Category Archives: Diagnosis and Assessment

Steps to Developing a Diagnosis

My agency requires assigning a diagnosis after the first session, and this is very hard to do.  How can I give a diagnosis to my client when I don’t have complete information about them?

This agency requirement is probably related to third party billing and the need to document the medical necessity of the services you are providing to the client. While this requirement ensures that your clients have access to the services they need, it can be frustrating as a clinician to assign a diagnosis when you haven’t had a chance to develop a comprehensive understanding of their symptoms. I will suggest a couple of strategies regarding the notation of the diagnosis itself that may alleviate your concern and then  outline a three-step process for arriving at a diagnosis after the first session or after a more thorough assessment.  My comments are based on using the DSM-5, and may need to be adapted if your agency is using the DSM-IV.

One strategy is to check with your supervisor or the billing manager about the use of diagnoses marked “Provisional” when you have incomplete information.  If this is allowed by the third party, it is a way to acknowledge that your diagnosis is tentative.  Situations in which a “provisional” diagnosis are appropriate are when you know a client meets most of the criteria but haven’t confirmed the full set of criteria required for the diagnosis or when the client reports a diagnosis given by another health care provider that you haven’t verified independently. Also ask about the use of “Other Specified” and “Unspecified” diagnoses when you have determined which category the client’s symptoms fit but don’t know whether they meet the criteria for a specific diagnosis within that category.  These diagnoses are often useful when your information is incomplete, if they are acceptable to the third party.

A second aspect of diagnosis that may alleviate some of your concern is to view diagnosis as an ongoing process rather than a decision that is made once for the duration of the client’s treatment. The diagnosis you assign after the first session may not be the diagnosis that accurately reflects the client’s history and symptoms that emerge as you complete an assessment. This will be most likely if you have used “provisional,” “other specified,” or “unspecified” in your diagnosis, but there are other times when the client’s initial presentation differs from the impression you get after four to six more sessions. I also suggest reviewing the diagnosis every six months or whenever you update the treatment plan. This allows you to update the diagnosis if appropriate, to reflect changes in the client’s symptoms or new historical information you have learned.

I have developed a three-step process to help new clinicians develop a diagnosis, and the worksheet reflecting this process is available for download in an online workbook. I find that new clinicians often have difficulty prioritizing the different pieces of information they have about clients, and this leads to confusion in identifying the most accurate diagnosis. A more detailed description of the diagnostic process is contained in Chapter 5 of my book, available through Amazon or Routledge.

My recommendation is to begin by listing the client’s current symptoms and past symptoms reported as part of the history. This ensures that you consider all of the data that is relevant to the client’s diagnosis rather than prematurely focusing on one aspect of the presentation that may lead to an inaccurate diagnosis or may neglect a secondary diagnosis that is clinically important.

Second, make note of the categories in the DSM-5 that fit your client’s symptoms, being as comprehensive as possible.  In the worksheet, I suggest that you note the categories in which symptoms are present (or are part of the history) and then note whether these symptoms are relevant to the current treatment, i.e., part of the reason for the client seeking treatment. This notation will serve as a reminder to address the relevant symptoms in your treatment goals.  Remember to include the “Other Conditions” category if your client has psychosocial stressors, relationship difficulties, or a history of trauma.

The third step is to look at the specific diagnoses within the categories you have noted to see whether your client’s symptoms meet the criteria for one or more diagnoses. If you noted the “Other Conditions” category, review these codes to determine which situational factors are important to include in your diagnosis. Often, your client’s clinical presentation may be best described by one or more diagnoses and one or more Z codes.  If this is the case, choose the diagnosis that best represents the reason for treatment as the primary diagnosis which will be reported for billing purposes. The other diagnoses will be included in your assessment to provide a comprehensive view of the client’s symptoms, history, and current psychosocial stressors.

I hope you find these comments helpful in working with DSM-5 and diagnosis. Please email me with comments, questions, or suggestions for future blog topics.

 

Evaluation of Client Appropriateness for Treatment

worried therapistA client was recently assigned to me, and when I contacted her to set up an appointment she told me she had been in the hospital a month ago because of suicidal thinking. I’m not sure whether I should take on this client since I’m in a practicum and have only seen clients for a few months. What should I do?

