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Conducting Effective Intake Sessions in Therapy: Complete Guide to Intake Interviews

What is an Intake Session in Therapy?

The work a Counselor does for an intake session begins before we sit down with our new client. Our work begins with the client’s first contact, including when they schedule their session. From our first interaction with a client, our actions can have an impact on the development of our pending therapeutic relationship. Because of this, it is important to be mindful of the language we use on social media accounts, practice websites, and with all communications that we have with potential clients.

Intake sessions occur during a professional’s first session with a client.  Depending on the setting you work in, intake interviews can be completed by a variety of mental health professionals. The primary goal of an intake session is to gather information so that an effective treatment plan can be established. With the information gathered, we should be able to make a formal treatment recommendation and may be able to provide a clinical diagnosis.  This may sound like a simple task; however, it takes time to find your groove when conducting intake session interviews.

With the amount of information covered in an intake interview session, it may feel scripted or unnatural for Counselors.  You may not be able to ask questions or use responses that you would typically use in sessions. Being mindful of our time management allows us to respect our client’s time and our allotted session.  Keep reading to learn about conducting effective intake sessions for new clients in your therapy practice.

Preparing Before the First Session

Intake sessions can often feel business-like, or even unnatural due to the amount of information that we are looking to gather. Getting yourself organized before your session can help you when you are starting an intake therapy session. It can be helpful to utilize our own coping skills if we feel unfocused or anxious, such as deep breathing.

You can use this time to gather the required documents including the forms discussing confidentiality, your professional disclosure, informed consent, and any other consent that may be necessary, including other professionals such as a psychiatrist or Psychologist.

Taking time to review client forms that you collect before their session can help you develop a road map of how you should conduct your intake assessment. As an example, you may see that they have no serious medical concerns or risks, however, they have a history of neglect from their childhood. After learning this, you can choose to focus more on your client’s childhood, family relationships, history of neglect, and other trauma-related concerns rather than spending unnecessary time exploring their physical health.

It can be helpful to write notes for yourself about questions you would like to ask, or reminders of topics that you would like to explore further. Some counselors are comfortable with a formal intake assessment form with spaces where you can write the client’s answer, while others prefer a vague outline or no outline to take notes as the conversation progresses. It is worth trying several options to see which works best for you.

Starting an Intake Session

When you begin your session with your new client, you can begin by introducing yourself and giving them a brief summary of what to expect in your session. If your intake paperwork does not include their chosen name and pronouns, this would be an appropriate time to ask for these details. Now you can move into discussing confidentiality and the other documents that you prepared before the session. It is important that when you review these documents, you take your time, and give the client an opportunity to digest the information you are providing them. You can follow up by asking if you can clarify anything or if they have questions.

During your intake session interview, you are beginning to lay the foundation for your therapeutic relationship. Being warm, inviting, polite, caring, and compassionate are all characteristics that can help your client feel comfortable in the room with you. Our body language can also have an impact on how our clients feel. With most intake therapy session notes kept electronically, it can be tempting to sit and type the client’s answers into our notes as the session progresses. However, being mindful of the way we are sitting, facing our client, using eye contact, and other forms of body language can decrease the interview-like feeling and help our clients feel at ease.

The progression of your intake interview may vary from client to client and be dependent on the setting that you are working in. As an example, an intake session for a child will look significantly different than one for an adult. Using a child intake therapy form can help provide guidance while meeting with a child. Forms like this can provide you with the appropriate consent of release in addition to the guidance they provide for the progression of your intake session.

If you find yourself wondering what to gather during a clinical intake during a first session of therapy, you may want to consider exploring the following topics:

  • Medical History, including diagnoses and medications
  • Mental Health History, including diagnoses and medications
  • Any previous treatment episodes
  • Family, friends, and other important relationships in their life
  • School and work history
  • History of substance use and abuse, including current use
  • What brings them into counseling
  • Any symptoms they are currently experiencing and their severity
  • What they hope to gain from counseling

The areas mentioned above can feel like a lot of ground to cover. This is where reviewing the information you received before your session can help you navigate this process. Depending on your work environment and the population you work with, you may be able to split the covered information into two intake interview sessions. 

Wrapping up the Intake Session 

When you are nearing the end of your intake therapy session, you can begin by summarizing the information that you discussed. This can give your client an opportunity to clarify any details that they feel are missing and to add information that they may have forgotten to share earlier. It also gives Counselors the opportunity to ensure that they understood and interpreted the shared information correctly.

When you begin wrapping up your session, you will want to inform the client if you have reached a clinical diagnosis. If you have not, don’t worry, it is better to make an accurate diagnosis than a fast one. If you have, this is important information to share with the client because it can be used to help them make an informed decision about their mental health treatment.

Next would be discussing if you are capable of working with this client. While Counselors have an education and experience to fall onto, there are cases that we are simply not competent to work with, and that’s okay! It is important to be mindful of our own limitations and keep the client’s best interests at the forefront. If you need to refer the client to another Counselor, it is important to discuss this referral and provide the client with the appropriate information, such as contact information.

Alternatively, if you are able to proceed with working with this individual, you can begin developing their treatment plan together. This can include the frequency of their sessions and other forms of therapy you would like them to engage in. You can discuss your cancellation and rescheduling policy, fees of service, as well as the best ways to contact you.

Based on the information you gathered during your assessment, you may have some homework that you would like your client to try before your next session. This can include using new coping skills or contacting supportive people in their lives.

You can develop a crisis plan that can be used in case the client finds themselves struggling. This can include identifying healthy coping skills, supports they can contact, and numbers such as a crisis hotline and 911 for help. Additionally, you can discuss situations in which you would need to contact their emergency contact. 

Final Thoughts on Conducting a Great Intake Session in Therapy

Thanks for reading our resource on conducting an intake therapy session. For counselors who are at the beginning of their career, and those who would like to improve their intake therapy sessions, using a counseling intake form can be useful. Therapy By Pro is an example of a resource available to counselors that offers useful forms that can improve our intake assessment skills.  This template can be used to guide you in exploring the client’s concerns, symptoms, and other related areas of interest. Additionally, it can provide you with consent templates.

If you reach the end of your session and you are unsure what your treatment recommendation is, if you would be a good fit for their needs, or a diagnosis that you are considering, take the time needed to consult with a supervisor. It is better to step out and talk through your thoughts with your supervisor than to begin a treatment plan that is not appropriate for your client’s needs.

If you find yourself feeling as though you could improve your intake interview skills, you can seek supervision. Talk about your concerns with your supervisor, and see what feedback they can provide for you. You may be able to observe one of their intake interviews or one of your colleagues. Watching others can help us learn new tricks, and ways to navigate intake interviews.

Conducting intake interview sessions is something that becomes more natural when we begin to feel more comfortable doing them. This comes with time and practice. By being patient with ourselves, we can give ourselves the time needed to grow professionally. 

TherapyByPro is an online mental health directory that connects mental health pros with clients in need. If you’re a mental health professional, you can Join our community and add your practice listing here. We have assessments, practice forms, and worksheet templates mental health professionals can use to streamline their practice. View all of our mental health forms, worksheet, and assessments here.

Kayla VanGuilder, MA, LCMHC
Author: Kayla VanGuilder, MA, LCMHC

Kayla is a Mental Health Counselor who earned her degree from Niagara University in Lewiston, New York. She has provided psychotherapy in a residential treatment program and an outpatient addiction treatment facility in New York as well as an inpatient addiction rehab in Ontario, Canada. She has experience working with individuals living with a variety of mental health concerns including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and trauma.

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