3 steps to mental health screening success

The screening of inmates is possibly one of the most important assessments conducted in correctional settings


This column was originally posted on Jeff Keller's blog, Jail Medicine.

It is a holiday weekend in the middle of the night. The booking area of the jail is a big, open, noisy pit with people sitting in plastic chairs, watching TV or on phones and the officers either behind desks or circling the perimeter. It is filling up. 

A staff member is completing initial mental health screenings in a corner of the open room, on a platform and behind a computer. She has the electronic health record open to the mental health screening form and is going through each “yes/no” question, reading from the computer screen and not looking at the recently arrested individual, a young man picked up on a possession charge.

Screening is the gateway to services and interventions.
Screening is the gateway to services and interventions. (Getty Images)

“Are you currently taking any medications for mental health problems?” “No.”

“Have you ever been hospitalized for mental health reasons?” “No.”

“Are you currently thinking about hurting or killing yourself?” Pause. Swallow. “No.”

“Have you ever been treated for withdrawal from drugs or alcohol?” “No.”

She missed it.  She missed the pause; she missed the swallow.

She misses his nonverbal hesitation, his wide eyes and his fear of being honest. He is thinking about hurting or killing himself but the answer he gives is, “No.” And the interview moves on, more intimate questions being asked in a public space by a staff member looking at a screen and not at the person being asked. Exactly the wrong setup. No privacy. No confidentiality. Rapid-paced yes or no questions. No interest in the person being interviewed, just focused on completing a required form.

Sound familiar? Unfortunately, it is likely all too familiar in jails and prisons across the country. 

Screening is one of the most important steps in identifying the needs of individuals entering our jails and prisons. It is step number one in determining who needs to be seen for further follow-up and how soon they need to be seen. Unlike physical wounds and abnormal vital signs, there are not always clear objective markers of risk for mental health emergencies or mental health needs. We must rely on patient self-report and on subtle cues, like pauses and hesitations.

I have three basic recommendations for supporting a successful screening:

1. Conduct the screening in a private, confidential area

The space where the person is being interviewed should be safe from being overheard and ideally free from being observed by other inmates/detainees. Standard safety protocols should be in place to ensure protection for the staff member and the patient, but there are ways to set up spaces so that the patient’s back is to an open room and noise protections are in place.

2. Engage with the patient

The staff member conducting the interview needs to read the question then look at the individual during the response. Ideally, the staff member should read the question, remember the question and then ask it while looking at the individual. This allows for observation of the patient’s reaction to the question, the nonverbal response in conjunction with the verbal response. Should the patient’s response reveal issues of concern, there needs to be follow-up. 

3. Use open-ended questions

Whenever possible, ask “When is the last time you…” instead of “Have you ever…” Asking “When is the last time you took medications for a mental health condition?” makes what we call a gentle assumption. It assumes that something is true. In this case, that the patient has taken psychotropic medications. This gentle assumption provides permission for the individual to share the details of their experience rather than having to admit something in the first place. For patients who have not taken medications in the past, the answer will be “never” but for those who have, there is a sense that taking medications is the norm and therefore safe to reveal.

Screening is the gateway to services and interventions. It is the triage point and possibly one of the most important assessments conducted in our settings. Let’s set it up for success.

What I have shared here is my opinion, based on my training, research and experience. I could have missed something or just be plain wrong. If you think I’ve got it wrong, please let me know why in the comments.

NEXT: 3 trends impacting correctional healthcare in 2021

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