It is a very good idea to ask the question of whether a client is appropriate for treatment with you before you begin with anyone new. This situation poses particular challenges because of the client’s recent suicidal thinking, but it is a good idea to take some time to evaluate that question with all new clients assigned to you. I will outline some factors to consider in the evaluation of your client’s risk.

Since you are in a practicum setting, the first step is to consult with your supervisor. She/he needs to know about your client’s hospitalization to determine whether she/he is comfortable supervising the case and proceeding with an initial appointment. If not, you’ll get suggestions on how to refer her to another resource either within or outside your agency. If you get approval to schedule an initial appointment, ask for your supervisor’s guidance about how to make an evaluation that will guide your decision to proceed with ongoing treatment.

Some of the factors I would consider in evaluating your client’s risk and the appropriateness of outpatient treatment are 1) her history of suicidality and hospitalization, 2) her ability to describe the precipitants and current strategies for managing suicidal thinking, 3) her level of engagement in treatment, and 4) the availability of other resources both within your agency and outside. I will discuss each of these factors briefly.

Your client’s history of suicidality and hospitalizations will assist you in determining whether you can help her to manage her symptoms on an outpatient basis. Her risk is lower if this was her first episode and is greater if she has had prior episodes especially if they occurred within the last year. Another area for evaluation of risk is her ability to describe the suicidal episode with some insight into the contributing factors and how she will manage suicidal thoughts that may recur. You’ll want to know whether she has a safety plan and how she has used it since being discharged from the hospital. Outpatient treatment is likely to be more successful if she has developed some insight into the recent episode and if she has strategies for managing recurring symptoms. Some clients adopt an attitude of distance from their symptoms after a hospitalization and are unwilling to talk about a safety plan, stating things are different and the symptoms aren’t going to recur. Although it may seem reassuring to hear this from a client, it is actually indicates a greater risk of future escalation.

While you are meeting with your client, you can assess her level of engagement in treatment by noticing whether she interacts with you in a collaborative manner and has ideas about her needs and plans for using therapy. If she is more passive or doubtful about the usefulness of therapy, it is less likely that you’ll be able to work with her productively. This is especially true if she is unable or unwilling to access other resources in addition to your individual outpatient treatment. Seeing a psychiatrist for medication management, attending a support or psychoeducational group, engaging in couple or family therapy, and/or receiving assistance with financial and housing needs are often vital to the success of therapy with someone who is recovering from an episode of suicidality.

A final step I recommend in evaluating the appropriateness of this client for your case load is to reflect on your experience with suicidality in your personal life as well as in a professional or volunteer capacity. This case may bring up past memories and difficult feelings if you have personal experience, and this is an area to discuss with your supervisor before and after your initial session. At some point, you will need to face this area of difficulty, but you should do this at a time that you feel as prepared and supported as possible.

I hope you find this helpful in evaluating the appropriateness of a client for treatment. Please email me with comments, questions, or suggestions for future blog topics.

Cultural Values in Treatment Goals

counselingI just completed my first session with a 21-year-old Latina who is a first generation American. She seems to rely too heavily on the opinions of her parents and other older members of her family in making decisions about her career and dating life. She said she wants to feel less anxious, and I think that will only happen if she becomes more independent of her family. How shall I talk with her about this?

Before talking with your client about her goals, I would suggest doing some exploration of your views and how they differ from your client’s. This situation highlights the impact of cultural values on treatment goals, and it is important that we examine our values and assumptions before recommending a treatment approach.

The first step in this situation is to recognize that you have developed an agenda that is different from your client’s. Any time this happens, you need to pause, examine the discrepancy, and work to understand your client’s perspective on what is best for her. In this case, you seem to have made some assumptions about your client’s relationship with her elders that will interfere with the therapeutic alliance. Her alliance with your depends on experiencing your respect and support for her in working toward her priorities. Over the course of time, your client may come to desire greater independence from her elders, but your task at the beginning of treatment is to join with her in working toward reducing her anxiety. Otherwise, she may feel undermined in defining what she needs.

The second issue to recognize is the extent to which values and beliefs about developmental goals and relationships are embedded in a cultural context. Your view that independence from parents and other family members is a desirable goal for young adults is no doubt consistent with the values of your cultural community, but your client comes from a cultural community that values interdependence and respect for elders. Talking with your supervisor and other colleagues about these cultural differences will help you to identify the strengths and benefits of your client’s values rather than assuming that she should come to share yours.

