The mental status examination is the psychiatrist’s version of the physical examination. In 1918, Adolf Meyer developed an outline for a standardized method to evaluate a patient’s “mental status” for psychiatric practice. It combines information gathered from passive observation during the interview with data acquired through direct questioning to determine the patient’s mental status at that moment. This approach is used to identify, diagnose, and monitor signs and symptoms of mental illness. Each part of the mental status examination is designed to look at a different area of mental function to thoroughly capture the objective and subjective aspects of mental illness.
The mental status examination is organized differently by each practitioner but contains the same main areas of focus. For the purposes of this activity, the mental status examination can divide into the broad categories of appearance, behavior, motor activity, speech, mood, affect, thought process, thought content, perceptual disturbances, cognition, insight, and judgment. Cognition can subdivide into different cognitive domains depending on what areas the practitioner determines necessary to assess. Each section below will detail the definition, the proper method of assessment, and how that information has a use in the diagnosis and monitoring of mental illness.
This is a description of how a patient looks at observation. It can be determined within the first seconds of clinical introduction as well as noted throughout the interview. Details to be included are if they look older or younger than stated age, what they are wearing, their grooming and hygiene, and if they have any tattoos or scars. If a patient looks more youthful than their stated age, they may have a developmental delay or dress in an age-inappropriate manner. Patients that look older than their stated age may have underlying severe medical conditions, years of substance abuse, or often years of poorly controlled mental illness. Grooming and hygiene can give an idea of a patient’s level of functioning. Those with poor hygiene and grooming generally denote that in the context of their mental illness that they currently have poor functioning. Those with poor grooming or hygiene may be severely depressed, have a neurocognitive disorder, or experiencing a negative symptom of a psychotic disorder such as schizophrenia. Tattoos and scars can paint a picture of a patient’s history, personality, and behaviors. Scars tell stories about old, significant injuries from accidental trauma, harm caused by another individual, or self-inflicted harm. Self-inflicted injuries frequently include superficial cutting, needle tracks from IV drug use, or past suicide attempts. Tattoos often are the name of a family member, significant other, or lost loved one. They can also depict gang marks, vulgar imagery, or extravagant artwork. If a certain level of trust has been established through the interview, the interviewer can ask about the significance of the tattoos or scars and what story they tell about the patient.
This is a description obtained by observing how a patient acts during the interview. First, it is essential to note whether or not the patient is in distress. If a patient is in distress it may be due to underlying medical problems causing discomfort, a patient having been brought against their will to the hospital for psychiatric evaluation, or due to the severity of their hallucinations or paranoia terrifying the patient. Next, a description of their interaction with the interviewer should be noted. For example, is the patient cooperative, or are they agitated, avoidant, refusing to talk, or unable to be redirected? A patient that is not cooperative with the interview may be reluctant if the psychiatric evaluation was involuntary or are actively experiencing symptoms of mental illness. Patients that are unable to be redirected often are acutely responding to internal stimuli or exhibit manic behavior. Lastly, it is important to note if the behavior the patient is displaying is appropriate for the situation. For example, it can be considered appropriate for a patient who was brought in via police for involuntary evaluation to be irritable and not cooperative. However, if in that same scenario, the patient was laughing and smiling throughout the interview, it would be considered inappropriate.
This describes how a patient is moving and what kinds of movements they have. Motor activity can indicate an underlying mental illness or neurological disorder. Furthermore, as the dopamine system targeted by medications plays a vital role in the movement, it is especially essential in monitoring for medication side effects.
One aspect of monitoring is the speed of movements. This can be described as normal, psychomotor retardation/bradykinesia, or psychomotor agitation/hyperkinesia. A patient with depression or a neurocognitive disorder may have psychomotor retardation. On the other hand, psychomotor agitation may indicate that a patient is acutely under the influence of a stimulant or exhibiting manic behavior. It is important to note a patient’s gait. For example, if the gait is stiff, shuffling, or ataxic, this may point to an underlying neurological condition. One such neurological disorder is Parkinson disease, which is indicated by the cardinal triad is rigidity, bradykinesia, and resting pill-rolling tremor. If these symptoms are noted early by astute observation from the clinician, this can help lead to earlier diagnosis and treatment for such conditions.
