2: The Psychiatric Interview

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CHAPTER 2 The Psychiatric Interview



The purpose of the initial psychiatric interview is to build a relationship and a therapeutic alliance with an individual or a family, in order to collect, organize, and synthesize information about present and past thoughts, feelings, and behavior. The relevant data derive from several sources: observing the patient’s behavior with the examiner and with others present; attending to the emotional responses of the examiner; obtaining pertinent medical, psychiatric, social, cultural, and spiritual history (using collateral resources if possible); and performing a mental status examination. The initial evaluation should enable the practitioner to develop a clinical formulation that integrates biological, psychological, and social dimensions of a patient’s life and establish provisional clinical hypotheses and questions—the differential diagnosis—that need to be tested empirically in future clinical work.

A collaborative review of the formulation and differential diagnosis can provide a platform for developing (with the patient) options and recommendations for treatment, taking into account the patient’s amenability for therapeutic intervention.1 Few medical encounters are more intimate and potentially frightening and shameful than the psychiatric examination.2 As such, it is critical that the examiner create a safe space for the kind of deeply personal self-revelation required.

Several methods of the psychiatric interview are examined in this chapter. These methods include the following: promoting a healthy and secure attachment between doctor and patient that promotes self-disclosure and reflection, and lends itself to the creation of a coherent narrative of the patient’s life; appreciating the context of the interview that influences the interviewer’s clinical technique; establishing an alliance around the task at hand and fostering effective communication; collecting data necessary for creating a formulation of the patient’s strengths and weaknesses, a differential diagnosis, and recommendations for treatment if necessary; educating the patient about the nature of emotional, behavioral, and interpersonal problems and psychiatric illness (while preparing the patient for psychiatric intervention, if indicated and agreed on, and setting up arrangements for follow-up); using special techniques with children, adolescents, and families; understanding difficulties and errors in the psychiatric interview; and documenting the clinical findings for the medical record and communicating with other clinicians involved in the patient’s care.


Healthy interactions with “attachment figures” in early life (e.g., parents) promote robust biological, emotional, and social development in childhood and throughout the life cycle.4 The foundations for attachment theory are based on research findings in cognitive neuroscience, genetics, and brain development that indicate an ongoing and life-long dance between an individual’s neural circuitry, genetic predisposition, brain plasticity, and environmental influences.5 Secure attachments in childhood foster emotional resilience6 and generate skills and habits of seeking out selected attachment figures for comfort, protection, advice, and strength. Relationships based on secure attachments lead to effective use of cognitive functions, emotional flexibility, enhancement of security, assignment of meaning to experiences, and effective self-regulation.5 In emotional relationships of many sorts, including the student-teacher and doctor-patient relationships, there may be many features of attachment present (such as seeking proximity, or using an individual as a “safe haven” for soothing and as a secure base).7

What promotes secure attachment in early childhood, and how may we draw from this in understanding a therapeutic doctor-patient relationship and an effective psychiatric interview? The foundations for secure attachment for children (according to Siegel) include several attributes ascribed to parents5 (Table 2-1).

Table 2-1 Elements That Contribute to Secure Attachments

We must always be mindful not to patronize our patients and to steer clear of the paternalistic power dynamics that could be implied in analogizing the doctor-patient relationship to one between parent and child; nonetheless, if we substitute “doctor” for “parent” and similarly substitute “patient” for “child,” we can immediately see the relevance to clinical practice. We can see how important each of these elements is in fostering a doctor-patient relationship that is open, honest, mutual, collaborative, respectful, trustworthy, and secure. Appreciating the dynamics of secure attachment also deepens the meaning of “patient-centered” care. The medical literature clearly indicates that good outcomes and patient satisfaction involve physician relationship techniques that involve reflection, empathy, understanding, legitimization, and support.8,9 Patients reveal more about themselves when they trust their doctors, and trust has been found to relate primarily to behavior during clinical interviews9 rather than to any preconceived notion of competence of the doctor or behavior outside the office.