Another more complex issue to consider is the extent to which your response to your client may reflect her own conflict about her family relationships. It is helpful to reflect on your countertransference feelings and to talk about them in supervision. If you usually find it easy to join with your client’s agenda, it is possible that your strong opinion about this client’s need for independence represents your resonance with a part of herself that she is reluctant to articulate. If this seems plausible, you can support your client to recognize and sort through the complicated nature of her feelings toward her parents and other family members. This will work in her best interest if you can express an attitude of curiosity rather than judgment and if you help her identify and honor the mixture of different feelings she holds.

I hope you find this helpful in working with clients whose initial treatment goals are different from yours. Please email me with comments, questions, or suggestions for future blog topics.

Assessing a Confusing Initial Presentation

Diane SuffridgeI just had the first session with a 22-year-old client at my practicum site. She seems depressed, but there is also something different about her than my other depressed clients. I found it hard to connect with her, which is unusual for me, and she couldn’t really tell me anything about her history. She says her childhood was fine, but she doesn’t remember much until she was about 11. How can I figure out what is going on for her?

You have identified several factors in your client’s initial presentation that leave you feeling uncertain about your diagnosis and conceptualization of her difficulties. An important first step in understanding your client is to acknowledge the confusion you feel rather than rushing to a premature conclusion. It may take several sessions to begin to piece together a cohesive picture, but it is preferable to move slowly than to attempt to resolve your questions too quickly. I’ll outline some approaches I would recommend for the next 3-4 sessions to move toward understanding your client more fully.

It seems likely that this client will benefit from your direct expressions of empathy and understanding. This is the basis of all therapeutic relationships, but your experience that it was hard to connect with her suggests that she has more fear and expectation of harm or rejection than many of your other clients. This may be outside of her awareness, so she probably didn’t say anything directly to reflect fear or mistrust. However, pay particular attention to making reflective statements, summarizing what you understand, and validating her decision to seek help for her distress. This will create a therapeutic atmosphere in which she will gradually develop trust and will be more open in talking about herself.

Since you have identified differences between this client’s presentation and others who describe their problems in a similar way, I would also recommend asking clarifying questions in order to avoid making assumptions about the meaning of her statements. For example, when she says she is depressed, you could say “people experience depression differently—how does it affect you?” or “can you tell me more about what is happening with the depression?” Since aspects of her presentation indicate the possibility of early trauma, I would also recommend reviewing the diagnostic criteria for PTSD and dissociative disorders so you are familiar with symptoms that could be interpreted as depression but are actually the result of trauma. A way to begin to identify dissociation would be to ask something like “would you describe yourself as more sad or more numb?”

As your client feels more comfortable with you, she may begin disclosing unusual symptoms and experiences that go beyond depression. This is another reason to familiarize yourself with other diagnoses, including dissociative and psychotic disorders, that could present similarly to depression. You may want to ask direct questions about these symptoms in order to identify an accurate diagnosis, and it is best to do this in a straightforward, normalizing manner. Examples are “Some people find themselves hearing voices when no one is around. Does this ever happen for you?” or “Sometimes people feel detached from their surroundings or themselves, as though they’re looking at themselves from the outside. Have you ever had that experience?”

Last, I recommend continuing to be aware of your observations and emotional responses to this client. Since she seems to hold large parts of her experience outside of awareness, the nonverbal communication between the two of you will be central in your understanding of her. Including this information in your assessment will lead you to a more accurate diagnosis and case formulation. It is also likely that you will continue to have some questions for the next several months, so continue move slowly in reaching conclusions. Identify what things seem clear and what things are uncertain about her presentation, and hold the ongoing ambiguity.

I hope you find this helpful in assessing clients who have a confusing or puzzling presentation. Please email me with comments, questions, or suggestions for future blog topics.

Updating Client Documentation

imgresI have seen a client for three months and have learned new information that changes my diagnosis from major depressive disorder to post traumatic stress disorder. In light of this new information, we’re also working on different treatment goals than we talked about at the beginning. What is the best way to document these changes in our work together?

You are describing a situation that is common in clinical work. The information that clients give us at the beginning of treatment reflects what is uppermost in their minds as well as what they feel safe to disclose. Often they remember and reveal more after they feel understood and become less worried about being judged or criticized. When you work with children or adolescents, you may also get additional information from parents or teachers that affects your diagnosis and treatment plan.

