Mental Health Test

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A mental health test might be an occasion for some to censor their answers to certain questions. But not Sara Alexander’s friend.

My good friend, now 83, let’s call her Harriet, is moving to a new senior independent living community.

In order to be admitted she was required to take a battery of cognitive tests. Harriet is more mentally fit than most people I know, and generally quite calm, but she was anxious about these tests, even though, or maybe because, she was trained as a Marriage and Family Therapist…as was I. While she expected to pass, at the same time she fully understood that her future was at the mercy of some test-giver’s assessment.

Harriet’s examiner turned out to be a middle-aged female social worker. The mental health portion included a few dozen questions that might be found on any standard mental health assessment and about halfway through she was asked: “Do you ever feel afraid that something really terrible is about to happen, any minute now, and that there is nothing you can do about it?”

Harriet replied: “Yes, of course. All the time. I’m Jewish”.


For a long moment the test administrator had an odd look on her face and said nothing at all. And then she laughed! “Right," she said, “I know exactly what you mean. I’m Jewish, too. We’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop!”

And few questions later she was asked: “Have you ever experienced physical or verbal abuse?”

Harriet replied: “Of course. I’m a woman.”

This time her interviewer did not miss a beat: “And a feminist?” she surmised, correctly, and then she was off and running on a long heartfelt lament that her own colleagues and friends were not feminists. And how disappointing that was. And how worried she was for young girls today, including her own teenager daughter, who do not understand how they are sexualized and victimized in their social media world.

The test ended, Harriet passed, and invited the social worker to lunch.

I work hard to convince my clients, and remind myself, that it really is okay to feel whatever we feel, and to think whatever we think. But speaking our truth always comes with a certain risk. I wonder if I would have been as honest as my friend. And as courageous.

With a Perspective, I am Sara Alexander.

Sara Alexander is a therapist and filmmaker living in Graton and San Francisco.