What is a mental health assessment?
A mental health assessment is an appointment or consultation – or a series of appointments – with a health professional like a GP, counsellor, psychologist or psychiatrist.
A teenage mental health assessment is for talking about your teenage child’s thoughts, feelings and behaviour. It aims to look at issues that are affecting your child’s mental health and wellbeing and causing mental health problems.
What happens in a mental health assessment?
You or your child might have a specific problem in mind when your child goes to see a GP, counsellor, psychologist or psychiatrist. But the first interview will look generally at the issues that are affecting your child’s wellbeing.
What the professional will talk with your child about
The professional will talk with your child about their thoughts, feelings, moods, behaviour and relationships. They’ll also ask about other things like school, friendships, work, home, sexuality and drug use.
How long mental health assessment takes
A mental health assessment usually takes longer than other health appointments. It might take more than one appointment, so that the professional can really understand your child’s issues.
Seeing your child alone
Depending on your child’s age, the professional will usually want to speak with your child alone, for all or part of the mental health assessment.
Being alone with the professional can help your child talk openly about their worries. If you’re there, your child might feel embarrassed about speaking openly, or they might not want to talk about sensitive or private issues.
Holistic approach to teenage mental health
The health professional will take a holistic approach. This means that the mental health assessment will look at your child in relation to their social and cultural world. For example, the professional will talk with your child about their thoughts and personal beliefs and how these might affect health.
The professional might use art, music, photos, play therapy, drama therapy, electronic assessment tools or storytelling to understand your child’s perspective on things. They might also use formal tests to check anxiety, depression, learning ability or substance use.
Talking to you about your child’s mental health
To get an overall impression of your child’s issues, the health professional will want to talk to you and possibly other members of your child’s family or kinship group and other important people like teachers or school counsellors.
Depending on your child’s age and maturity, the professional will usually get your child’s consent for talking to you. If your child objects, the health professional will follow this up with you and your child.
Your support can have a direct and positive effect on your child’s mental health. In fact, there’s a strong link between the quality of relationships between parents and teenagers and positive outcomes for teenage mental health.
Preparing pre-teens and teenagers for a mental health assessment
How you prepare your child for a teenage mental health assessment will depend on your child’s development. But being honest and talking with your child about the concerns you have for their wellbeing can help your child get the most from mental health consultations and treatment.
You know your child best, so you can judge what and how much to explain. Your mental health professional can also give you advice.
Children 9-11 years
In the pre-teen years, children still think in fairly concrete terms and are most focused on things related to themselves. They might be concerned about whether they’re normal and the same as their friends. They follow the rules of their social group and value friendships highly.
This means that your child needs accurate information, but not too much of it:
- Explain that the aim of the mental health assessment is to help both you and your child understand how and why their feelings and/or behaviour have changed lately.
- Explain that it’s common for children their age to see a mental health professional.
- Reassure your child that there’s nothing wrong with visiting a mental health professional – it’s like visiting a GP.
- Tell your child that you’ll go into the appointment with them if they want.
- Reassure your child that what they tell the professional will be private and confidential.
- Let your child know that you’re not going to trick them into going to appointments.
Children 12 years and older
From the age of 12 years, children think more deeply about things. They understand consequences better and think about right and wrong. They’re developing their own identity and thinking about what they want from life. They think about other people’s points of view, but they’re still strongly influenced by peers.
Here’s how to approach this conversation:
- Reassure your child that there’s nothing wrong with visiting a mental health professional and that it’s common for people to do this.
- Talk about what they can expect to get out of going.
- Talk about confidentiality and privacy.
- Visit websites together to read other young people’s stories – try Reach Out, Headspace and Kids Helpline.
- Give your child information about different professionals and services – like counsellors, psychologists and GPs.
- Tell your child you’re happy to go with them and that you’ll respect their privacy.
If you approach pre-teen and teenage mental health problems with kindness, openness, hopefulness, tolerance, confidentiality and encouragement, it makes it easier for your child to accept help.
Getting ready for a mental health assessment: practical tips
Before the first appointment, find out:
- what the meeting will cover
- how long it will last
- whether you need to take anything with you – for example, school reports, test results or medicines
- whether the professional will want to see the whole family or only your child
- what approaches the health professional will use when working with your child
- whether there’s a cost for the mental health assessment.
These tips can help too:
- Make a list of questions so you get all the information you want.
- Let your child know if you want time alone with the health professional.
- Take some paper or a tablet to write notes.
- Let the service know in advance if you need an interpreter.
After a mental health assessment
At the end of a teenage mental health assessment, the professional will give you an opinion about your child’s mental health problems and suggest a treatment plan. The professional will also say if your child is at high risk and needs immediate action. In serious situations, this might mean sending your child to a hospital-based inpatient or outpatient service.
Although you might want to know what has happened and what was said at the mental health assessment, your child might need some time before they talk about things with you. Your child might decide not to share what happens at their mental health appointments. This can be hard, but it’s your child’s right.
Your child’s mental health professional will let you know if there are significant risks or if there’s something you need to know to keep your child or others safe.
If your child has a good relationship with the mental health professional, it will have a big effect on how well mental health treatment is likely to work.
When pre-teens and teenagers won’t go to the mental health assessment
If your child is reluctant to see a mental health professional, it might help if a trusted family member or friend talks with your child about it.
Avoid tricking your child into going. It’s not good for trust if you tell your child you’re taking them shopping when you’re really taking them to see a mental health professional.
Here are ways you can encourage your child to see a mental health professional:
- Speak to your child about changes you’ve noticed – for example, changes in their mood, behaviour, relationships or schoolwork. Say you’re worried.
- Explain why you think seeing someone might be a good idea. For example, you think it might help your child to talk with someone outside the family who’s good at helping young people.
- Give your child information about services and how they can help – for example, counselling and psychology.
- Explain that the health professional won’t tell your child what to do but will suggest things and help them find solutions to problems.
- Explain that going to a mental health assessment isn’t a punishment and that you’re not suggesting counselling or psychology because you’re angry. You just want to help.
- Explain that you’ll help your child to make an appointment or will make one for them, but that you expect them to go to it.
- Suggest to your child that they go to one session and then decide how they feel about continuing.