Before discussing how to document these types of changes, I’ll share some thoughts about the content of your documentation. Since your new diagnosis is post traumatic stress disorder, your client has evidently told you about past traumatic events as well as revealing more about the different symptoms she is experiencing. The details of these traumatic events may be sensitive, and you should think about the possibility of your client or a third party viewing your record as you record this information. Your documentation should include enough detail to support and explain your clinical decisions while also preserving your client’s privacy. For example, you could say that the client was exposed to domestic violence but put the details of the incident and the family situation in your psychotherapy notes rather than the clinical record. (Click here for an explanation of the difference between progress notes and psychotherapy notes.)

Your documentation of these changes in your clinical work can take two forms: progress notes and separate assessment and treatment planning documents. Ideally, the changes would be reflected in both of these documents. If your agency receives a request for the client’s record, they may only send the assessment documents and not include progress notes. However, your progress notes should describe the treatment progress, and this requires including the information you describe above.

Regarding the progress notes, they should incorporate your client’s report of symptoms and traumatic incidents and your revision of the diagnosis. If you only included the client’s report in your previous notes, you can add a paragraph to your next note identifying the new diagnosis and your assessment that led to this revision. Similarly, you should describe your conversation with the client about new treatment goals and your plan for working on them. It is best for this to be included in the note for the session in which you had that conversation, but if you have already written that note you can create a supplemental note or include the information in a note for a later session, identifying the date of the original conversation.

If your agency has one or more documents for assessment and treatment planning, you may have a form for revisions or updates that you are required to complete every three, six or twelve months. If you don’t have a version of those forms to use for revisions, check with your agency supervisor. You may be able to write an addendum to the original form or simply complete a new assessment and treatment plan with a new date.

I hope you found this helpful in updating client documentation. Please email me with comments, questions or suggestions for future blog topics.

Making Referrals to Additional Services

hispanic young woman in therapyI have been seeing a client for a couple months and I think she needs more help than I can provide with individual psychotherapy. I have recommended that she get a psychiatric evaluation, join a DBT group, and sign up for a subsidized housing program. All of these services are available at the agency where I am doing my practicum training, but so far she hasn’t followed up on any of my referrals. How can I encourage her to get the additional help she needs?

Many clients in individual psychotherapy also need and benefit from additional services. Therefore, our work as therapists often involves some case management such as making referrals and collaborating with other professionals. We sometimes think of these case management tasks as outside of our therapeutic role and handle them pragmatically. This blog posting will help you think about making referrals as an integral part of the psychotherapy, which may lead to a better outcome.

I’ll start with some discussion of the reasons for recommending additional services. The combination of services you mention suggests you have multiple purposes for your referrals: clarifying the client’s diagnosis, managing crises or instability, improving living circumstances that contribute to symptoms, and following the recommended practice for specific clinical presentations. It also seems like your client presents with a complex set of emotional and psychosocial issues and you may be feeling overwhelmed. I would suggest first that you take some time to reflect on your countertransference responses to this client, preferably with some consultation from your supervisor and colleagues. This may clarify the support you need in managing this case and help you identify the reasons for your referrals. With a clearer perspective you can develop the most effective method for helping your client.

Once you have become clearer about the purpose of your referrals, approach them in order of priority. You can prioritize the referrals based on the client’s preferences and goals as well as safety concerns. It may be useful to use a harm reduction approach, which is often used with substance use disorders and has application for other situations involving safety. Identify the areas of greatest potential harm to your client and work first to reduce that harm, through your work in therapy as well as through referral to additional services. For example, if your client’s suicidal ideation puts her at serious risk, you would begin by looking for ways to reduce that risk. She might benefit from any of the referrals listed above or from accessing a 24-hour suicide prevention hotline, and the best recommendation would be the one that she is most willing to pursue. The remaining referrals would be deferred until her suicidal risk is reduced.

You express a view that your client needs more help that you can provide. There are some instances in which individual therapy can only be effective in conjunction with other resources. Talk with your supervisor about the client’s risk so s/he can help you decide whether to require the client to use one or more other services as a condition of individual therapy. That is sometimes the best decision to make in a complex, volatile clinical situation.

