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The role of the on-site community interpreter in psychiatric assessments


Psychiatric interviews and assessments with patients who speak another language require careful planning to ensure correct diagnosis and treatment. In these discussions, it is important that community interpreters understand not only the words, but also the feelings and needs of the patients and medical staff. They need to show empathy and be able to convey these aspects sensitively without losing their neutrality.

Read on to find out why it is important that these discussions in Swiss psychiatric institutions and assessment centres take place on-site with a qualified community interpreter, and why the use of AI-based solutions is fraught with risk.

Requirements for interpreters in psychiatric assessment interviews – hard skills

As in other interpreting situations in the field of trialogue or intercultural communication, community interpreters in Swiss healthcare facilities must have various skills:

  1. Language skills: They must be proficient in both the target language (usually German or French) and the patient’s native language. This requires an extensive vocabulary, including specialist psychiatric terminology. It is essential to be able to convey nuances, cultural differences and technical terms and to ensure accurate communication.
  2. Professional experience: Years of experience are particularly important in complex medical situations. Interpreters with more than 10 years’ experience have seen a wide variety of scenarios and can respond flexibly to challenges.
  3. Psychiatric expertise: A basic understanding of mental health and mental disorders is required in order to be able to adequately convey the content of a conversation. This includes knowledge of various different disorders, treatment methods and diagnostic procedures.
  4. Cultural understanding: As mental health and illness are strongly influenced by cultural factors, it is important that the interpreter is familiar with the patient’s culture. This will help to clarify cultural misunderstandings about complex issues such as mental disorders and ensure that messages are conveyed correctly.
  5. Neutrality and professionalism: Interpreters must remain neutral and professional, even when faced with potentially incriminating or emotionally charged content. It is important that they do not interfere in the interaction or introduce their own opinions or interpretations.

Other equally important skills – soft skills

Although online, audio or telephone communication can be convenient in some cases, when it comes to psychiatric assessments of foreign-language patients, it is often better to conduct the interviews on-site with a community interpreter to ensure comprehensive and appropriate care. Here are some reasons why:

  1. Non-verbal communication and communication skills: Much of communication is non-verbal, including body language, facial expressions and tone of voice. These subtleties can be lost in audio-only or telephone conferences. By being present in person, the psychiatrist can better interpret and understand the patient’s non-verbal cues. Interpreters must be able to communicate effectively between patients and mental health professionals, convey clear and concise messages, and interpret and convey non-verbal cues.
  2. Sensitivity to psychological and emotional issues: In psychiatric consultations, it is important that interpreters understand not only the words, but also the emotions and needs of patients and medical staff. They must have the sensitivity and empathy to convey these aspects appropriately without losing their neutrality.
  3. Flexibility and adaptability: As psychiatric assessment interviews can often take unpredictable turns, interpreters need to be flexible and adaptable. They must be able to react quickly to changes and adjust their interpreting strategies accordingly.
  4. Protection of privacy: Mental health consultations are often very personal and sensitive. Conducting interviews on site provides a safer environment in which the patient’s privacy can be better protected, especially when dealing with issues such as abuse or trauma.
  5. Relationship building: Face-to-face interaction allows the psychiatrist to build rapport and trust with the patient. This is crucial to the effectiveness of treatment and to the patient’s openness in discussing their problems.
  6. Accuracy of diagnosis: Accurate diagnosis requires the psychiatrist to understand the subtleties of the patient’s symptoms. With the interpreter on site, it is easier for the psychiatrist to understand the specific nuances of the symptoms and their impact on the patient’s life, which can lead to a more accurate diagnosis.

Finally, there are important confidentiality and ethical reasons why on-site interpreting by a qualified community interpreter is essential:

  • Interpreters must maintain the confidentiality of conversations and adhere to ethical standards, which means they must not divulge information and must be aware of how to handle sensitive information. Medical interpreters must adhere to strict ethical standards and ensure the confidentiality of sensitive medical information. They should have a thorough understanding of the responsibilities and legal framework in the medical environment.
  • For data protection reasons, the risk of interpreting in an inadequately closed room or listening to the content of a conversation must not be taken.

In conclusion, the presence of a qualified human interpreter during psychiatric assessment interviews is essential to maintain confidentiality and to ensure precise and unambiguous communication between the psychiatrist and the patient. Only in this way can the above requirements be met.

Are you looking for community interpreters with experience in interpreting psychiatric assessments and who speak European or non-European languages? Please do not hesitate to contact us. We will find a suitable solution in the relevant languages and look forward to hearing from you.