What is a Psychological Evaluation?
Have you experienced recent changes in your mood or notice your emotions seem to get the best of you? Do you have trouble concentrating or find you’re having a hard time accomplishing tasks that used to seem manageable? Maybe you’ve noticed difficulties getting along with others or that your problems seem to negatively affect relationships with friends, family, romantic relationships, and/or your job?
Perhaps you have a child struggling with learning or behavior problems in school? Or maybe your adult child is having a hard time succeeding in college? Has your therapist or other health care provider suggested getting a psychological evaluation?
If you’ve answered yes to any of these questions, then psychological testing may be helpful. According to the American Psychological Association, a psychological evaluation is “The gathering and integration of data to evaluate a person’s behavior, abilities, and other characteristics, particularly for the purposes of making a diagnosis or treatment recommendation.”
Similar to how a physician utilizes a variety of medical tests to properly diagnose a medical problem, a psychologist uses their own set of tests and assessments to help them make a diagnosis and develop recommendations to address the concerns.
Psychologists are trained to assess individuals for different psychiatric problems such as:
Autism spectrum disorder
However, psychologists can also utilize testing and assessments for non-psychiatric reasons such as:
Evaluations for court
For special licenses such as a license to carry a firearm on the job
For surgical patients such as Bariatric Surgery
What are the steps involved in getting a Psychological Evaluation?
There are several steps, all of which allow the psychologist to gather data about you or your loved one. The first step involves an initial interview to gather a description of the current concerns as well as a life history (e.g., pregnancy and early development, medical, psychological, academic and/or occupational, substance use, legal issues, and familial and social history, among others).
The psychologist will then utilize a variety of other sources of data including behavioral observations, standardized tests, self-report measures, or other procedures to learn more about the individual. There are several formats of testing including oral, written, and computer-based.
A standardized test is one that has been shown through research to accurately and consistently measure what it is intended to measure. There are a variety of standardized tests developed to address specific concerns such as intellectual functioning, academic functioning, attention and concentration, memory and learning, different types of processing (visual, auditory, or phonological), autism spectrum disorders, among others.
A psychologist may also use personality tests that help you better understand different aspects of your personality including prominent traits and emotions, style of interactions with others, and ways of being in the world.
Self-report measures are typically included in an evaluation and are completed by the client to share their perspective on different aspects of their life such as adaptive functioning, executive functioning, and social, emotional, or behavioral functioning. When a psychological evaluation is conducted with a child, the parents and teachers are often asked to complete these questionnaires to provide their perspectives. For evaluations with adults, when appropriate a spouse or parent may be asked to complete these questionnaires as well.
Other ways of gathering data include reviewing past records (e.g., report cards, college transcripts, previous testing or evaluations), consultations with other health care providers (e.g., therapists or psychiatrists involved in the case), or consultation with others involved such as family, teachers, or other caregivers.
In essence, the psychological evaluation is a concise collection of all the relevant history, and the test data is then interpreted and utilized in conjunction with the history to make a diagnosis.
Now, you may wonder, “Is all of this necessary to make a diagnosis?” That’s a great question! When trying to narrow in on a diagnosis this thorough review can be incredibly helpful. Many symptoms overlap in mental health diagnoses; therefore, having a thorough evaluation can ensure a proper diagnosis.
For instance, for a diagnosis of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), there must be symptoms related to inattention (e.g., distractibility, often losing things, makes careless mistakes, etc.) and/or hyperactivity/impulsivity (e.g., fidgets in the seat, acts as if drive by a motor, frequently interrupts others, has trouble standing in line, etc.). However, signs of inattention and distractibility can be symptoms of other mental health disorders. For example:
Inattention and distractibility can also be common in anxiety. If you are anxious and constantly worrying about what’s happening tomorrow or worry about your health or loved ones, you may seem distracted and have trouble focusing on getting tasks done.
Distractibility and difficulty concentrating can also be a symptom of depression.
For children, these symptoms may indicate an undiagnosed learning issue or language disorder.
If you don’t look at the complete picture it can be easily misdiagnosed. Therefore, for this reason, a psychological evaluation can provide an individual with a thorough picture of how they are functioning cognitively, socially, emotionally, and behaviorally.
Testing also allows the psychologist to identify strengths that can be built on as well as opportunities for growth. The psychologist will develop a list of recommendations with all the steps that are suggested to help you be successful, find stability, get support, or anything else needed in response to why you sought testing initially.
The final part of a psychological evaluation includes a feedback session with the psychologist when the evaluation has been completed. This is typically an educational and informative session where they review all the testing results, explain the diagnoses, and explore what steps to take next.
Therefore, a psychological evaluation can be an incredibly helpful tool for gathering information needed to make a proper diagnosis. There is often a deeper understanding as to factors that may be contributing to current difficulties. And as I always tell my clients, I see the most valuable aspect of a psychological evaluation as what steps to take next. Having a comprehensive treatment plan and getting answers about where to go for help can make any challenge seem manageable.
How long does it take to accomplish all of this?
It truly depends on how the psychologist structures their sessions, your availability to come in for testing, and how much testing is needed. It can take anywhere from a month to several months. Considering the amount of data collected, it takes time to gather it all. Additionally, there are often multiple sessions scheduled to complete testing. Once testing is finished, it can take a psychologist several weeks to a month to score all testing, interpret the data, and write the report.
While this might seem like a long time, it is similar to diagnosing complex medical issues. You often get sent for multiple tests such as bloodwork, x-rays, and maybe an MRI or other diagnostic test. Once your physician receives all the results is when they schedule a follow-up to review the findings and discuss treatments.
So where do I start?
The first step is to find a psychologist in your area who specializes in psychological testing and evaluations. Making that initial call can feel like a daunting task, but it will give you a chance to ask questions and ensure that an evaluation is right for you.
If you’re ready to schedule a consultation for yourself or a loved one, Dr. Heather Kuhl specializes in psychological evaluations with children, adolescents, and adults. Dr. Kuhl is happy to answer any questions you may have about how testing could help you or your child. Call Dr. Kuhl today at (954) 391-5303 for your complimentary consultation.