Mental Health Screening

Mental Health Screening
Shot of a scientist recording his findings on a digital tablet

A mental health screening is a standard set of questions that a person answers to help a health care provider check for signs of a mental disorder. The questions help the provider learn about a person’s mood, thinking, behavior, and memory.

A mental health screening is a way to catch mental health conditions early. If the screening shows signs of a disorder, more testing is usually needed to diagnose a specific mental disorder. Mental disorders are also called mental illnesses, and a mental health screening may be called a “mental illness test” or a “psychology test.”

More than half of all Americans will have a mental disorder at some point in their lives. Their symptoms may range from mild to severe. Common mental disorders include:

  • Mood disorders, which include depression, bipolar disorder, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and self-harm.
  • Anxiety disorders, which include panic disorder, phobias, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Anxiety is a common disorder in children.
  • Eating disorders, which include anorexia and bulimia.
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). ADHD is one of the most common mental health disorders in children. It can also continue into adulthood.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Personality disorders.
  • Substance use disorders, which include alcohol use disorder and drug use and addiction.
  • Psychotic disorders, which include schizophrenia.

These and other mental disorders affect people of all ages, including children. So, there are special mental health screening tests designed for children, teenagers, and older adults. Some screening tests look for general signs of the most common mental disorders. Other screening tests look for signs related to specific types of disorders.

Mental health screening can be an important part of your total health at every stage of life. Mental health symptoms can be a sign of certain physical conditions. And certain mental disorders can increase the risk of developing physical health problems. With proper mental health screening, diagnosis, and treatment, people with mental health disorders can get better and many recover completely.

Other names: mental health assessment, mental illness test, psychological evaluation, psychology test, psychiatric evaluation

What is it used for?

A mental health screening is usually used as the first step to find out if a person has signs of a mental disorder. It may be part of a routine checkup. A screening test is used to see whether a person:

  • Has a risk for developing a mental disorder
  • Needs more testing to diagnose or rule out a mental health disorder
  • Needs mental health care right away, before diagnostic testing can be finished

Mental health screening may also be used to see if treatment for a mental disorder is working.

A primary care provider may use mental health screening to help decide if a person needs to see a mental health provider for testing and/or treatment. A mental health provider is a health care professional who specializes in diagnosing and treating mental health problems. A mental health provider may use the results of a screening test to choose which other tests are needed to diagnose or rule out a specific mental disorder.

Why do I need a mental health screening?

You or your child may need a mental health screening if you have symptoms of a mental disorder. Different disorders have specific symptoms.

General symptoms of mental disorders may include:

  • Eating or sleeping too much or too little
  • Pulling away from people and usual activities
  • Fatigue and lack of energy
  • Feeling helpless, hopeless, or numb like nothing matters
  • Smoking, drinking, or using drugs more than usual
  • Feeling unusually confused, forgetful, nervous, angry, worried, or scared
  • Severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships
  • Thoughts and memories that you can’t get out of your head
  • Hearing voices or believing things that aren’t true
  • Thinking about death, suicide or harming yourself or others

Signs of mental disorders in children may also include:

  • Frequent tantrums and other behavior problems
  • Frequent stomachaches or headaches without a known medical cause
  • Difficulty in school
  • Repeating actions or constantly checking things out of fear that something bad will happen
  • Talking a lot about fears, worries, death, or suicide

If you or someone you know needs immediate help for a mental health disorder:

  • Call 911 or go to your local emergency room
  • Contact a crisis hotline. In the United States, you can reach the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at any time:
    • Call or text 988
    • Chat online with Lifeline Chat
    • TTY users: Use your preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988
    • Call 988 then press 1
    • Text 838255
    • Chat online

    What happens during a mental health screening?

    If you are having a mental health screening, you’ll answer a set of questions about your symptoms. The questions will be about your feelings, mood, sleep, appetite, and other parts of your life. A provider may ask you the questions or you may fill out a questionnaire and discuss your answers afterwards. It’s important that your answers are honest and complete.

    If your primary care provider is doing the screening, you may also have a physical exam and blood tests. There are no medical tests that can diagnose mental health disorders. But certain blood tests can show if a physical condition, such as thyroid disease or an electrolyte imbalance, is causing mental health symptoms.

    During a blood test, a health care professional will take a blood sample from a vein in your arm, using a small needle. After the needle is inserted, a small amount of blood will be collected into a test tube or vial. You may feel a little sting when the needle goes in or out. This usually takes less than five minutes.

    If your provider thinks your symptoms could be caused by physical problems with your brain or nerves, you may have a neurological exam or imaging tests of your brain.

    If your child is having a mental health screening, the test will be geared to your child’s age and abilities. You may be asked to fill out a questionnaire about your child’s behavior.

    The screening may be done by your child’s primary care provider or a mental health provider who works with children and teenagers. Your child’s provider may also order medical tests to look for physical causes of mental disorders. Some schools provide mental health screening services.

    Will I need to do anything to prepare for a mental health screening?

    You usually don’t need any special preparations for a mental health screening. If your child is having a screening, you may be asked to keep notes on your child’s behavior for a few days before the test.

    Are there any risks to screening?

    There is no risk to having a physical exam or taking a questionnaire.

    There is very little risk to having a blood test. You may have slight pain or bruising at the spot where the needle was put in, but most symptoms go away quickly.

    What do the results mean?

    Usually, the provider who did the screening will explain the results. If the results show signs of a mental health disorder, the next steps depend on the type of disorder and how serious it may be. If a primary care provider did the screening, the provider may:

    • Talk with you about treatments
    • Order tests to check for other health problems that may be causing symptoms
    • Refer you or your child to a mental health provider

    A mental health provider may do more tests to confirm a diagnosis and help develop a treatment plan. Starting treatment as soon as possible may improve the chance of recovery.

    Is there anything else I need to know about a mental health screening?

    There are many types of mental health providers who treat mental disorders. Your or your child’s primary health care provider or school can help you find the right support.

    These are some of the providers who have training to treat mental health disorders:

    • Psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialize in mental health. Psychiatrists can prescribe medicine.
    • Psychologists generally have doctoral degrees, but they do not have medical degrees. They can’t prescribe medicine unless they have a special license. Some psychologists work with providers who can prescribe medicine. Psychologists may use one-on-one counseling and/or group therapy sessions.
    • Psychiatric-mental health nurses are nurses with special training in mental health problems. Nurses who may have a master’s or doctoral degree in psychiatric-mental health nursing include, advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs), certified nurse practitioners (CNPs), and clinical nurse specialists (CNSs). In some states, certain nurses can prescribe medicines.
    • Licensed clinical social workers have at least a master’s degree in social work with special training in mental health. They can’t prescribe medicine, but may work with providers who can prescribe medicine. Providers who are licensed clinical social workers usually have LCSW or LICSW after their names.
    • Licensed professional counselors (LPC) may also be called clinicians or therapists. States have different names of these licenses, such as LMFT (licensed marriage and family therapist). These professionals usually have a master’s degree in a field related to mental health. They can’t prescribe medicine but may work with providers who can prescribe.