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What Is Psychiatric Triage?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Psychiatric triage is the assessment of mental health patients to determine the nature and urgency of their conditions. This information is used to assign a treatment priority in a situation where multiple patients are competing for treatment resources. In addition, it can lay the groundwork for a treatment plan to address the specific needs of the patient. It is often possible to provide this service over the phone.

As in other forms of medical triage, psychiatric triage starts with a quick overview of the patient’s case to record the major complaint and note any other issues. Major complaints in psychiatry could include issues like suicidal thoughts, hallucinations, or extreme anxiety. Secondary issues might involve other problems with emotional regulation. This information can help an interviewer determine what the patient’s problem is and make a decision about the level of its severity.

Emergencies in psychiatry may be less clear-cut than those in other forms of medicine. A patient having a heart attack is clearly a medical emergency, for example, while anxiety is not as clear. Panic attacks could potentially be very serious for a patient, or they might be manageable in an office visit on the following day. Considerable personal judgment is involved in psychiatric triage to determine what the patient needs on the basis of behavior, reported symptoms, and history.

The patient can be assigned a priority score. This may range from needing to be seen immediately to needing an appointment within a reasonable period of time, such as a week. The psychiatric triage also helps with the development of a treatment plan. This could include medications if a patient needs sedation or antipsychotics to address immediate problems, as well as recommendations for long-term psychotherapy. Information can be noted in the patient’s chart to record the assessment and the outcome.

People seeking assistance for mental health complaints may find the psychiatric triage process frustrating. It can involve a number of questions, not all of which may appear to directly pertain to the situation at hand. Family history is often collected, for example, because this may actually have a bearing on the patient’s mental state. A report of hallucinations may be viewed differently in a patient with a family history of schizophrenia than in someone who doesn’t share this history. Answering questions fully and to the best of the patient’s knowledge is most likely to result in prompt and appropriate processing.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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