significantly impaired.

 

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