A patient’s posture is important to note, as this may indicate underlying issues. Sustained posturing may point to catatonia, a type of psychomotor immobility/stupor/inflexibility, and a feature of psychotic disorders. Practitioners unfamiliar with the condition often overlook catatonia but is critical to differentiate as it requires a separate treatment than the underlying psychosis. If the patient displays akathisia, a restless urge to move/inability to stay still, they may exhibit the hyperactivity/impulsivity, which often presents in patients with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Alternatively, a patient with akathisia may be experiencing a side effect from an antipsychotic. Other aspects of movement that may indicate extrapyramidal side effects (EPS) from antipsychotics are rigidity, tremors, and tics such as teeth grinding, lip-smacking, or tongue protrusions. Severe sudden rigidity seen after antipsychotic administration is considered an acute dystonic reaction. Although rare, in its most extreme form this can be life-threatening if it involves laryngeal muscles. Thus, the practitioner needs to monitor and treat the slightest of reactions before they become more serious. Tardive dyskinesia is the neurological condition that arises from long-term antipsychotic administration that sustains these extrapyramidal side effects. These symptoms and their severity can be monitored more extensively with the Abnormal Involuntary Movement Scale (AIMS).
Speech is evaluated passively throughout the psychiatric interview. The qualities to be noted are the amount of verbalization, fluency, rate, rhythm, volume, and tone. It is of key importance to note the amount a patient speaks. If the patient speaks less than normal, they may be experiencing depression or anxiety. Conversely, an increased/hyperverbal amount of speech may also indicate some level of anxiety or that a patient is currently manic. Fluency refers to the patient’s language skills. English may not be a patient’s first language, and they may not be fluent. Alternately, English may be their first language, but they may have word-finding difficulty due to an altered mental status or a neurocognitive disorder. The rate of speech may be slow in depressed patients or those with a neurocognitive disorder. The pressured rate may indicate acute substance intoxication or that the patient is experiencing a manic episode. A delayed speech response time may also indicate a neurocognitive disorder or that the patient is experiencing a thought process disorder such as thought blocking seen in psychosis. The rhythm of speech can provide clues to a number of diagnoses. Slurred speech may indicate intoxication. Dysarthria may indicate a possible motor dysfunction when speaking. Volume can be quiet if a patient is depressed/withdrawn or loud if they are agitated. Some patients have a neurocognitive disorder or hearing difficulties that may make them unable to control the volume of their voice. Lastly, the tone may indicate a patient’s mood. Additionally, a child-like tone may suggest a developmental delay depending on the patient’s age.
This is a patient’s subjective description of how they are feeling. It is determined by directly asking the patient to describe how they are feeling in their own words. It is documented with quotations transcribing the patient’s response verbatim.
This is how the practitioner describes a patient’s observed expression through their non-verbal language. Terms often used are euthymic, happy, sad, irritated, angry, agitated, restricted, blunted, flat, broad, bizarre, full, labile, anxious, bright, elated, euphoric. In addition to these terms, the range of affect may be described. For example, a patient may be minimally irritated versus extremely agitated. Some practitioners will also specify whether the affect is appropriate to the situation. A patient who is smiling and laughing after being brought into the hospital for involuntary evaluation is considered to have an inappropriately elated affect. Another descriptor clinicians may use to describe affect is whether the affect is congruent or incongruent with what the patient says their mood is. If a patient says their mood is “great” and they are smiling, then their affect is happy and therefore congruent. However, if that patient said “great” while they are crying, then their affect would be tearful and incongruent.
This is a description of the organization of the thoughts expressed by a patient. For a normal thought process, the thoughts are described as linear and goal-directed. Common descriptions of irregular thought processes are circumstantial, tangential, the flight of ideas, loose, perseveration, and thought blocking. A circumstantial thought process describes someone whose thoughts are connected but goes off-topic before returning to the original subject. On the other hand, a tangential thought process is a series of connected thoughts that go off-topic but do not return to the original topic. Flight of ideas is a type of thought process that is similar to a tangential one in that the thoughts go off-topic, but the connection between the thoughts is less obvious and more difficult for a listener to follow. In a loose, disorganized thought process, there is no connection between the thoughts and no train of thought to follow. Perseverations are a type of thought process where no matter the topic or question, the patient goes back to the same subject. The content of these perseverations will be important to note in the next section. Lastly, thought blocking is seen in psychosis when a patient has interruptions in their thoughts that make it difficult to either start or finish a thought. This was previously discussed in speech as these patients often have pauses in their speech pattern and delays in response to questions.
This is essentially the subject matter of the thoughts that are in the patient’s mind. It is determined by listening throughout the interview and through direct questioning. If a patient has a particular preoccupation, they may have a perseveration type thought process for which it is important to document the topic. When assessing a patient’s thought content, it is imperative to determine suicidal ideations, homicidal ideations, and delusions.
The practitioner may ask the patient if they have suicidal ideations or homicidal ideations. Suicidal ideations need to be further clarified by passive thoughts of wishing to be dead versus active thoughts of wanting to take one’s own life. Furthermore, practitioners need to be able to ascertain whether the patient has a plan and intent to act on such thoughts. This can be difficult to determine as patients are rarely forthcoming about such details. If there is any concern for suicidal intent, a more thorough suicide risk assessment is warranted. Assessing homicidal ideations follows a similar pattern of needing to determine if the thoughts are passive ones of wishing someone was dead versus active thoughts of killing someone with or without a plan and/or intent to act. It is also vital to try to obtain from the patient towards whom they have homicidal ideations. According to the Tarasoff ruling following the California Supreme Court case Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California, it a mental health professional’s duty to warn a person if a patient has made a threat against their life.
Delusions are firmly held false beliefs of a patient which are not part of a cultural belief system and persist despite contradicting evidence. These can be plausible or fantastical in nature. Types of delusions include bizarre, grandiose, paranoia, persecutory, and somatic types. Evidence of these delusions is often hard to extract from a patient because they may know that others do not believe them and fear persecution. It takes practice from mental health care clinicians to elicit these delusions from patients in a subtle, open-minded manner. For example, one would not ask a patient, “Are you paranoid?”, but rather, “Are you worried someone has been following or spying on you?” Some commonly held persecutory delusions are paranoia that someone is following them or spying on them with a camera. Others are grandiose beliefs of being God, royalty, famous, or wealthy. Somatic delusions often derive from a sensation that the patient feels. For example, a common somatic delusion is that a patient is pregnant (common in male and female) or that there is a parasite or alien inside of them because they are constipated or bloated. When determining if something is a delusion, it is important to compare what the patient believes to objective collateral reports from outsiders or laboratory data. For example, an older, disheveled patient that states that they are a famous model may actually have been one in the past. Other types of delusions include thought insertion, thought broadcasting, thought withdrawal, mind reading, and ideas of reference. These refer to when patients believe they have control over others’ thoughts or vice versa. Ideas of reference refer to when a patient believes that they are receiving a special message from a TV, radio, or the internet that is not there.
This section describes some of the various kinds of hallucinations that a patient may be experiencing. This is assessed by asking a patient what they are perceiving. A hallucination is the perception of something in the absence of any external stimuli. It is important to contrast an illusion, which is a misperception based on an actual stimulus such as thinking one hears their name called in a crowd. Contrarily, hallucinations that occur when going to sleep (hypnagogic), waking up from sleep (hypnopompic), or sleep paralysis are non-pathological and may be considered to be normal. The most prevalent hallucinations are auditory and visual, but they can also be olfactory, tactile, and gustatory. When asking about auditory hallucinations, it is important to note what sort of sound is heard or if it is a voice. If the patient hears one or more voices, ask if the patient recognizes the voice or voices, what gender they appear to be, and what the voices are telling them. An auditory hallucination of God telling the patient to have a good day can potentially fall within the realm of normal depending on a patient’s religious and ethnic culture. Auditory hallucinations that are not considered to be normal can be negative and antagonistic towards the patient or give them commands to hurt themselves or others. Even if the patient believes it is God, such dangerous auditory hallucinations are considered to be pathological and a symptom of mental illness. When asking about visual hallucinations, it is important to get as much detail as possible. If a patient sees snakes, ask them to describe the snakes. How many are there? What are they doing? Additionally, as noted with auditory hallucinations, some visual hallucinations can be considered within the realm of normal, such as seeing the ghost of a deceased loved one shortly after they have passed.
Frequently a patient will deny having any hallucinations despite experiencing them. This may either be due to paranoia or fear generated by what they are experiencing. Even if a patient denies experiencing hallucinations, it is important to note whether the patient appears to actively respond to internal stimuli by talking to someone not present or looking at something not present.
The most common areas of cognition evaluated on a mental status examination are alertness, orientation, attention/concentration, memory, and abstract reasoning. If when assessing cognition or any other part of the mental status examination the practitioner finds symptoms of a possible neurocognitive disorder, more thorough screening is possible with additional evaluation tools such as Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE), Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MOCA), or Mini-Cog.
Alertness is the level of consciousness of a patient. This can be described as alert, somnolent, obtunded, in a stupor, or comatose. Alert means that the patient is fully awake and can respond to stimuli. Somnolent means that the patient is lethargic or drowsy. Somnolence is considered to be a reduced level of consciousness, but the patient is still able to perceive stimuli and can be awakened fairly easily. Obtunded means that mild to moderate stimuli may not arouse the patient, and when the awoken patient will be drowsy with delayed responses. A patient in a stupor is unresponsive to almost all stimuli and when aroused may quickly go back to sleep without continued stimulation. A comatose patient is unresponsive to all stimuli, including vigorous and noxious stimuli. An altered level of consciousness or sensorium may indicate that a patient may have had a head injury, ingested a substance, or have delirium from another medical condition.
Orientation refers to the patient’s awareness of their situation and surroundings. This is assessed by asking the patient if they know their name, current location (including city and state), and date. Someone who is normally oriented fully but is acutely not oriented may be experiencing substance intoxication, a primary psychiatric illness, or delirium. Delirium can be easily missed and miscategorized as a primary psychiatric illness. It is important to be able to differentiate this altered mental state because it may mean there is a critical medical condition that needs to be evaluated and treated.
Attention/concentration is assessable throughout the interview by observing how well a patient stays focused on the questions asked. Alternatively, this can be directly tested in a multitude of ways. One way is to ask a patient to tap their hand every time they hear a certain letter in a string of random letters. If they have good math skills, then another method is to ask the patient to count back from 100 by 7. Alternatively, a practitioner may ask a patient to spell a word forwards and backward or ask them to repeat a random string of numbers forward and backward. Impairment in attention/concentration may be a symptom of anxiety, depression, poor sleep, or a neurocognitive disorder. When describing the patient’s performance, a practitioner may document the performance as poor, limited, fair, or in the case of a previous comparison worsening versus improving. Instead, a practitioner can specifically describe the task and the patient’s performance.
Memory subdivides into immediate recall, delayed recall, recent memory, and long-term memory. A practitioner can choose to assess one or all types of memory during evaluation. Immediate recall is asking the patient to repeat something back to you. This determines if a patient can register new information. It can be a list of random words, random numbers, or a sentence. The delayed recall is asking the patient to repeat the same thing to you after a certain amount of time (usually 1 to 5 minutes) after performing another task that prevents the patient from doing repetitions to practice the answer. Even if a patient does not have delayed recall, they may be able to remember the information if given hints. In this case, a patient’s delayed recall would not be intact but prompted recall would. Recent memory is an assessment of how well a patient remembers recent events. This can be determined during the interview by asking about the history of present illness, what they ate earlier in the day, or what they have been doing with their time. Long-term memory assesses a patient’s memory of long-past events. Examples of this are asking a patient about when they had a child, what high school they went to, their childhood home, or their wedding. If a patient has impaired responses to recall testing and/or memory, this may point to a neurocognitive disorder that requires further screening with one of the assessments mentioned at the beginning of this section.