A final issue to consider is the therapeutic tone and manner of your referral recommendations. Pay particular attention to your countertransference and the possibility that you want to hand off this client to someone else because she feels like too much for you to handle. It is easy for a client to experience a referral as a sign of rejection rather than support. The client is bringing her concerns and difficulties to you and may feel your ambivalence about helping her. She is more likely to experience your support if you discuss your countertransference with your supervisor, then make it clear to the client that you plan to continue working with her. It will also help to describe how you believe the other services will contribute to the therapy rather than being a substitute.

I hope you found this blog helpful in making referrals in a therapeutic manner. Please email me with comments, questions or suggestions for future blog topics.

Changes from DSM-IV to DSM-5

dsm-5I am starting work at an agency that uses the DSM-V or 5 rather than the DSM-IV which I have been using at my previous agency.  What should I know about the changes between the two versions?

The DSM-5 (it is “5” rather than “V”) was published in May 2013 but many agencies are not yet using it or are just beginning to transition to the new version.  There are a number of structural changes in the organization of the DSM-5 and a number of revised or new diagnoses as well.  The DSM-5 itself contains a summary of the changes in an appendix, which you may find helpful to review.  In addition, I recommend that you look up the criteria for each diagnosis as you begin to use the DSM-5 to make sure you are applying it correctly.  I have summarized the structural and diagnostic changes below.

Structural Changes

The DSM-5 no longer uses a five axis diagnostic system as has been true in DSM-III and DSM-IV.  Instead of five axes, you list the mental health and substance use disorders that apply in the order of their clinical relevance to your treatment, followed by listing the client’s medical conditions.  Many of the psychosocial stressors that were previously listed on Axis IV are contained in an expanded section of “other conditions” called V codes or Z codes so they are included in your diagnostic list.  The GAF is no longer used, but several assessment measures are included in the DSM-5 as alternatives to the GAF for assessing the client’s level of functioning.

Some diagnoses are combined on a continuum with codes for severity rather than having different diagnoses corresponding to different levels of severity.  Autism spectrum disorder and substance use disorders are two commonly used diagnoses that have been changed in this way.  The DSM-5 calls this a dimensional approach to diagnosis rather than a categorical or binary approach. Instead of “alcohol abuse” and “alcohol dependence” disorders, DSM-5 uses “alcohol use disorder” with a code for severity based on the number of criteria met by the client’s use.

The organization of diagnostic categories has been revised so that the categories are more clearly differentiated from each other.  For example, all disorders formerly in the category of “disorders usually first diagnosed in infancy, childhood or adolescence” have been moved to the category of the diagnosis itself (e.g., attention deficit hyperactivity disorder moved to neurodevelopmental disorders).  In addition, some categories have been divided into two smaller categories (e.g., bipolar and depressive disorders, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive & related disorders) or have been combined differently (e.g., trauma & stressor related disorders).

The category of “Other Conditions” has been greatly expanded to cover some of the conditions previously listed on Axis IV as well as other historical and current situational circumstances that may be relevant to the current treatment.

Diagnostic Changes

There are a number of new diagnoses in the DSM-5 as well as revised criteria for other diagnoses.  Below is a partial list of new diagnoses:

  • Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (age of onset between 6 and 10 years of age)
  • Persistent depressive disorder (combines dysthymia and major depressive disorder, chronic)
  • Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (previously listed as a condition for further study)
  • Hoarding disorder
  • Excoriation disorder
  • Disinhibited social engagement disorder (differentiated from reactive attachment disorder)
  • Gambling disorder (previously listed as a condition for further study)
  • All disorders in the category of “somatic symptom and related disorders” (renamed from “somatoform disorders” in DSM-IV)

This is a very brief summary of the changes between DSM-5 and DSM-IV.  As mentioned above, you should look closely at the diagnostic criteria for each client’s diagnosis when you begin using the DSM-5 and also look at the listing of categories and diagnoses to see if there is a new diagnosis that fits your client’s symptoms more closely than a diagnosis which is familiar to you from the DSM-IV.

I hope you found this blog to be a helpful introduction to DSM-5.  Please email me with comments, questions or suggestions for future blog topics.

Completing an Assessment

therapyI am working at a new field placement which requires doing an assessment in the first session, which lasts 2 hours. How can I do this before I have established rapport and a therapeutic relationship with the client?

It is challenging to complete an assessment in your first contact with a client; however, there are also advantages to gathering comprehensive information about the client’s history and current circumstances early in the treatment process. I will outline some ways to approach the assessment that will facilitate rapport and relationship building so the session will have a therapeutic outcome as well as meeting your agency requirement.

