Tag Archive: anamnesis



What you see – descriptive psychopathology vs. what the patient tells you – phenomenology.

At first look you might say: objective vs. subjective. E.g.: appearance, behavior, speech, affect –  all accessible to an external (objective) observer vs. thought content and mood as (subjectively) reported by the subject. Now, these distinctions are not always as neatly clear-cut as one would like. As one can observe (as opposed to experience) his own process, i.e. one’s own thought content or process are the object of examination, an objective process. Or one can note someone’s else report of his internal experience, a report inherently filtered thorough the examiner’s preconceptions and predisposition, i.e. a subjective process. When it comes to a mental status examination the boundaries between objective:subjective are often times blurred.

The take home point: a comprehensive mental state exam necessarily includes an objective and a subjective examination of the external and internal attributes of one’s mental state.

For the objective component the examiner will aim to describe one’s mental state external manifestations (speech, behavior, affect) and ask the patient to describe his mental state internal manifestations (sensations, emotions, thoughts). Examples of questions aimed at internal experiences descriptions: “Please describe what you are feeling at this time.” “Describe your anxiety in terms of severity: mild, moderate, severe. Also frequency: you experience it once in a blue moon, weekly, a few times a week, daily, multiple times a day, all the time.” In other words the goal of the objective component of the examination is to quantitatively describe its objects regardless of their internal:external mental allegiance.

For the subjective component the examiner will aim to put himself in the patient shoes i.e. attempt to feel what the patient experiences. With regards to external manifestations of one’s mental state the examiner should carefully note his own feelings. E.g. an unaccounted for but palpable sadness in the room warrants a search for depressive symptoms even when the patient emphatically denies feeling depressed. With regards to internal manifestations the examiner should ask about the qualities of emotions, sensory experiences, or thoughts, “Describe your depression.” “What does hearing the voices feel like?” are good examples of how to inquire about the phenomenology of one’s internal experiences.

In summary:

A thorough mental status examination uses objective and subjective complementary approaches to assess external as well as internal attributes of one’s mental status exam.

The objective approach strives to produce quantitative data while the subjective approach aims to produce subjective data, regardless of the data’s provenance (external vs. internal).


Dual diagnosis technically means that the patient has two independent, i.e.  a primary psych and a substance misuse diagnoses. Which implies that a substance induced diagnosis has been ruled out. Easier said than done.

Case scenario: Patient reports a long history of polysubstance abuse and an equally long history of major symptoms (e.g., psychotic sxs, affective sxs, severe anxiety etc.)

How do you tease out what came first and what causes what? Ask:

1. Is there any history of sobriety?

‘No”. Then, you should assume that’s likely substance induced until proven otherwise (SIUPO).

“Yes”, then ask:

2. What’s the longest time that you’ve been sober?

If longest sobriety is less than a month, again likely SIUPO.

“More than a month”, ask:

3. During that time did you continue to have sxs?

“No”, SIUPO for sure.

“Yes”. Ask: What sort of sxs, etc.?

You see how the balance starts tilting towards dual diagnosis.

How does it affect you?


Most trainees do at least a fair job in gathering a long list of past and present symptoms and signs of psychiatric and other medical syndromes.

Most trainees also almost always forget to ask this ONE question:

“And how does this affect you?” Where “this” can be depression, anxiety, you fill in the blanks…

What do you get for this one question?

1. Improvement of rapport. As this question is not only a data gathering tool but also shows being concerned and caring about the patient’s experience.

2. A preliminary estimate of the patient’s insight.

“It affects me in a good way. I kind of like it actually.” A manic response.

 “Well, it affects me all right. I would like to have them stop following me.” A psychotic response.

“It drives me nuts. I would like to stop it.” An ego-dystonic response of an OCD patient.

3. When the level of insight is good: An estimate of the level of dysfunction.

“I can still work but I really feel like I am dragging my feet every day.” For a depressed patient this is probably more than mild but less than severe depression.

“It’s more of a nuisance. I am noticing it,  maybe my wife, but no one else”. For a patient complaining of short term memory loss this is probably more than just plain age related memory loss, but less than full blown Alzheimer’s Dementia. Mild cognitive impairment is likely.

