Meet the WellPower Detectives: Decoding Mental Health Mysteries

WellPower’s clinicians are among the best in Colorado at working with the people we serve to meet their unique needs and support their treatment and recovery. Still, similar to physical health, there are cases that need an even higher level of expertise to decode. When the complexities of mental health baffle the brightest in Denver, it’s time to call the WellPower Detectives: the Psychological Assessment team (“Psych Assessment,” for short).

What Does the Psychological Assessment Team Do?

“When clinicians are stuck, when further advocacy needs to happen for people we serve, we come in and we help figure out what’s going on and offer accurate diagnoses and treatment recommendations,” explained Dr. Jamie Brenner, WellPower’s child and autism psychological assessment specialist. “We’re essentially an auxiliary, supportive service for all the clinical teams here at WellPower.”

The Psych Assessment team sees many of the most complex cases at WellPower, often involving layered symptoms of psychosis, bipolar disorder, intellectual disability, traumatic brain injury (TBI), stroke, personality disorders and more. “We rarely see ‘straight up’ ADHD [attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder], for example,” said Dr. Brenner. “Lots of trauma, unfortunately,” which can present with symptoms similar to a wide range of mental health conditions.

Psychological assessment is considered to be a short-term therapeutic intervention because, as Dr. Brenner explained, “it’s useful for reevaluating a previous diagnosis as well as guiding psychoeducation for the person served, their treatment team and family. A lot of this is intended to get everybody in the person’s life on the same page, and sometimes change narratives.”

What does it mean to change narratives? “For example, sometimes parents will come in and have a very negative view of their child’s behavior, so getting them to change their perspective is sometimes important – the behavior might be because the child’s been through trauma,” said Dr. Brenner.

The Psych Assessment team does a full range of assessments for adults; children; people with autism; people with neurological symptoms associated with TBI, dementia, or stroke; and people involved with the immigration legal system. Like other parts of WellPower, Psych Assessment never turns people away due to inability to pay.

Conducting a Psychological Assessment

When someone comes in for an assessment, “it means that their treatment team is seeking help, looking for diagnostic clarification,” explained Dr. Kimberly Pfaff, director of risk management and psychology training services and head of the psych assessment team.

The treatment team of the person receiving the assessment often has a series of questions, usually around confirming the person’s mental health diagnosis. “They send them over to us, we do a very thorough interview, probably about an hour and a half to two hours, and then we do a series of tests – paper and pencil as well as computerized tests,” said Dr. Pfaff.

These tests include a number of standardized tools depending on the needs of each person served, such as cognitive assessments, puzzles, play-based assessments, structured interviews and questionnaires.

To build out a coherent narrative of what the person has been through, the team reviews medical and academic records and talks extensively with family members, guardians, teachers, therapists, psychiatrists and case managers. They might also conduct school observations to see how children interact with their school environment.

Sharing the Assessment Results

Once all of the tests and interviews have been compiled, the team writes up a report of their findings and recommendations for next steps in treatment. Like everything at WellPower, these reports are strengths-based and validating – rather than a critical appraisal of someone’s condition, they are meant to offer clarity and guidance to help inform the next steps of a person’s continued behavioral health recovery.

This report is shared not only with the person served, but with everyone involved in their care, from family members and caregivers to the WellPower treatment team. It’s common for the person’s therapist to join in the feedback sessions, where the results of the assessment and recommendations for treatment are reviewed. The therapist also receives a copy of the report so they can incorporate it into treatment going forward.

For children, this means sharing the results in an accessible way.

“In the beginning of our time together, I work with the child to come up with questions they have about what’s happening with themselves – why they feel angry or sad at school, for example – and then work with them to answer these questions as part of the assessment results,” said Dr. Brenner. “The child has also done a lot of work throughout this process, and they deserve to know about themselves, so I create developmentally appropriate stories or letters to explain everything to them.”

Dr. Brenner builds entire stories featuring relatable characters – like Jordan, a kangaroo who just wants to jump-jump-jump and has trouble concentrating on schoolwork – with whom the child can identify. The story explains the findings of the assessment through the characters, which is much more accessible and less threatening than a standard clinical report. Jordan the kangaroo, for example, was having a lot of big feelings, which sometimes made him yell and run out of class. “Dr. K” helped him learn how to calm down before his feelings affected his behavior, which helped him focus more in school and even make friends with the other animals.

The Many Benefits of a Psychological Assessment

“Assessment is a short-term intervention because it can be really powerful in changing family systems, changing awareness, pointing treatment in the right direction,” Dr. Brenner said.

Here are some of the many ways an assessment can be used to help people:

  • Confirming or correcting a mental health diagnosis. Because many mental health conditions present with similar symptoms, it can be challenging to figure out exactly what’s going on. A thorough assessment can confirm the original diagnosis, add more information or nuance, or even provide a different diagnosis that is much more accurate.
  • Validating treatment direction. Having a correct diagnosis with fuller context is invaluable for success in treatment. Because different mental health conditions involve varying – and sometimes opposite – approaches to treatment, having an accurate diagnosis can help the person served, their WellPower team and their family and friends all move in the right direction together.
  • Advocacy. Having an official report from a highly trained assessment specialist is often critical for helping people get additional services, such as eligibility for a day treatment school, guardianship or other benefits. It serves as a form of “proof” to government agencies that the person would indeed benefit from specialized care.
  • Supporting immigration cases. The Psych Assessment team works alongside immigration attorneys to support the legal proceedings of people who are seeking asylum. Assessments can help demonstrate from a psychological perspective that the person involved with the case experienced real trauma in their home country and are legitimately escaping for their lives. Reports can also help prove how a deportation would result in undue hardship to American citizen family members.

Dr. Brenner’s Favorite Part

When asked about her favorite part of her role on the Psych Assessment team at WellPower, Dr. Brenner doesn’t hesitate: “Being able to advocate for people who really need it and who aren’t getting the support they need,” she says with a smile. “Bringing understanding – self-understanding, as well as for parents and therapists. I feel like we do change lives. In a very short period of time, we’re able to change trajectories with people in their recovery.”