Relative to other mental health service providers (e.g., psychiatrists, social workers), clinical psychologists receive extensive training in conducting mental health assessments, placing them in a unique position to offer these services to clients. As a result, assessment has been a critical component of clinical psychologists’ professional identity for some time. However, the use of these skills in routine clinical practice has waxed and waned over the years as a result of a number of different factors. Most importantly, the frequency with which thorough mental health assessments are administered to clients has declined significantly since the 1980s, in large part due to the ascension of managed care in the U.S. healthcare industry. The rationale behind this change is fairly simple: insurance companies seem to think that these practices provide little (if any) benefit to clients, and thus simply aren’t cost effective. However, scientific research suggests that mental health assessments do benefit clients… and not necessarily in the way you might think.
The predominant rationale behind the use of mental health assessments in clinical practice is that gathering detailed information about the client’s problems can help service providers decide on an appropriate course of treatment. In other words, clients may indirectly benefit from receiving a thorough assessment before starting treatment if doing helps to ensure that they receive the right services. However, some have argued that clients may directly benefit from receiving a mental health assessment – that is, the assessment itself may be therapeutic. A number of research studies have examined this very issue, and a recent meta-analysis (which integrates data from multiple studies) suggests that clients do directly benefit from mental health assessments. The meta-analysis, which was conducted by researchers at Purdue University and was recently published in the journal Psychological Assessment, combined data from 17 studies that examined the therapeutic effects of receiving a psychological assessment. The researchers found that clients who received an assessment showed improvements in a number of ways, and that these benefits were particularly strong when clients also received feedback about the results. Interestingly, the degree to which clients benefited was, on average, comparable to the degree to which clients tend to benefit from undergoing psychotherapy. However, the studies that were examined primarily included people who were seeking treatment for mental health problems– thus, the results do not necessarily speak to the issue whether or not having a mental health assessment would benefit anyone (in the same sort of vain that routine physical health assessments are often recommended as a means to heading off medical conditions before they become a problem).
The findings from this meta-analysis provide support for the claim that receiving a mental health assessment can be therapeutic. There a number of reasons why this might be the case. For example, the process of talking about their experiences with a professional may make people feel less alienated or embarrassed about their problems. Alternatively, clients may gain some insight into the nature and/or source of their problems, which in turn helps them develop ideas for how to address them. Though more research is needed to determine exactly why mental health assessments are therapeutic, the finding that they are beneficial warrants serious consideration by the powers that be at insurance companies. After all, if clients benefit directly from receiving a thorough assessment prior to treatment planning, then these services may be a worthwhile investment of resources.
Eisman, E.J., et al. (2000). Problems and limitations in the use of psychological assessment in the contemporary health care delivery system. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 31, 131-140
Poston, J. & Hanson, W. (2010). Meta-analysis of psychological assessment as a therapeutic intervention. Psychological Assessment, 22 (2), 203-212 DOI: 10.1037/a0018679