One of the side effects of having more time than I used to is that I begin to brood over the meaning of the words I once used without a second thought. It particularly happens on long walks without the running commentary of the radio. In a recent bIog I talked about ‘recovery’. Now I’ve started to think about a word I would never have given much more than a second thought too as a working psychiatrist- ‘assessment’.
The problem with many words in mental health is that they can begin to assume alternate meanings. Use of the ‘active’ and ‘passive’ tense can be important too in conveying a sense of who has the power. There is something very passive about being ‘counseled’ and the act of counseling has itself taken on various meanings from receiving counseling as ‘therapy’, wise counsel as ‘advice’ and being ‘counseled’ as a form of disciplinary act.
I don’t remember as a psychiatric trainee being specifically trained to carry out a ‘psychiatric assessment’. I was taught how to master a psychiatric interview, which considered of ‘taking the history’ (which can sound and feel rather like a rather one-sided action on the part of the doctor, removing something from the patient) and carrying out a mental state examination. I soon learned that for the interview to be effective I had to spend as long actively engaging the patient in thinking I was a person with whom they would be willing to share their experiences, as asking all the questions that psychiatrists are (in)famous for. Later on, I began to research how both GPs and psychiatrists approach the ‘consultation’ as the meeting between professional and patient is commonly known in primary care. Indeed actively ‘consulting’ the doctor conveys more power to the patient than being interviewed or assessed by them. I spent hours, days and weeks observing interactions for my research. I remember the patient who, when asked by the psychiatrist whether he knew if he had had a traumatic birth quite reasonably replied ‘well the Battle of Britain was on at the time doctor’.
Somewhere along the line, the psychiatric interview or consultation became the ‘assessment’ with a list of questions to ask the patient. Changes in the examination system of doctors reinforced this, with the shorter structured OSCEs (Observed Structured Clinical Examinations) with role-played patients, that are probably fairer to the candidates, but reward marks for asking the ‘right questions’ when ‘assessing depression’, ‘suicide risk’ or ‘hallucinations’. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I teach suicide risk assessment skills. The blurb for my latest book on depression mentions assessment too.
So what’s the problem I have with assessment? Well, when a person assesses another they are implicitly making a judgment about their suitability for something or their ability to achieve particular goals. As a patient I have been assessed for therapy. That’s fair enough perhaps when there are indications as to whether or not a person might benefit rom that intervention. Psychologists regularly carry out assessments perfectly reasonably as not everyone will benefit from their specialist expertise. But how often is this mutual assessment? Are you a person I could talk to?
And so often now I see mental health assessment as a tool to exclude rather than seek to help a person find the help they might benefit from. Its more ‘this person isn’t psychotic or actively suicidal so there is nothing we can offer them’ rather than, ‘this person is consulting me. They are extremely distressed. They don’t understand what is happening to them. How can I help them?’ In our increasingly fragmented health care system everyone is carrying out assessment according to their particular ‘criteria’ while the service user understandably feels they have been ‘assessed to death- when is someone going to help me?’
Can we move away, in mental health care, from this culture of assessment back to one of a consultation, which David Tuckett and his colleagues first described many years ago as the ‘Meeting Between Experts’?
I am the expert in what I am experiencing. You are the expert in what might be effective. In consulting you and providing you with all this very sensitive information about my inner life, I’m an trusting that you as a professional will be able not only to say if you will be able to help me personally, but also that you will do your best to help me access what I need.
I really need your assistance now to navigate this increasingly hostile system of care. I am asking for your help.