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The psychiatric history

I’m doing some more nights shifts at the moment.  As regular readers of this blog will know, for me this involves a lot of grumbling, but it also involves seeing a lot of patients who are having problems with their mental health at times when most people are asleep.

Whenever I see a patient for the first time I interview them and ask a set of particular questions.  These questions add up to a ‘psychiatric history’.  The aim of the psychiatric history is to establish in a systematic way the problems that the patient is having, their chronicity, i.e. how long these problems have been going on, and any other influencing factors. 

If you ever fancy taking a psychiatric history from one of your friends then here’s how to go about it. 

Write the date and time a the top of the page and say who you are.  In my case ‘Psychiaty doctor on call’.  In general try and write down everything that you think is important.  This not just for when others may be reading the notes later, but also from a legal standpoint if there is no record in the notes then something will be considered not to have happened. 

The first part of the history is called the history of the presenting complaint (HPC).  It involves recent events which have lead to this particular visit to hospital.  These events could be over a few weeks or months or over a few days or hours. With a cooperative patient I often start with a list of the things that are bothering them.  This can be very illuminating and provide a guide as to the help the patient would like to receive.  I also find that this is a useful way of not medicalising a patient’s problems.  It is not unusual for a patient to be referred to me for depression, but to say to me that their problems are housing related, and that their husband keeps hitting them and to not mention any psychiatric symptoms at all.

An important thing to establish here is what brought the patient to hospital.  They may have been sent by their GP, or have been brought in by a family member, or have come in of their own volition.  They may also have been brought in by the police or an ambulance.  Although your patient is your primary ‘witness’ so to speak, don’t be shy of asking other people details like this.  This called taking a ‘collateral history’. 

The next section to cover is the past psychiatric history.  Here we must establish for how long the patient has had problems with their mental health.  This usually covers doctors seen, medications taken and admissions to hospital. 

Mental illness often runs in families, and it is important to probe about this.  This is called the family psychiatric history. If we know that there is mental illness already in someone’s family then this may lend weight to any diagnosis we may make, but it will also give us information about a patient’s background.  For instance if an adolescent is living with a depressed parent then this will make a big difference to their home environment. 

Some psychiatric problems may be caused by or interact with physical problems.  So the next section concerns medical history.  I usually split this up into family medical history and patient’s medical history.  It is far from unheard of for a psychiatric problem to actually be the result of an undiagnosed physical problem so psychiatrists have to be awake to this possibility.

One of the reasons that working in mental health is so interesting is that someone’s mental health is often very tied up with their social situation and the experiences they have had up to the point of presenting.  This is why a personal history is taken.  This will include details of childhood, with important questions about developmental delay, schooling, employment and relationships.  If time is short this is part of the history that can be left to a later time.

Drug use and particularly alcoholism is rife in our society and a careful drug and alcohol history is important.  I’m always amazed by how reluctant people are to tell me how much they drink.  The usual conversation: Me: how much alcohol do you drink?  Patient: not much.  Me: how much is not much?  Patient: much less than I used to.  Me: how much is that? Patient: one or two. Me: one or two what? Patient: well I don’t drink every night of the week…..  Cannabis use is also linked to the development of psychotic illness.

If writer’s cramp is holding off, then a forensic history, detailing brushes with the law and time spent in prison can be taken, and it is also useful to ask about premorbid personality whereby the patient or their relatives tell you how they used to be can give an idea as to how out of character a patients actions are and how sick they may be.

There are quite thick books written on the subject of the psychiatric interview and so I can’t hope but provide anything but a taster here.  Sometimes the patient is able to give you all the information you might need.  Sometimes they might be so disturbed that the entire history is from a a collateral source.  Often psychiatrists need to talk to several people.  At the same time as the history is being taken information for the mental state examination is also being noted – this is a posting for another day.

PS I have a theory that if someone without the appropriate qualifications, but with a bit of guile and a crash course in the right things to say, decided to pose as a psychiatrist then it would be quite some time before they were found out.  If anyone is interested in giving this a go, then take careful note, as the ability to take a ‘psychiatric history’ will be an important part of your subterfuge

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  1. Cheers FP…this here post will come in handy when they ask me about the biopsychosocial model in my exam on Thurs. You are a very helpful blogger type person 🙂

    Good luck with the night shifts…just out of interest, do you find that around 4am you feel like you’re about to collapse??! isn’t it something to do with temperature and glucose levels?

  2. Thanks for the compliment – the idea of this site it to cover things that (I think) are interesting about psychiatry whilst remaining accessible to the non-psychiatrist.

    I do tend to feel fairly terrible during night shifts but actually 4am isn’t too bad. I’m on night three now I’m actually feeling pretty depressed; but I usually find that this passes if I drink four cups of tea back to back as soon as I wake up (2pm, I got to bed at 10am, and had three hour’s sleep last night). Annoyingly I always start to feel quite chipper at about 2030 just as I’m leaving and then as the night progresses have a crashing dip at 1am. Last night someone was really mean to me about my having my feet on a table at exactly this time and I almost started to cry.

    I can’t seem to eat anything more chewy than weetabix during the night. So this usually helps, along with a general break. There’s only two channels on the TV in the doctors’ room which is a shame, last night I watched Jonathan Ross and wondered how some people manage to become so rich and successful……

    The mistake most students make with psychiatric histories is to not ask about symptoms in enough detail. For instance if the patient says they are hearing voices then what are they saying, for how long, how does it make the patient feel, are they in external or internal space (etc)?

  3. Dear Frontier Psychiatrist

    I have just read this very old post – what a breath of fresh air. If only my son had been interviewed in such a thoughtful way I feel he would not have languished, poorly diagnosed, in secure mental wards for so many years. I now struggle with the appallingly poor assessments conducted by Rehabilitation and Recovery Services Placement Review staff. Are staff not trained? I wonder.