Abstract reasoning is a patient’s ability to infer meaning and concepts. This assessable by asking a patient what two objects have in common or how to interpret a common saying, adage, or proverb. Literal interpretations and answers indicate concrete thinking, which is seen in many psychiatric disorders but also some intellectual disabilities and neurocognitive disorder.
This refers to a patient’s understanding of their illness and functionality. It is usually described as poor, limited, fair, or if there is a previous comparison worsening versus improving. If a patient can acknowledge that their auditory hallucinations are not real, then that patient has fair insight. If a patient does not realize that their paranoia about all food being poisoned cannot be true, then their insight is poor.
This refers to a patient’s ability to make good decisions. A way to directly assess judgment is to ask a patient what they would do in specific scenarios. Often this is assessed through a patient’s history during an interview and their observed actions. This, like insight, is also rated as poor, limited, fair, or if there is a previous evaluation to compare to, worsening versus improving. Patients that repeat the same mistakes over and over or refuse to take medications show poor judgment. It is not uncommon to have an encounter with a patient who does not believe their medications affect them positively or have any affect at all. Regardless of their poor insight, some patients show fair judgment by taking their medications because they know that when they do not take them, they return to the hospital for inpatient treatment. Those with poor judgment tend to have poor functioning due to the severity of their psychiatric illness. Patients with this kind of poor judgment and functioning are usually gravely disabled and often require inpatient psychiatric treatment.
Example Documentation for Patient Charting
Appearance: 25-year-old African American female, appears stated age, wearing paper hospital scrubs that have been cut to reveal abdomen with vertical abdominal scar visible, and multiple tattoos of various names visible on forearms bilaterally.
Behavior: Not in acute distress, difficult to redirect for interviewing, inappropriately laughing and smiling
Motor Activity: Minimal psychomotor agitation present. Regular gait. Regular posturing. No tics, tremors, or EPS present.
Speech: Hyperverbal, fluent, pressured rate, regular rhythm, regular volume, happy tone
Affect: elated, inappropriate, congruent
Thought Process: flight of ideas
Thought Content: Denies suicidal ideations, denies homicidal ideations. Grandiose delusions elicited of being “an angel on a mission.”
Perceptions: Endorses auditory hallucinations of God commanding her to go to California. Denies visual hallucinations. Does not appear to be actively responding to internal stimuli.
Sensorium/orientation: Alert and oriented to person, place, and date.
Attention/concentration: Poor. Unable to spell WORLD forward and backward.
Memory: Able to recall 3/3 objects immediately and after 1 minute. Recent memory - Intact to breakfast this morning. Long-term memory - Intact to what high school she attended.
Abstract reasoning: Intact with ability to identify a bird and tree as both living.
The mental status examination is a subjective assessment of a patient and may vary significantly between practitioners depending on their level of skill in observation and eliciting responses from the patient. There are no guidelines for how to interpret and use the findings of an abnormal mental status examination; it is dependent on the practitioner to use their best clinical judgment to combine the information with other subjective and objective findings.
Several factors can limit the mental status examination. To perform an effective mental status examination, a certain level of trust needs to have been built with the patient to be able to have their cooperation and openness. Some patients are agitated to the point of being unable to answer questions or have to be sedated for safety concerns limiting the ability to perform a mental status examination. If a patient has an intellectual disability, or neurological disorder, observations and answers to questions require interpretation in the context of these conditions. If a patient is not English-fluent, had limited education from a different culture, is lacking in nutrition, has sleep deprivation, or is medically ill, they may not be able to understand everything asked.