Past Psychiatric History


There are many things you can ask but here is a minimalistic list of informative data:

1. How many visits to a psychiatric ER?

Too many to count“: usually indicates a severe Axis  I disorder (psychotic or affective), personality disorder, moderate (or more) panic disorder, somatization disorder, or secondary gain (which can also be part of a personality disorder). Very few or none (esp. in an older patient) usually rule out Axis II.

2. How many of the above (ER visits) were followed by hospitalization?

Most of them“. Balance tilts toward Axis I. Most of them were not: balance tilts toward Axis II.

3. How many psychiatric hospitalizations total?

Too many to count: reserved prognosis (due to chronicity, dual diagnosis or Axis II comorbidity). Consider non-compliance and dual diagnosis. Just a few/none: good prognosis.

4. What was the chief complaint/reason for most of the hospitalizations/ER visits?

Great screening question. Voices or paranoia versus depression with suicidal ideation will greatly focus further inquiry.

5. What was the longest hospitalization?

I started to appreciate this question after one patient told me his been hospitalized only twice before. I was puzzled and had a difficult time understanding the mismatch between his level of dysfunction (which was pretty significant) and the very low number of hospitalizations. It turned out that his second hospitalization was 12 years long, in one of the state forensic facilities. So, while the total number of hospitalizations is informative, what really matters (when it comes to prognosis and understanding dysfunction is the total duration of the time one spend inpatient).

6. What medication(s) worked the best/was the worst?

Good question to further narrow the differential. Also, it will save you time to cross off the list ineffective/poorly tolerated medications. Futher, usually there is no need to reinvent the wheel: if a specific intervention worked once, change is that it will work again (the exceptions here is a medication tachyphylaxis reaction, more commonly known as “poop out” phenomenon, where a medication that is effective stops working)

7. Is there a history of noncompliance? Why?

Two benefits: 1. Gives a good measure of the patient’s insight. 2. Places the patient on the stages of change continuum and thus allows you to tailor your intervention accordingly.

8. Were you using drugs around the times when you got hospitalized?

If the answer is”yes, time and again” you should re-asses what’s primary versus secondary.

9. Tell me what’s the most violent you’d ever been.

Open ended increases the chance to get a valid answer.

10.  Did you ever find yourself wishing to be dead?

Suicidality is a sensitive topic. Go straight for a past history of attempts you might put the patient off. Also, your range is too narrow. Start with a broad question and follow up with more specific questions (use a concentric approach) and you will get more honest and comprehensive (thus also more valid) answers.


There is a lot of discussion about the BPS model. Trouble is that in today’s climate this is more a point of discussion of academical interest than a reality informing our day-to-day assessments and treatment plans. Excuses of why this is are plenty: from the severely limited time allowed in most treatment settings for the regular intake and follow-up,  to the dis-interest of managed care in anything that is not clearly linked to medical/biological outcomes and interventions, viz medications.

It turns out that when one compares a patient-centered with a system-centered approach, the former is both more efficient (i.e. allows for more complete data collection) and more effective (i.e. captures more data per unit of time). Counterintuitive, yes – nevertheless, true.

One way to self-monitor one’s exam focus is to jot down the info in a 3 column format: 1st: biological data; 2nd: psychological data; 3rd: social data. Each piece of data would be placed on a line; the more data, the higher their column. An ideal interview/history should produce 3 columns of fairly comparable sizes, while a biologically/system-centered interview will necessarily result in a pretty sizable biological column and rather small psycho-social columns.

Of course this way of organizing the information is cross sectional in terms of the classical categories of anamnesis, i.e. history of present illness (HPI), past psychiatric, substance and medical history, family history etc.

Instead, each of the above categories will be constructed across the 3 BPS axes. For example, an HPI of recent neuro-vegetative symptoms (B), poor self-esteem (P), and recent break-up with the significant other (S), in context of work stress due to a difficult boss (S), which brings up memories of parental emotional abuse (P), will be divided along the 3 axes. By organizing the information accordingly, one can have a visual cue about the overall balance of the BPS contributors. An obvious unbalance can thus be easily noted and corrected.

Last but not least, by organizing the info visually along the 3 axes, dominant themes become more easily noticeable. Finally, a comprehensive BPS case formulation naturally emerges after this simple act of BPS organizing.

%d bloggers like this: