Insider’s Guide: Psychological Testing and Evaluations

Right after we moved to Indiana, something under the hood of our car started rattling loudly when it was first started-up each morning. I was sure the engine was failing and we’d either need a new car or, at minimum, a new engine. Fearing the worst, I took it to the dealership and tried my best to describe the noise. They took the car, hooked it up to their computer and ran diagnostics. Based on their findings, they adjusted some engine controls and replaced a sensor. Total cost was under $150 and about an hour of time. I was lucky it wasn’t more expensive. The technician said that if I had driven muh further, the engine would likely have overheated, blah, blah blah ….basically, bad things would have happened if I had not run the diagnositics. Money well spent.

My experience with our car reminded me of psychological evaluations and how often I talk with parents that want to wait a bit longer, save a bit more money or hold off until ‘things calm down’ before getting some diagnostics run. A shot engine would cost a few thousand dollars. Untreated behavioral health issues can cost tens of thousands of dollars and leave perminant scars. 

But when are things bad enough that you need to get a psychological evaluation? When is a car sounding bad enough to get diagnostics run? My definitive answer is this: When the symptoms are impacting a life domain (eg. school/work, relationships, family, activities) …and yes, this holds for both cars and people I believe. If things are bad enough to keep you up at night, it’s probably a good time to get evaluated.

The Basics

A psychological evaluation is a generic term used to describe a clinician’s use of tests, assessments and clinical interviews to determine a diagnostic presentation. Or, more simply put, what do all their symptoms add up to. There is no single test that makes up a psychological evaluation. A psychologist (often the most qualified type of behavioral health professional to administer testing), based on basic initial information about the client, chooses from a menu of tests and assessments all of which are evidence-based tests and procedures of assessing specific aspects of a person’s psychological profile. Some tests are used to determine IQ, some are to determine processing speed, others are used for personality, and still others for something else like depression or delusions.

Testing can be used to identify and sometimes determine the severity of just about any behavioral health disorder. Psychological testing is not definitive. While it can provide significant insight and give us a solid understanding of why someone is experiencing the symptoms they are, it can never provide certainty or causation. Clients can be found to ‘meet criteria for depression’ though, technically, we can never say without doubt they have depression. Sounds crazy but that’s how science and scientific testing works.

Here are the steps you should expect for the evaluation:

  1. Initial Intake: Initial intake appointment gathering basic background, symptoms and goals (1 hr)
  2. Testing: Psychological testing (1-6hrs)
  3. Write-Up: Psychologist writes-up the results (2 weeks)
  4. Results Session: Review of results and recommendations for treatment

Initial Intake and Testing

Let’s drill down into the details of testing. Once the tests are chosen, the evaluation is typically done in a formal manner by a licensed psychologist or therapist in their office. Depending upon what kind of testing is being done, it can last anywhere from 1 hour to a full day and consists largely of computer and paper-and-pencil tests.

There are generally four categories of tests:

  • Clinical Interview. The clinical interview is a core component of any psychological testing. Some people know the clinical interview as an “intake interview”, “admission interview” or “diagnostic interview” (although technically these are often very different things). Clinical interviews typically last from 1 to 2 hours in length, and occur most often in a clinician’s office. Many types of mental health professionals can conduct a clinical interview — psychologists, psychiatrists, licensed counselors, clinical social workers, and psychiatric nurses.
  • IQ. The most commonly administered IQ test is called the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale—Fourth Edition (WAIS-IV). It generally takes anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half to administer, and is appropriate for any individual aged 16 or older to take. (Children can be administered an IQ test especially designed for them called the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children – Fourth Edition, or the WISC-IV).
  • Personality Assessment. Personality assessment is designed to help a professional better understand an individual’s personality. Personality is a complex combination of factors that has been developed over a person’s entire childhood and young adulthood. There are multiple variables that influence our personality such as genetic, environmental and social components. Personality tests take this into account. There are two primary types of personality tests 1) objective, by far the most commonly used today, and 2) projective. Objective tests include things like the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI-2), the 16PF, and the Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory-III (MCMI-III). Projective tests include the Rorschach Inkblot Test, the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), and the Draw-a-Person test.
  • Behavioral Assessment. Behavioral assessment is the process of observing or measuring a person’s actual behavior to try and better understand the behavior and the thoughts behind it, and determine possible reinforcing components or triggers for the behavior. Through the process of behavioral assessment, a person — and/or a professional — can track behaviors and help change them.

In addition to these primary types, other kinds of psychological tests are available for specific areas, such as aptitude or achievement in school, career counseling, management skills, and career planning. For instance, in our Kentucky office, we provide neuropsychological testing for head trauma, sports injuries, pre-employment and a bunch of other neuropsychologically-related areas. 

Results Session – What Next?

At the results session, you will meet with the psychologist and go over the results. You should get a copy of the full psychological evaluation (typically 5-20 pages). It should be broken down into the following format (or something very similar):

  1. Basic Demographic Information
  2. Reason for Referral
  3. Names of Tests Administered
  4. Data from Each Test
  5. Results (Diagnoses)
  6. Recommendations
  7. Signature and Title of Psychologist

A good psychologist will go through the entire document, explain the tests used and results fully. He or she will also review all the recommendations which will likely include one or more treatments like outpatient therapy, medication evaluation with a psychiatrist or placement in residential treament. The most important sections are the Results and Recommendations. The Results are the psychologist’s list of diagnoses that were supported from testing and observation. The Recommendations is the ‘what now’ piece where you understand your options for treatment based on the results. If you don’t understand something, ask. They should completely answer any questions you have.