I would first recommend that you talk with the client about the reasons for the assessment when you schedule the initial appointment. Express your desire to be helpful to the client and state that learning about his current symptoms, life situation and history will make the treatment more effective in working toward his goals. This communicates the message that your purpose and interest is aligned with the client’s, rather than simply meeting a bureaucratic requirement.

Before the assessment session, familiarize yourself with the format of the assessment template or report. You may want to bring a copy of the assessment template into the session or a list of general areas for questioning. If there are specific questionnaires for the client to complete, bring those with you as well. You may find it helpful to role play the introduction of the assessment with your supervisor or a colleague before you meet with your first client. The more comfortable and confident you feel, the more easily you will develop a therapeutic relationship with the client during the assessment session.

When you start the session, remind the client of what you discussed in your scheduling conversation about the assessment contributing to the effectiveness of treatment. Then begin with the client’s primary concern in seeking treatment and ask follow up and clarifying questions covering different areas of the assessment as they emerge from the conversation. It is more facilitating of the therapeutic relationship to engage in a dialogue that is relatively fluid and follows the client’s lead rather than imposing a standard order of questioning. It is also preferable to ask open-ended questions which allow the client to determine the direction and content of what he shares. The client’s answer to “can you tell me what your family life was like as a child?” will tell you more about him than the answer to “did you grow up in a two-parent or single parent household?”

If your agency practice requires you to be directive rather than following the client’s lead, you should acknowledge this at the beginning of the session and explain that this is different from the structure of future therapy sessions. For example, you could say “The assessment format we use here requires me to ask you about things in a fairly structured way, so I’ll be leading the conversation today more than I will in our future sessions. Please let me know if you feel uncomfortable about my approach at any time, or if there is something you want to share with me that isn’t directly related to my questions.”

Remember that you are asking the client about events and experiences that may be painful, may bring up feelings of shame and which the client may want to avoid rather than disclose. Expressing empathy, conveying acceptance rather than judgment and reflecting your understanding of what the client is saying will create a therapeutic atmosphere. For example, if the client describes a childhood history of physical abuse and adult relationships involving domestic violence, you might respond with a statement like “It sounds like your childhood taught you to expect physical violence as part of intimate relationships. It’s not surprising that you found that pattern repeating in your adult relationships.” Although you will not have time to explore the details of the client’s experience in the assessment session, you can respond therapeutically to the material he shares.

When you approach topics that you expect or know will be difficult for the client to discuss, it is helpful to let him know this information is asked of all clients and to ask his permission to inquire about those areas. For example, many clients come into treatment with shame and denial associated with past and current substance use. You can introduce the topic therapeutically by saying “We ask all clients here about their use of substances because we find that to be related to aspects of mental health. Is it all right if I ask you some questions about your past and current use of alcohol and other drugs?”

When you follow these tips, you’ll find the assessment session results in a positive therapeutic relationship as well as information that enhances your understanding of the client. I hope you find these suggestions helpful in completing assessments in the first session. Please email me with comments, questions or suggestions for future blog topics.

Concerns About Diagnosis

new2I just started my first practicum placement and I am supposed to give a diagnosis to each client.  I’m worried that I don’t have enough experience to make a diagnosis and that my diagnosis might create problems for my clients later on, if they or someone else sees their records.  

Your concerns are common among students in practicum training.  It often feels daunting to take on the role of assigning a diagnosis to your client.  You may be uncomfortable with the gravity of this professional responsibility, and you may have questions about the validity of diagnostic labels that don’t include consideration of the client’s strengths and capacities.  Many clinicians are aware of the potential use of diagnosis in pathologizing or stigmatizing individuals who are vulnerable to being treated with discrimination and bias.  I will share several steps you can take to maximize the likelihood that your diagnostic process will be beneficial to the client rather than harmful.

The first step is to be thorough and comprehensive in gathering relevant information and considering alternative diagnoses that fit your client’s symptoms and presenting problem.  If you are required to assign a preliminary diagnosis after the first session, make sure to re-evaluate the diagnosis after you have completed a full assessment.  Be careful of the tendency to jump quickly to a diagnosis that you consider to be non stigmatizing, such as an adjustment disorder, that may not be an accurate reflection of the full clinical picture.  I recommend reading the DSM diagnostic criteria for three to five alternative diagnoses as well as the information about differential diagnosis considerations for these diagnoses.  Once you have reached a conclusion about the client’s diagnosis, review this with your supervisor to insure that your final diagnosis is the most accurate and appropriate for the client’s presentation.  With complex clinical presentations, you may have a primary diagnosis and one or more secondary diagnoses.

