What is a psychological assessment and why is it important?
Jennifer L. Farley, PsyD
Lindner Center of HOPE, Staff Psychologist
People often wonder what “psychological testing” is, what it is used for, and how it can help. The answers to these questions vary, depending on what the referral question is and in what setting testing is sought after.
What is a psychological evaluation?
Psychological assessment is the process of evaluating an individual’s mental health and behavioral functioning through the use of standardized tests, observations, and other methods. It is typically conducted by a mental health professional, such as a psychologist or psychiatric nurse practitioner, and is used to diagnose mental health conditions, determine appropriate treatment options, and measure progress in treatment.
Most broadly, psychological assessment involves an objective manner in which one’s “psychological functioning” is assessed. An “objective” way of testing involves comparing one’s responses to standardized measures (in which every respondent is given the same measure or responds to tests that are administered in the same way) to normative group (usually based on the person’s age) to see how well they are functioning compared to their age peers. (Think of the standardized testing that students complete in school or with college preparatory examinations such as the ACT or SAT.) “Psychological functioning” is also a broad label, since many different abilities are assumed within this. More specifically, when people refer to “psychological functioning,” it helps to understand if they are referring to intellectual abilities and some other cognitive skills (such as attention), emotional functioning, and/or personality characteristics.
What is included in a Psychological Evaluation?
There are different types of evaluations that can be pursued, depending on the purpose of the testing. First, a psychoeducational evaluation is one in which the patient typically undergoes testing for a learning-based disorder. Often, this testing centers around intellectual testing and academic achievement measures (such as tasks involving math, reading, and written language). Comparisons are then made between one’s intellectual abilities and his or her academic skills; if there is a large discrepancy between one’s intellectual skills and academic skills in any particular area (in which the academic ability is significantly lower than what would be expected for the patient’s intellectual abilities), this helps form the basis of diagnosing a specific learning disorder. Psychoeducational evaluations are often performed within schools when there is a concern about a child having a cognitive or learning-based disorder that is interfering with their learning. These types of evaluations are also often done “privately,” meaning that individuals pursue these evaluations in a clinical (i.e., not academic) setting with a licensed psychologist. Often, other measures (such as classroom observations or parent and teacher questionnaires of observations of behaviors or emotional functioning) may be included in these types of evaluations. Though school psychologists cannot diagnose specific disorders (such as Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder), what matters most is that regardless of the testing setting, the findings help guide interventions and/or accommodations that can be implemented into a 504 Plan or into a more formal, Individualized Education Plan (IEP).
Why is psychological testing important?
There are several reasons why psychological testing is important:
- Psychological assessment is important because it can help identify mental health conditions and other issues that may be impacting an individual’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
- It can provide a more complete understanding of an individual’s strengths and weaknesses, which can be useful in making decisions about treatment and support.
- Psychological assessment can help diagnose conditions such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), among others.
- It can also be used to assess an individual’s cognitive abilities, such as memory, problem-solving skills, and intellectual functioning.
- Psychological assessment can help identify the underlying causes of an individual’s symptoms and provide a basis for developing a treatment plan that is tailored to their needs.
- It can also be used to monitor an individual’s progress in treatment and make any necessary adjustments.
- Psychological assessment can help individuals and their families better understand the nature of their struggles and the options available for addressing them.
Some may seek evaluations to help understand a patient’s emotional and/or personality functioning, especially because the testing helps learn about the individual in a more comprehensive way in a shorter amount of time (instead of over several therapy sessions). Results from these measures can help with recommendations for mental health treatment, such as with use of medications and/or for therapy (such as which strategies can be most helpful to teach the patient). Findings can also help guide other referrals, such as to other specialists (such as a psychiatrist or a neurologist). Depending on the age of the patient, these measures may include questionnaires that are only completed by the patient themselves (this is particularly the case among adult patients). When assessing a child, parents often complete questionnaires that ask about what they observe (behaviorally and emotionally) in their child. When the patient is an adolescent, it is more common that a combination of emotional and personality questionnaires are included that involve the adolescent responding to self-report measures and the parent(s) or primary caregiver(s) responding to their own measures involving observations of the child. Parent or caregiver responses are particularly helpful (and often necessary) when assessing children and adolescents, as most children and many adolescents lack enough insight or awareness into their difficulties, and often parents are the ones to observe problems or concerns first. These evaluations are conducted in clinical settings such as outpatient practices and sometimes inpatient hospitals in which obtaining such information is necessary to guide a clinician’s diagnostic impressions and treatment recommendations.
Another type of psychological assessment is a neuropsychological evaluation that helps measure more detailed aspects of cognitive functioning, such as executive functioning abilities (i.e., one’s ability to plan, organize, and inhibit cognitive, emotional, and behavioral responses), attention, learning, memory, and even motor coordination and/or strength. Individuals who specialize in these types of assessments are required to have completed more thorough post-doctoral training. Often times, referrals may come from physicians or therapists who are concerned about a patient’s functioning in these areas, whether it be related to a neurological condition (such as a seizure disorder, a head injury, or dementia) or to a psychiatric disorder (in which it is common for mood states or anxiety to negatively affect one’s cognitive functioning). Neuropsychological assessments are most often conducted in medical-based settings. Yet, they can also be conducted when a more comprehensive evaluation is sought after (such as in psychiatric residential settings). When this is the case, a neuropsychological assessment battery can capture one’s functioning more globally with measures of intelligence, academic achievement, neurocognitive abilities, and personality and emotional functioning.
A final consideration for any kind of psychological assessment is this: while testing is often sought after to diagnose a condition or to understand one’s possible difficulties in any area of functioning, it is also important to learn what someone’s strengths are. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses relative to their own abilities; it is helpful to inform individuals from testing of what their strengths are and how to use these to compensate for any documented weaknesses they may have. Information helps empower people to develop and grow, and results obtained from psychological assessment can help people be more informed as to how to proceed with utilizing their cognitive and/or emotional strengths to help improve their mental health overall.
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