A psychological evaluation can be a key part of your therapy journey. It gathers information about how you think, feel, behave, and much more.

If you or a loved one have just started therapy, you might have been told that you’ll receive a psychological evaluation.

Don’t panic.

These evaluations include a series of tests and assessments similar to the ones given in any other medical office. They’re used to provide your mental health professional with valuable insights into the symptoms that you might be having and guide your course of treatment.

A psychological evaluation is often thought of as the first line of defense in diagnosing and treating a mental health condition. Performed by a psychologist, it helps them gain an understanding of the severity and duration of your symptoms.

Tests and assessments are the two main components used in an evaluation. The testing part of an evaluation typically includes using formal tests, or “norm-referenced” tests. These are standardized tests that measure an individual’s ability to learn and understand several concepts.

Standardized tests, for example, can measure your reading ability compared to others of your same age and grade or intellectual level.

In a psychological evaluation, these tests can be adapted to measure whether an individual might have a particular condition or disorder.

An assessment, on the other hand, can include formal tests, like standardized ones, and informal tests, which are those that measure your performance and progress on certain activities.

Common components of an assessment include:

  • psychological tests
  • surveys and tests
  • interviews
  • observational data
  • medical and school history
  • medical evaluation

Based on the questions asked, assessments can help determine a variety of things from whether you might have a learning disorder to how well you’d work as a manager.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), these evaluations assess your psychological functioning, including your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors to help determine the sort of treatment you may need — in short, the best way to move forward.

If you’re having dizziness or lightheadedness and visit a doctor’s office or clinic, a medical exam will be done. The doctor might perform a battery of tests, such as a blood test or an X-ray, to see whether you have an underlying health condition, like anemia (low iron) or hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).

A psychological evaluation works in a similar way.

They’re tailored to help your mental health professional get to the root of the symptoms that may be concerning you and influencing certain aspects of your life. And, just like medical exams, early intervention and treatment can help prevent your symptoms from worsening.

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) points out several signs and symptoms that might be an indication a psychological evaluation might be needed. These include the following:

  • changes in mood
  • nervousness
  • social withdrawal
  • changes in your sleep or eating habits
  • difficulty concentrating
  • trouble performing your usual tasks
  • a lack of interest in activities you previously enjoyed

If any of these signs sound familiar to you, do know that help is available — and that a psychological evaluation can be an important first step towards treatment and recovery.

Some people wonder why both tests and assessments have to be done. Aren’t they the same thing?

Well, yes and no.

Tests and assessments are separate ideas but are often used together to get a full picture of where you stand.

“A psychological assessment is gathering information to evaluate a person’s behavior, character, strengths, and needs for the purpose of diagnosing, setting goals, and recommending treatment,” explains Wendy Pitts, LCSW-C, a clinical social worker in Maryland. “While tests can be used as a part of gathering information for an assessment, the tests themselves are not the assessment.”

On the other hand, “tests are instruments used to assess specific features of a person’s functioning.”

For example, aptitude testing may be used to clarify your skills. Meanwhile, the PHQ-9 test — a self-reported questionnaire — might be used to assess for depression.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all evaluation. Each one will be tailored to you and your needs. The tests and assessments chosen will be specific for you.

In general, you can expect to spend anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes at the evaluation. Prior to the evaluation, you may be asked to write down your symptoms, thoughts, and emotions.

During the evaluation, it’s important to be honest about your current state of mind, your history, and your day-to-day challenges. This will better inform your mental health professional’s understanding of who you are and what may need to be done next.

Clinical interview

A clinical interview is usually the first step in the therapy process.

During this time, a mental health professional may spend 1 to 2 hours with you to review your history, symptoms, and concerns. Throughout the interview, they will make several observations, primarily about the way you reason and think.

Keep in mind that such interviews are done in an accepting, non-judgmental manner.

Your mental health professional may also choose to interview those who are close to you, such as your significant other or a family member. However, these interviews won’t be done without your consent.

Behavior test

A behavior test looks at how you would perform in a given situation. Research shows that these tests can help measure your interests, personality, values, and attitudes.

Again, this is done to give your mental health professional a complete portrait of who you are.

Personality tests

A personality test is used to help understand several aspects of your personality and what shaped it — your environment, genetics, and social circumstances.

One example of a personality test that may be done this is the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. This particular test can help your mental health professional evaluate what form of care you may need.

Intellectual functioning (IQ) test

Though this type of test isn’t as common, it might be added based on your specific needs.

Hearing that your IQ might be tested can seem unnerving. And yes, this test is used to understand your intellectual capacities, but it’s also used to understand your future possibilities.

Intelligence tests can be used to measure:

  • reasoning
  • problem-solving
  • abstract thinking, ability to understand real concepts
  • judgment
  • academic learning
  • experiential learning, ability to learn by doing

The scores on an IQ test might not reflect the overall intellectual performance, so interviews might be conducted with family members, teachers, and caregivers to give a complete picture.

Medical exam

A physical exam might also be involved.

If you’re experiencing any symptoms, blood tests or X-rays might be done to help determine whether your symptoms are due to a medical condition.

A complete medical history — which includes which medications you take — will also be taken into account as some medications can cause symptoms that mimic a mental health condition.

These evaluations measure a number of factors to help your mental health professional understand what you’re going through — and where you may need support. These aspects include:

  • attention span
  • memory
  • language skills
  • judgment skills
  • the biggest stressors impacting your life
  • thought patterns
  • feelings
  • behaviors
  • ability to reason
  • developmental delays (in children)

Psychological evaluations are primarily used to help make an accurate diagnosis and ultimately, determine the best treatment options, if needed.

Some of the mental health conditions evaluations are used for include:

At the same time, psychological evaluations can also be used to encourage self-awareness, evaluate job candidates, and assist in academic placement.

The words “psychological evaluation” may sound intimidating at first. But these evaluations can give your mental health professional essential information about you, your personality, your behaviors, your symptoms, and importantly, your challenges.

It’s important to be candid about your experiences, thoughts, and emotions during your evaluation. A trusted mental health professional will always have your best interests in mind — and want to support you.

Remember that this is a common and necessary part of the therapy journey. And what awaits at the end could be your path towards recovery.