A second step to take regarding diagnosis is to include a description of the client’s initial symptoms and presenting issues in the client record, in addition to the diagnosis itself.  Usually you will complete an initial assessment which should contain the client’s report and your observations that support the diagnosis.  Your progress notes should track the client’s thoughts, affective states and behavior related to the diagnosis and any changes to the diagnosis resulting from new information or progress.  This insures that anyone viewing the client’s record at a later date will have a more complete picture of the client’s symptoms and functioning than is conveyed by the diagnosis alone.

A third step to maximize the benefit to the diagnostic process is to discuss the diagnosis with the client.  Clinicians are often reluctant to do this because of the worries mentioned in your question.  However, a collaborative discussion often results in relief and clarity for the client who may feel confusion, self-criticism and shame about her condition.  I generally enter these discussions by summarizing what the client has told me and my observations, then sharing the diagnosis that fits the clinical picture.  An example is ” You’ve told me that you don’t enjoy anything, that your sleep and appetite are disrupted and that you feel really down.  I’ve noticed that you are pretty harsh in judging yourself and your energy seems low.  All of these things are signs of depression, and I believe the diagnosis of major depressive disorder fits what you’re experiencing now.”  I then ask the client what her thoughts and reactions are to hearing this and engage in a discussion of any questions or concerns she  may have.  If there is any indication at that time or later in treatment that the client may want her record to be shared with another party, you can remind her that the diagnosis is part of the record and talk about the implications that may have.

I hope you find these suggestions helpful in making diagnoses with more confidence.  Please email me with comments, questions or suggestions for future blog topics.

Cultural Factors in Diagnosis

new1I just had my first session with a 20-year-old woman who meets the DSM criteria for borderline personality disorder.  Her emotions are very labile, her relationship with her boyfriend is unstable and she was fired from her job as a nanny recently because she was often late and had frequent crying spells.  I think DBT would be a good treatment for her, but she immigrated from Thailand three months ago and I don’t know whether DBT has been used with Thai Americans.

It’s important to be aware of the importance of culture in choosing a treatment modality, but before addressing that question let’s look at the issue of culture related to diagnosis.  This young woman’s recent immigration is the context for her symptoms, which makes an initial diagnosis of adjustment disorder more appropriate than borderline personality disorder.  If she came alone to take a job as a nanny, the drastic change in cultures would be exacerbated by a loss of social support and the network of relationships she left behind.  If she came with her boyfriend, that relationship would be under tremendous strain as they both adjust to U.S culture.  In one session, you don’t have time to gather information about her history and background to know whether these symptoms have been longstanding, as required for a personality disorder diagnosis, or whether they developed around the time of her immigration.

Regarding the question of treatment modality, it is possible she would benefit from learning some of the skills that are part of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).  However, if you begin with a diagnosis of adjustment disorder, the initial focus of treatment will be on learning more about the circumstances of her immigration and her life in Thailand as well as her three months in the U.S.  You will also want to learn more about her previous strategies for coping with distress, her interpersonal relationships including the boyfriend, and her educational and work achievements.  It would also be advisable to learn more about resources appropriate for recent Thai immigrants as well as to research available mental health providers who are fluent in her native language.  It will be important to take a collaborative approach with the client, asking what she feels would be helpful and what steps she wants to take, as you talk with  her about different treatment options with you or other providers and social supports that are relevant to her circumstances.  Consulting with your supervisor, teachers and colleagues who have knowledge and expertise in clinical issues related to immigration and Thai-American culture will also be valuable.

If the client decides to continue in treatment with you, you can then move to the question of specific treatment goals and interventions.  Your consultation and supervision may give you information about interventions shown to be effective with Thai American immigrants, but your client’s responses and preferences about treatment are the best source of guidance.  You should be prepared to adapt interventions, like DBT, that were developed for a different cultural group and to pay close attention to the subtleties of the therapeutic relationship to gauge the impact of your interactions.

I hope you find these suggestions helpful in working with an individual or family who has recently immigrated from another country and culture.  Please email me with comments, questions or suggestions for future blog topics.