Why the social history is important

From the notes I read, it seems that other medical specialties limit “social history” to whether or not someone uses tobacco, drinks alcohol, or uses drugs.

“Social history” is meant to get a sense of the context in which people live. Where do they live? Who do they live with? How did they come to live there? Where did they grow up? What sort of work do they do? How much school have they finished? What do they do for fun? What are the important relationships in their lives? etc.

I almost always start my clinical interviews with the social history. There are several reasons why I do this:

One, it’s a more neutral place to start. My hope is that it will help the person feel more comfortable talking to me. Most of these questions are easy to answer, since many of them overlap with social conversation: Where do you live? How long have you lived there? This is also an opportunity to communicate through non-verbal communication: The nodding, the eye contact, and all the other behaviors that show that I’m paying attention and worthy of trust. (“See, it’s not so bad to talk with a psychiatrist.”)

Two, it puts the information the person shares with me into context. If people don’t have a stable place to live, then they have good reason to feel anxious about their safety and exhausted from poor sleep. If someone lives with other people who are struggling with substance use or are often fighting, then this person may not be able to recruit them to help with the tasks of daily life. They may not even feel safe staying with them, but don’t have other choices. One can’t expect someone to take medication on a regular basis when they don’t have enough money to buy food.

Three, if people don’t want to talk to me for whatever reason, the way they stop the conversation is useful information. Sometimes people are paranoid for a variety of reasons—some based in reality, some not—and they shut down the interview. Sometimes people want to talk to me, but they’re exhausted and ask me to come back later. Sometimes people don’t like something about me: my hair (it’s noteworthy how some people respond to my hair), my ethnicity, my clothes, my sex, the way I talk. I can’t change most of those things, and how people respond to all that tells me (1) how I can better interact with them in the future and (2) what might be going on that is causing them to respond this way. And sometimes people don’t want to talk to me because I’m not conducting the interview in a skillful way: Maybe I’m coming across as cranky, uncaring, or judgy.

Four, and most importantly, I want the person to know that I view them as a human being. I wince whenever someone immediately launches into their mental health history: “OK, I have a diagnosis of schizophrenia and I take Zyprexa and Cogentin … ” This tells me that this person got the message over time that no one is interested in him as a person; people only want to know his diagnosis and medications. But people aren’t their diagnoses or their medication regimens. All people have hopes and dreams; they have things they want to do and people they want to be. While a summary statement might make the interview more efficient, it matters whether this person with a volunteers at the animal shelter every week because he loves dogs or whether he stays at home and watches TV all day. This information is valuable, regardless of his diagnosis.

It takes time to get a social history. Short appointments, though, are short-sighted. It’s much faster to generate diagnoses from labs and studies; it’s much faster to write prescriptions than to listen to patients. If physicians don’t get an accurate history, then physicians are more likely to generate wrong diagnoses. Wrong diagnoses, along with no information about the contexts in which people live, lead to wrong interventions. Did anyone then actually save any time?

Maria Yang is a psychiatrist who blogs at her self-titled site, Maria Yang, MD.  

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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