Particularly important in the psychiatric interview is the facilitation of a patient’s narrative. The practice of narrative medicine involves an ability to acknowledge, absorb, interpret, and act on the stories and struggles of others.10 Charon10 describes the process of listening to patients’ stories as a process of following the biological, familial, cultural, and existential thread of the situation. It encompasses recognizing the multiple meanings and contradictions in words and events; attending to the silences, pauses, gestures, and nonverbal cues; and entering the world of the patient, while simultaneously arousing the doctor’s own memories, associations, creativity, and emotional responses—all of which are seen in some way by the patient.10 Narratives, like all stories, are co-created by the teller and the listener. Storytelling is an age-old part of social discourse that involves sustained attention, memory, emotional responsiveness, nonverbal responses and cues, collaborative meaning-making, and attunement to the listener’s expectations. It is a vehicle for explaining behavior. Stories and storytelling are pervasive in society as a means of conveying symbolic activity, history, communication, and teaching.5 If a physician can assist the patient in telling his or her story effectively, reliable and valid data will be collected and the relationship solidified. Narratives are facilitated by authentic, compassionate, and genuine engagement.

A differential diagnosis detached from the patient’s narrative is arid; even if it is accurate it may not lead to an effective and mutually designed treatment path. By contrast, an accurate and comprehensive differential diagnosis that is supported by a deep appreciation of the patient’s narrative is experienced by both patient and physician as more three-dimensional, more real, and is more likely to lead to a mutually created and achievable plan, with which the patient is much more likely to “comply.”

Creating the optimal conditions for a secure attachment and the elaboration of a coherent narrative requires mindful practice. Just as the parent must be careful to differentiate his or her emotional state and needs from the child’s and be aware of conflicts and communication failures, so too must the mindful practitioner. Epstein11 notes that mindful practitioners attend in a nonjudgmental way to their own physical and mental states during the interview. Their critical self-reflection allows them to listen carefully to a patient’s distress, to recognize their own errors, to make evidence-based decisions, and to stay attuned to their own values so that they may act with compassion, technical competence, and insight.11

Self-reflection is critical in psychiatric interviewing. Re-flective practice entails observing ourselves (including our emotional reactions to patients, colleagues, and illness); our deficits in knowledge and skill; our personal styles of communicating; our responses to personal vulnerability and failure; our willingness or resistance to acknowledge error, to apologize, and to ask for forgiveness; and our reactions to stress. Self-awareness allows us to be aware of our own thinking, feelings, and action while we are in the process of practicing. By working in this manner, a clinician enhances his or her confidence, competence, sensitivity, openness, and lack of defensiveness—all of which assist in fostering secure attachments with patients, and helping them share their innermost fears, concerns, and problems.


All interviews occur in a context. Awareness of the context may require modification of clinical interviewing techniques. There are four elements to consider: the setting, the situation, the subject, and the significance.12

The Setting

Patients are exquisitely sensitive to the environment in which they are evaluated. There is a vast difference between being seen in an emergency department (ED), on a medical floor, on an inpatient or partial hospital unit, in a psychiatric outpatient clinic, in a private doctor’s office, in a school, or in a court clinic. Each setting has its benefits and downsides, and these must be assessed by the evaluator. For example, in the ED or on a medical or surgical floor, space for private, undisturbed interviews is usually inadequate. Such settings are filled with action, drama, and hospital personnel who race around. ED visits may require long waits, and contribute to impersonal approaches to patients and negative attitudes to psychiatric patients. For a patient with borderline traits who is in crisis, this can only create extreme frustration and possibly exacerbation of chronic fears of deprivation, betrayal, abandonment, and aloneness, and precipitation of regression.13 For these and higher functioning patients, the public nature of the environment and the frantic pace of the emergency service may make it difficult for the patient to present very personal, private material in a calm fashion. In other public places (such as community health centers or schools), patients may feel worried about being recognized by neighbors or friends. Whatever the setting, it is always advisable to ask the patient directly how comfortable he or she feels in the examining room, and to try to ensure privacy and a quiet environment with minimal distractions.

The setting must be comfortable for the patient and the physician. If the patient is agitated, aggressive, or threatening, it is always important to calmly assert that the examination must require that everyone is safe and that we will only use words and not actions during the interview. Hostile patients should be interviewed in a setting in which the doctor is protected. An office in which an aggressive patient is blocking the door and in which there is no emergency button or access to a phone to call for help should be avoided, and alternative settings should be arranged. In some instances, local security may need to be called to ensure safety.

