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Working through interpreters in old age psychiatry: a literature review

Farooq, Saeed; Kingston, Paul; Regan, Jemma


Paul Kingston

Jemma Regan


The purpose of this paper is to systematically appraise the effect of use of interpreters for mental health problems in old age. The primary objective of the review is to assess the impact of a language barrier for assessment and management in relation to mental health problems in the old age. The secondary objectives are to assess the effect of the use of interpreters on patient satisfaction and quality of care, identify good practice and make recommendations for research and practice in the old age mental health.

The following data sources were searched for publications between 1966 and 2011: PubMed, PsycINFO, CINAHL and Cochrane Library. The authors found in previous reviews that a substantial number of papers from developing and non-English speaking countries are published in journals not indexed in mainstream databases, and devised a search strategy using Google which identified a number of papers, which could not be found when the search was limited to scientific data bases only (Farooq et al., 2009). The strategy was considered especially important for this review which focuses on communication across many different languages. Thus, the authors conducted a search of the World Wide Web using Google Scholar, employing the search term Medical Interpreters and Mental Health. The search included literature in all languages. The authors also searched the reference lists of included and excluded studies for additional relevant papers. Bibliographies of systematic review articles published in the last five years were also examined to identify pertinent studies.

Only four publications related specifically to “old age” and 33 addressed “interpreting” and “psychiatry” generally. Four articles presented original research (Parnes and Westfall, 2003; Hasset and George, 2002; Sadavoy et al., 2004; Van de Mieroop et al., 2012). One article (Shah, 1997) reports an “anecdotal descriptive account” of interviewing elderly people from ethnic backgrounds in a psychogeriatric service in Melbourne and does not report any data. Therefore, only four papers met the inclusion and exclusion criteria and present original research in the field of “old age”, “psychiatry” and “interpreting”. None of these papers present UK-based research. One is a quantitative study from Australia (Hasset and George, 2002), the second is a qualitative study from Canada (Sadavoy et al., 2004), in the third paper Van de Mieroop et al. (2012) describe community interpreting in a Belgian old home and the final paper is an American case study (Parnes and Westfall, 2003).

Practical implications
Interviewing older patients for constructs like cognitive function and decision-making capacity through interpreters can pose significant clinical and legal problems. There is urgent need for training mental health professionals for developing skills to overcome the language barrier and for interpreters to be trained for work in psychogeriatrics.

Social implications
The literature on working through interpreters is limited to a few empirical studies. This has serious consequences for service users such as lack of trust in services, clinical errors and neglect of human rights. Further studies are needed to understand the extent of problem and how effective interpreting and translating services can be provided in the routine clinical practice. It is also essential to develop a standard of translation services in mental health that can be measured for their quality and also efficiency. At present such a quality standard is not available in the UK, unlike Sweden (see This omission is disturbing – especially when decisions on human rights are being considered as part of the Mental Health Act. Such a standard can best be achieved by collaboration between medical profession and linguists’ professional associations (Cambridge et al., 2012).

Whilst translation/interpretation has been addressed more generally in mental health: specific considerations related to old age psychiatry are almost absent. This needs urgent rectification given that a large proportion of older people from BME communities will require translation and interpretation services.


Farooq, S., Kingston, P., & Regan, J. (2015). Working through interpreters in old age psychiatry: a literature review. Mental Health Review Journal, 20(1), 36-47.

Journal Article Type Article
Publication Date Mar 9, 2015
Deposit Date Nov 30, 2023
Journal Mental Health Review Journal
Print ISSN 1361-9322
Publisher Emerald
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 20
Issue 1
Pages 36-47
Keywords Psychiatry and Mental health
Public URL