One of my graduate school professors was an existentialist. It was a master’s program in psychology and, although the class focused on personality psychology, his existentialist-leaning lectures often touched on deeper meanings, self-actualization and, ultimately, the transcending of the self. He philosophized about life and death and the things that make us who we are.
One of his assignments was to think back to our earliest childhood memory. For me, the memory was of my grandmother in India. Although she was bedridden, she seemed to have everlasting endurance for my childhood antics. She had time for me when others seemed preoccupied with other life demands. And she would tell me stories. She would tell of faraway lands where princes and tigers roamed free in lush jungles having wild adventures. I was captivated. My grandmother died when I was five years old, and my family moved to the U.S. soon after, but my mother still tells of me sitting in my grandmother’s bed, listening to grandmother’s tales, and seeing me at peace.
The recollection made me realize why I am continually humbled by the work I do in my career. Today, I work with adults who are seeking psychotherapy and children seeking assessment at the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Center of New Orleans, an experience that has left me with respect and awe for the resilience of the human spirit. I’ve realized that people’s stories need to be discovered, listened to, and most can be changed.
As a psychotherapist, I love to both hear the stories people share and help them write new chapters. Helping a depressed or anxious mother, for example, helps that person thrive and that thriving ripples out to all of her relationships, including her relationships with her spouse and children. I am thrilled by the experience of helping a person more fully live a livable, vibrant, meaningful life. Cognitive behavioral therapy gives tools of thinking and behavior that people can use on their own to create the life they envision. When cognitive behavioral therapy ends, often it’s because people have mastered the tools of realistic thinking and positive behavior change that leads to satisfaction and peace of mind. These changes lead to poignant moments when people notice their lives getting better. It’s always rewarding to see a difficult story change into a more vibrant one.
Psychological assessment is the process of finding out information that helps clarify that story and that might show what more might be left to be written. Some of these assessments can seem straightforward, such as when a 4-year-old is brought in for WPPSI testing needed for admissions for some private schools. Some are more complex, like an assessment for attentional or learning problems. Even a short testing experience can provide rich insight to chapters yet to be written. As I have given school-admissions WPPSI tests, I have seen children show skills in visualizing objects in space that suggest a future engineer or astrophysicist or verbal skills that suggest a future university professor or lawyer. This kind of testing can help parents co-author early childhood experience by helping them understand and build on their child’s key strengths or to identify and address possible areas of difficulty early when help is more likely to make the biggest change.
As Harriet Brown wrote recently in the New York Times, someone looking for counseling or psychotherapy should keep important questions in mind about the qualifications, skills and training that a therapist might have.
When looking for someone to make a psychological assessment, I’ve also complied a quick ‘how to’ guide to for finding an exceptional psychologist for your child’s testing process:
- Check credentials. Psychological assessments are usually performed only by individuals with doctoral degrees in psychology. These include clinical, counseling, and educational psychologists with Ph.Ds, Ed.Ds, or Psy.Ds. Professionals with master’s degrees are not trained to do psychological assessment and even professionals with medical degrees are rarely qualified.
- Make sure the psychologist is experienced in the kind of assessment you need. If you have a specific goal in mind, (e.g. getting classroom accommodations or diagnosing learning disabilities), ask the psychologist if they have experience in this area. Our clinic has experience with children as young as age 3 and we also do some specialized assessments for adults, such as ADHD evaluations or psychological assessments needed for weight loss surgery, but certain types of testing, such as those for neurological conditions like dyslexia or memory loss, require a neuropsychologist.
- Ask about time-frame. After getting your assessment you should receive a full, printed report. Make sure to ask not only when you can be seen, but how long you will have to wait to receive the report (not just the feedback session). The practice should have a policy about time lines. In addition, psychologists often are able work with schools and parents to meet deadlines, even if they are only a few days away, which is a point of pride in our own clinic.
- Ask how long the report will be and what it may entail. You can learn a lot about a practice just by asking this question!
- Ask if you can schedule a phone call or brief consultation to speak with the psychologist. Some clinics, such as our own, provide free, in-person consultations to discuss your goals and answer questions.
- For children and adolescents, make sure the psychologist can accommodate any special needs or preferences. For example, our clinic has both female and male therapists to help accommodate a parent or child’s strong preference. For a very anxious child, testing might be completed over several days. Although both children and adults often perform better when tested before 1 p.m., the psychologist should be reasonable in accommodating the parent’s schedule.
Whether looking for therapy or for assessment, you’ll do best when the person you work with is both inter-personally warm and knowledgeable about the kind of testing or treatment that best address your concerns. We strive for this every day at the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Center of New Orleans.
Dr. Urmi Jani, M.A., M.S., Psy.D.
Dr. Urmi Jani, M.A., M.S., Psy.D. received her doctorate in Clinical Psychology at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine and is the first post-doctoral fellow at the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Center of New Orleans. She also serves as adjunct faculty in the psychology department at Loyola University of New Orleans. She loves exploring the city with her husband and 16-month-old son, Riyan.