Why the Physician Mental Health Questionnaire is Ineffective for Adolescents

Esha Kode

21 July 2021

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Be it for a sick visit or an annual check-up, my doctor’s office always has me fill out a “Mental Health Questionnaire.” The questionnaire essentially consists of numerous statements with a scoring system. For example, one statement could be written as “feeling nervous, anxious, or on edge” and the columns on the right will have a 0 for “not at all,” 1 for “several days,” 2 for “more than half the days,” and 3 for “nearly every day.” As I circle a number for each statement, I arrive at the end where I am required to tally up the numbers and give myself a score. 

This questionnaire has been a recent requirement, which I appreciate as it shows that mental health is becoming more of a priority in medicine. However, I feel that there are a few drawbacks to this that defeat the whole purpose of having pediatric patients fill this questionnaire out. 

For starters, minors are accompanied by their parents to these doctor visits. Therefore, parents are closeby when children fill out these questionnaires. It can be uncomfortable to sincerely answer some of the questions because the parents might be monitoring the responses. This automatically skews the answers and deems the questionnaire ineffective.

The other major con of this questionnaire is that most doctors don’t look at it or even mention it during the visit. I have filled these questionnaires out for many years now, but only once has a doctor discussed my answers privately. The other physicians didn’t even look at my responses. 

What does this convey to pediatric patients? 

When the physicians didn’t bother to take a few minutes to check in with how I am doing mentally, it conveyed to me that getting my ears, eyes, heart, and the rest of my body checked was more important to them than understanding the way I was feeling mentally. 

It also showed me that physicians might not be taught medicine from a holistic standpoint. Medicine taught in America seems to be more about analyzing a patient’s somatic symptoms and arriving at a diagnosis for further treatment. Therefore, physicians are likely to overlook mental symptoms of depression, anxiety, suicidal tendencies, bipolar disorder, etc., because they are so focused on the issues of the physical body.  

The questionnaire was a great starting point to prioritize mental health in medicine. However, it is now time to step it up a notch. This could be done by requiring doctors to take time out of the visit to have conversations about mental health. This will not only help children recognize if they are struggling mentally, but will also raise awareness for the children who are unaware of the severity and importance of mental health. 

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