The Situation

Many individuals seek psychiatric help because they are aware that they have a problem. This may be a second or third episode of a recurrent condition (such as a mood disorder). They may come having been to their primary care physician, who makes the referral, or they may find a doctor in other ways. Given the limitations placed on psychiatrists by some managed care panels, access to care may be severely limited. It is not unusual for a patient to have called multiple psychiatrists, only to find that their practices are all filled. Many clinics have no room for patients, or they are constrained by their contracts with specific vendors. The frustrating process of finding a psychiatrist sets the stage for some patients to either disparage the field and the health care system, or, on the other hand, to idealize the psychiatrist who has made the time for the patient. In either case, much goes on before the first visit that may significantly affect the initial interview. To complicate matters, the evaluator needs to understand previous experience with psychiatrists and psychiatric treatment. Sometimes a patient had a negative experience with another psychiatrist—perhaps a mismatch of personalities, a style that was ineffective, a treatment that did not work, or other problems. Many will wonder about a repeat performance. In all cases, in the history and relationship-building, it is propitious to ask about previous treatments, what worked, and what did not, and particularly how the patient felt about the psychiatrist. There should be reassurance that this information is totally confidential, and that the interest is in understanding that the match between doctor and patient is crucial. Even at the outset, it might be mentioned that the doctor will do his or her best to understand the patient and the problem, but that when plans are made for treatment, the patient should consider what kind of professional and setting is desired.

Other patients may come reluctantly or even with great resistance. Many arrive at the request or demand of a loved one, friend, colleague, or employer because of behaviors deemed troublesome. The patient may deny any problem, or simply be too terrified to confront a condition that is bizarre, unexplainable, or “mental.” Some conditions are ego-syntonic, such as anorexia nervosa. A patient with this eating disorder typically sees the psychiatrist as the enemy—as a doctor that wants to make her “get fat.” For resistant patients, it is often very useful to address the issue up front. With an anorexic patient referred by her internist and brought in by family, one could begin by saying, “Hi, Ms. Jones. I know you really don’t want to be here. I understand that your doctor and family are concerned about your weight. I assure you that my job is first and foremost to understand your point of view. Can you tell me why you think they wanted you to see me?” Another common situation with extreme resistance is the alcoholic individual brought in by a spouse or friend, clearly in no way ready to stop drinking. In this case you might say, “Good morning, Mr. Jones. I heard from your wife that she is really concerned about your drinking, and your safety, especially when driving. First, let me tell you that neither I nor anyone else can stop you from drinking. That is not my mission today. I do want to know what your drinking pattern is, but more, I want to get the picture of your entire life to understand your current situation.” Extremely resistant patients may be brought involuntarily to an emergency service, often in restraints, by police or ambulance, because they are considered dangerous to themselves or others. It is typically terrifying, insulting, and humiliating to be physically restrained. Regardless of the reasons for admission, unknown to the psychiatrist, it is often wise to begin the interview as follows: “Hi, Ms. Carter, my name is Dr. Beresin. I am terribly sorry you are strapped down, but the police and your family were very upset when you locked yourself in the car and turned on the ignition. They found a suicide note on the kitchen table. Everyone was really concerned about your safety. I would like to discuss what is going on, and see what we can do together to figure things out.”

In some instances, a physician is asked to perform a psychiatric evaluation on a patient who is currently hospitalized on a medical or surgical service with symptoms arising during medical/surgical treatment. These patients may be delirious and have no idea that they are going to be seen by a psychiatrist. This was never part of their agreement when they came into the hospital for surgery, and no one may have explained the risk of delirium. Some may be resistant, others confused. Other delirious patients are quite cognizant of their altered mental status and are extremely frightened. They may wonder whether the condition is going to continue forever. For example, if we know a patient has undergone abdominal surgery for colon cancer, and has been agitated, sleepless, hallucinating, and delusional, a psychiatric consultant might begin, “Good morning, Mr. Harris. My name is Dr. Beresin. I heard about your surgery from Dr. Rand and understand you have been having some experiences that may seem kind of strange or frightening to you. Sometimes after surgery, people have a reaction to the procedure or the medications used that causes difficulties with sleep, agitation, and mental confusion. This is not unusual, and it is generally temporary. I would like to help you and your team figure out what is going on and what we can do about this.” Other requests for psychiatric evaluation may require entirely different skills, such as when the medical team or emergency service seeks help for a family who lost a loved one.

In each of these situations, the psychiatrist needs to understand the nature of the situation and to take this into account when planning the evaluation. In the aforementioned examples, only the introduction was addressed. However, when we see the details (discussed next) about building a relationship and modifying communication styles and questions to meet the needs of each situation, other techniques might have to be employed to make a therapeutic alliance. It is always helpful to find out as much ancillary information as possible before the interview. This may be done by talking with primary care physicians, looking in an electronic medical record, and talking with family, friends, or professionals (such as police or emergency medical technicians).

The Subject

Naturally, the clinical interview needs to take into account features of the subject, including age, developmental level, gender, and cultural background, among others. Moreover, one needs to determine “who” the patient is. In families, there may be an identified patient (e.g., a conduct-disordered child, or a child with chronic abdominal pain). However, the examiner must keep in mind that psychiatric and medical syndromes do not occur in a vacuum. While the family has determined an “identified patient,” the examiner should consider that when evaluating the child, all members of the environment need to be part of the evaluation. A similar situation occurs when an adult child brings in an elderly demented parent for an evaluation. It is incumbent on the evaluator to consider the home environment and caretaking, in addition to simply evaluating the geriatric patient. In couples, one or both may identify the “other” as the “problem.” An astute clinician needs to allow each person’s perspective to be clarified, and the examiner will not “take sides.”

Children and adolescents require special consideration. While they may, indeed, be the “identified patient,” they are embedded in a home life that requires evaluation; the parent(s) or guardian(s) must help administer any prescribed treatment, psychotropic or behavioral. Furthermore, the developmental level of the child needs to be considered in the examination. Young children may not be able to articulate what they are experiencing. For example, an 8-year-old boy who has panic attacks may simply throw temper tantrums and display oppositional behavior when asked to go to a restaurant. Although he may be phobic about malls and restaurants, his parents simply see his behavior as defiance. When asked what he is experiencing, he may not be able to describe palpitations, shortness of breath, fears of impending doom, or tremulousness. However, if he is asked to draw a picture of himself at the restaurant, he may draw himself with a scared look on his face, and with jagged lines all around his body. Then when specific questions are asked, he is able to acknowledge many classic symptoms of panic disorder. For young children, the room should be equipped with toys, dollhouses, and material to create pictures.

Adolescents raise additional issues. While some may come willingly, others are dragged in against their will. In this instance, it is very important to identify and to empathize with the teenager: “Hi, Tony. I can see this is the last place you want to be. But now that you are hauled in here by your folks, we should make the best of it. Look, I have no clue what is going on, and don’t even know if you are the problem! Why don’t you tell me your story?” Teenagers may indeed feel like hostages. They may have bona fide psychiatric disorders, or may be stuck in a terrible home situation. The most important thing the examiner must convey is that the teenager’s perspective is important, and that this will be looked at, as well as the parent’s point of view. It is also critical to let adolescents, as all patients, know about the rules and limits of confidentiality. Many children think that whatever they say will be directly transmitted to their parents. Surely this is their experience in school. However, there are clear guidelines about adolescent confidentiality, and these should be delineated at the beginning of the clinical encounter. Confidentiality is a core part of the evaluation, and it will be honored for the adolescent; it is essential that this is communicated to them so they may feel safe in divulging very sensitive and private information without fears of repercussion. Issues such as sexuality, sexually transmitted diseases, substance abuse, and issues in mental health are protected by state and federal statutes. There are, however, exceptions; one major exception is that if the patient or another is in danger by virtue of an adolescent’s behavior, confidentiality is waived.14

The Significance

Psychiatric disorders are commonly stigmatized, and subsequently are often accompanied by profound shame, anxiety, denial, fear, and uncertainty. Patients generally have a poor understanding of psychiatric disorders, either from lack of information, myth, or misinformation from the media (e.g., TV, radio, and the Internet).15 Many patients have preconceived notions of what to expect (bad or good), based on the experience of friends or family. Some patients, having talked with others or having searched online, may be certain or very worried that they suffer from a particular condition, and this may color the information presented to an examiner. A specific syndrome or symptom may have idiosyncratic significance to a patient, perhaps because a relative with a mood disorder was hospitalized for life, before the deinstitutionalization of mental disorders. Hence, he or she may be extremely wary of divulging any indication of severe symptoms lest life-long hospitalization result. Obsessions or compulsions may be seen as clear evidence of losing one’s mind, having a brain tumor, or becoming like Aunt Jesse with a chronic psychosis.12 Some patients (based on cognitive limitations) may not understand their symptoms. These may be normal, such as the developmental stage in a school-age child, whereas others may be a function of mental retardation, Asperger’s syndrome, or cerebral lacunae secondary to multiple infarcts following embolic strokes.

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