The mental status examination is essential for use by psychiatrists in evaluating a patient on initial and subsequent encounters. The mental status examination can aid in the diagnosis of a patient when combined with a thorough psychiatric interview including history of present illness, past psychiatric history, substance use history, medical history, review of systems, family history, social history, physical examination, and objective laboratory data such as toxicology screening, thyroid function, blood counts, and metabolic levels, neuroimaging. The patient’s functioning on an initial mental status exam may also assist in determining the patient’s disposition, whether they can be treated outpatient or need inpatient stabilization.
The example mental status examination note shown previously was that of a patient with bipolar I disorder, current episode manic, severe with psychotic features in an inpatient psychiatric unit. The diagnostic criteria for bipolar I disorder would have been determined by combining the information gathered from a thorough psychiatric interview with those seen in the mental status examination that indicates current mania. The mental status examination reveals to the practitioner that this is a manic episode by the hyperverbal/pressured speech, inappropriate laughter/smiling, and inappropriately elated affect. The patient’s grandiose delusions of being an angel and auditory hallucinations from God telling her to go to California indicate that the manic episode has psychotic features. Lastly, the practitioner can surmise that this episode is severe in that it caused the patient to require admission to the inpatient psychiatric unit and the patient is exhibiting poor insight and judgment indicating a poor level of functioning.
In subsequent encounters, comparing the mental status examination to previous ones will help the clinician to determine if a patient’s symptoms are improving or worsening. Additionally, aspects such as observation of motility may indicate whether a patient is experiencing side effects from medications.
A mental status examination is a key tool in improving the detection of psychiatric signs and symptoms, diagnosing mental illness, pointing to possible underlying medical conditions, and determining the patient’s level of severity and disposition. an interprofessional team of psychiatrists manage psychiatric illness; nurses, technicians, social workers, therapies (e.g., group, art, exercise, animal), pharmacists, as well as the patient’s primary care physicians. Those who have direct interactions with a patient should all have training on parts of the mental status examination since they are involved in observing and monitoring a patient’s condition during any interactions. Routine mental status examinations by the practitioner in a patient with mental illness can determine if a patient’s condition is worsening, stable, or improving throughout their treatment. The information gathered will improve clinical decision making and enhance treatment planning.
Nursing will often have the most ongoing contact with a patient, particularly inpatients; they can assess and inform the treating physicians of any concerns. They can consult with the pharmacist regarding the dosing and administration of any psychiatric medications. Pharmacists may encounter patients outside of the institutional setting, and based on their medication profile, be aware of psychiatric conditions. If they can asses and evaluate that the patient is experiencing issues, then they can reach out to the treating physician who can determine if intervention is necessary, such as a change in medication.
Clear communication and regular meetings of the entire interprofessional healthcare team to discuss their observations on how the patient has been doing from each member’s perspective can point the team in the right direction for the patient’s care and improve patient outcomes. In an outpatient setting, there still needs to be open lines of communication, and each member of the interprofessional team should have some ability to perform mental status assessments so patients can get the help they need promptly, leading to better outcomes. [Level 5]
Nurses looking after patients must include a mental status exam in the overall physical assessment of the patient. The evaluation may take place during admission or soon after. The mental status exam should include the general awareness and responsiveness of the patient. Additionally, one may also include orientation, intelligence, memory, judgment, and thought process of the patient. At the same time, the patient's behavior and mood should undergo assessment. The patient care plans often have to be altered when there are observable abnormalities on the mental status exam.
When obtaining a mental health history, the nurse should note the general appearance, posture, and facial appearance. Also, they should observe and note the general behavior, as well as intellectual functioning and orientation. Other things of note include communication skills, memory, cognition, and judgment. Finally, one may also determine if the patient is suicidal or at risk for self-harm. The key for nurses is to be tactful. Everything requires documentation in the chart. The safety of nurses and the patient is vital at all times.
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