The Mental Status Exam (MSE) in psychiatry

Mental Health @ Home Mental Status Exam - assess spelled out in Scrabble tiles

The mental status exam (MSE) is a framework for assessment that’s used widely in the field of psychiatry.  Rather than being a one-time assessment, it is used on an ongoing basis to capture how a patient is doing on any given encounter (and I use the term patient to describe the role and not the person as a whole).  This is what it covers:


Appearance, attitude, and behaviour:

This isn’t supposed to be about passing judgment; instead, the purpose is to identify clues that could potentially give information about someone’s mental health.

  • Apparent vs stated (i.e. actual) age: When I’m depressed, I tend to appear older than my stated age. While it sounds odd, “stated age” is just the usual terminology and isn’t intended to imply that someone is lying about their age.


  • Grooming: If someone is depressed or struggling with negative symptoms of schizophrenia their hygiene may be poor, while someone who’s manic may be wearing heavy makeup and revealing clothing.  This is most useful when the clinician knows the patient’s baseline for comparison, or can refer back to MSEs documented in the past.  Another factor is whether the person is dressed appropriately for the weather.  For example, if someone is dressed for a polar expedition on the hottest day of the summer, that may be an indicator of a psychotic illness.


  • Eye contact: This is another area where it’s useful to be aware of the patient’s baseline as well as relevant cultural norms.  When I’m very depressed, I make minimal eye contact.


  • Cooperation with interviewer: Someone may be “guarded” (reluctant to reveal information) due to paranoia, or rapport may be “tenuous” (weak) because the interviewer is a pompous jerk, and this can mean the information gathered through the interview isn’t necessarily reliable and therefore the assessment may not accurately capture the entire clinical picture.


  • Motor behaviour: There are a variety of ways in which mental illness can affect people’s physical activity.  For example, mania may speed up people’s movements (psychomotor agitation), while depression may slow it down (psychomotor retardation).  Catatonia refers to extreme disruptions in motor behaviour.


  • Speech: This includes rate, rhythm and volume.  If someone is slow to give answers to basic questions they may be described as having “latency of response”


Mood and affect:

Mood is how the patient describes their emotional state, and affect is the emotional expression visible on the patient’s face.  Affect may be referred to as incongruent if, for example, a person was laughing while speaking about a very sad topic.


Perceptual disturbances:

Alterations in perception could include hallucinations (which may occur in any of the five senses) and illusions (skewed perceptions of “real” environmental stimuli).


Thought form/thought process:

This considers the “how” of a person’s thinking.  Is it logical?  Is it disorganized?  I’ll talk more about this in tomorrow’s post on terminology.  Thought form isn’t assessed based on asking the patient specific questions, but rather is evaluated based on the entirety of the interview.


Thought content:

This considers the “what” of a person’s thinking, and includes delusions (which I’ll break down further in tomorrow’s post), obsessions, and suicidal or homicidal ideation (commonly abbreviated as SI/HI).


Cognition and sensorium:

This includes things like orientation, concentration, and memory.  Further formal testing may sometimes be required.  A brief test like the mini mental state exam or MMSE (despite what it sounds like, no relation to the MSE) might cover questions like what day/month/year it is, spell “world” backwards, subtract by 7’s (“serial sevens”), remember 3 objects, and copy a geographic design.

Baseline intelligence and education are relevant here; if someone with no formal education can’t subtract by 7’s that doesn’t necessarily indicate there’s a problem, but if an astrophysicist can’t do that task it’s a pretty good indicator of significant impairment.


Insight and judgment:

Insight refers to the patient’s level of awareness of the symptoms they’re experiencing and the impact those symptoms are having on their functioning.  Insight tends to be poorer with some illnesses compared to others, and may fluctuate depending on the severity of the symptoms someone’s having at any particular time.  Someone may have good insight into their symptoms without necessarily agreeing with the clinician on the cause of those symptoms.

Judgment refers to the extent to which a person’s judgment, particularly with regards to behaviour, is influenced by the symptoms they’re currently experiencing.  An obvious example of poor judgment would be someone who was manic blowing a bunch of money at a casino.


So there you have it, the basic pieces of a mental status exam (MSE).  In tomorrow’s post, I’ll explain some more of the terminology that’s commonly used in assessing mental health.


book cover: Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis by Ashley L Peterson


My book Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis breaks down the different categories of DSM-5 diagnoses, explaining the diagnostic criteria and providing first-hand stories of the various illnesses.  It’s available on the Mental Health @ Home Store, as well as Amazon and other major retailers.

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21 thoughts on “The Mental Status Exam (MSE) in psychiatry

  1. Karen says:

    Really interesting, thanks.
    Even knowing what the professional is guiding their assessment on, I bet I still can’t do eye contact well enough!

  2. easetheride says:

    Very interesting! Thanks for sharing. I liked how you mapped out how some of these traits manifest with you when you are depressed. I definitely stopped to consider the same, gives me good insight! And it can help me in my work with my students too.

  3. Meg says:

    Yeah, I had a total breakdown in 2005. I remember wearing my heavy winter coat even though it was June in small-town Georgia. There was a reason for it, of course–I was being choked to death by an unseen hand, and feeling the pressure of my coat on the back of my neck helped negate the pressure I felt on the front.

  4. manyofus1980 says:

    thats interesting! I’m not sure we have that but we probably have something similar to it here in ireland. Interesting to see how other countries do things!

    • ashleyleia says:

      According to a quick Google search, yes, it’s part of psychiatric training in Ireland. As a patient you wouldn’t necessarily know it was being used since it’s more a framework to organize assessment rather than a specific test.

  5. updownflight says:

    I’ve been seeing my psychiatrist for almost 13 years. He always said that he takes careful note of his very first observations of me when he opens the waiting room door, to my walk down the hall to his office, to me sitting down, and onward. I always feel bad when people say they have psychiatrist appointments via video. I think that’s a bad trend, though I understand for some there are too few doctors available in their area.

  6. Marie Abanga says:

    I loved this post Ashley and will save same to revisit down the line lol – you are doing great work getting all this together and sharing and I hope lets of the work is therapeutic for you

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