A great psychologist will either offer a list of specific providers who offer the type of intervention or care recommended or refer you to a therapeutic placement consultant or educational consultant who can help with treatment placement.

Cost

If you are paying out of pocket, expect to pay $500-$2500 for the entire evaluation service. If you have insurance, contact the insurance company before scheduling an evaluation and ask what their coverage is for outpatient therapy and what your copay will be.

FAQ

Q: What if I disagree with the results or think the psychologist did a bad job?

A: During the final session when results are discussed, present your concerns and be a specific and factual as possible. Psychologists can only test based on information they have. If the psychologist had all the information but ignored important pieces, discuss this and, if necessary, make sure they do retesting to capture what they missed.

Q: Our daughter needs testing for an IEP at school. Is there a difference between psychological testing and testing at her school?

A: The testing you need is referred to as psychoeducation testing and often includes IQ testing. Testing for an IEP within a school system is not supposed to be used for diagnoses, only determining elegibility for an IEP or 504.

Q: How do we find a psychologist to do an evaluation?

A: If you are working with a therapist, start by asking if they have any recommendations of someone they trust and have worked with. If you are flying solo and have no one in your corner yet, check out Psychology Today (https://therapists.psychologytoday.com) > Type your Zip code into the search box > Under the Treatment Orientation on the left side, choose Psychological Testing and Evaluation. You should get a list of providers that conduct evaluations.  

The Menninger Clinic Video

 

Here is a short promo video from the Menninger Clinic in Texas. They are an inpatient psychiatric hospital that specializes in treating individuals with complex mental illness, including severe mood, personality, anxiety and addictive disorders. Learn more at http://www.menningerclinic.com/

Virginia Senator Deeds Stabbed by Son (…And How it Could Have Been Avoided)

Virginia Senator Creigh Deeds was Stabbed by his 24 year old son Austin (Gus) Deeds  who then killed himself with a shotgun at their rural home just West of Charlottesville, Va.. Austin Deeds had just been ‘psychologically’ evaluated just hours before at Bath Community Hospital under an Emergency Custody Order (ECO). The ECO is only good for 4 hours with a possible 2 hour extension if ordered by the magistrate.  Hospital staff stated, working within the maximum 4 hour window, they were unable to find a treatment facility to address Austin Deeds’ psychiatric needs despite several hospitals reporting they did in fact have availability.

Here is some analysis/questions from someone (me) that’s been in this profession for years. I also provide some ideas of solutions if you know of someone struggling with a similar situation:

1. Diagnoses: If the hospital was looking for a treatment facility this means that something the evaluator found indicated Austin was either a threat to himself or others or needed a a level of medical intervention not available at the current hospital. I’m also thinking about the type of evaluation that was conducted and why it was even done at BCH, what the evaluator’s credentials are, and how it was reviewed with Austin and his family. 

2. Discharge: If there were no options (which there clearly were), I wonder if and how the hospital communicated their findings from the evaluation as well as their concerns about safety to the parents and authorities. I’m also wondering what kind of discharge meeting took place. When a client is stepping down from a hospital or residential setting, we always facilitate a comprehensive treatment team meeting to talk about discharge so everyone leaves understanding what the next steps are – action steps. When we work with families struggling with similar issues, we don’t wait for the hospital to give updates. But as mental health professionals, we are able to navigate the bureaucracy much easier and get clear answers much faster. 

3. Responsibility: Providers, whether big hospitals or little, ole’ therapists, have an ethical and legal responsibility to communicate to authorities if a patient is in eminent danger. So who is responsible here? If you ask the hospital, they’ll probably point fingers until the next news cycle. If you ask an attorney, they’ll go through the policy and procedures for the hospital regarding intake, evaluations, referrals, discharge, etc. and anyone of making decisions in that chain could be liable.

4. Intervention (Placement Options): The hospital staff at BCH clearly did not consider referring outside of the traditional placement list (psych beds at hospitals). It’s unlikely that it was due to financial constraints and certainly not due to a lack of treatment centers as some have speculated (Yes, there are certainly a lack of medicaid-funded psych units in VA). There are facilities all over the country that are extremely well-equipped to accept, stabilize and work with patients just like Austin. Most hospitals, though, follow a tired, out-dated protocol of calling three near-by psych hospitals to find out if they have a bed avail. If they here no at all three, patient is discharged with a list of therapists to contact to set up an appointment. Sound ridiculous? You’re right. 

5. Solutions: In my humble opinion, Austin would be alive today if earlier intervention had been provided by a treatment team including a psychologist, psychiatrist, therapist, and case manager. The psychologist provides the initial psychological evaluation to identify the issues, what is causing them, and create a specific list of interventions for the rest of the team. The psychiatrist (though in limited supply in Bath Co, VA) performs an initial psychiatric (medical/medication) evaluation and identify what, if any, medication is necessary to compliment any individual counseling being performed. The therapist provides weekly counseling either in-office or in the family’s home to address areas identified within the psychological evaluation. The case manager is the project manager for everyone and is on-call 24/7. This person also facilitates regular treatment team meetings to ensure updates are provided to the family and all professionals. For instance, if the therapist starts seeing signs of bizarre thinking patterns which are historically correlated with dangerous behavior, the case manager can alert the rest of the team and monitor the client more closely while also increasing the frequency of support. If a higher level of care (ie. psychiatric hospitalization) is recommended by any member of the team, the case manager not only identifies a placement but completes all intake paperwork. The case manager also provides psychoeducation to the family to help them understand the client’s diagnoses and what they can do to most effectively support him. 

If you or someone you know is in a similar mess, do not assume your local hospital has the expertise to handle the situation. Contact a mental health professional to find services that can manage the entire project from assessment to placement to discharge and aftercare.