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Resistance Busters: How to Work Effectively with Teens who Resist Counseling

Young clients or students and their parents will sometimes be immediately resistant to your efforts to help them change. I don’t mean this in the old-fashioned psychoanalytic form of resistance that blames clients. I mean this as a natural resistance to change. I think we’ve all felt it. Someone has some helpful advice and we feel immediately disinclined to listen and even less inclined to follow the advice. I remember this happening with my father—even when he wanted to tell me something about sports. Of course, he knew a TON more about sports than I did, but logic was not the issue. When it comes to relationships and influencing people, logic is rarely relevant.

If we can buy into using the word resistance—despite the fact that Steve de Shazer buried it in his backyard and had a funeral for it, we would be likely to conclude that resistance behaviors are especially prominent among youth who view their presence in therapy as involuntary. Think of school, court, or parent referred children. Below, in an effort to capture what happens in these situations, Rita and I came up with what we call common resistance styles. Again, the point is not to blame clients or students; after all, they usually come into counseling or therapy with a history that makes their resistance totally natural. Besides, why should we expect them to pop into a therapist’s office and suddenly experience trust and share their deepest feelings.
In combination with these so-called resistance styles, we’ve also developed a range of possible therapeutic responses. To be with de Shazer’s (1985) solution-focused model and because they constitute a first best guess regarding how to respond to these particular resistance styles, we refer to these responses as “formula responses.” Keep in mind that if one formula response is ineffective, an alternative one may be used to reduce and manage this pesky resistance-like behavior.

Resistance Style: Externalizer/Blamer
This young person quickly blames everyone and everything for his or her problems. S/he may feel persecuted; there also may be evidence supporting his/her persecutory thoughts and feelings. Alternatively, the youth may simply have trouble accepting personal responsibility.

SAMPLE STATEMENT: “I would never have flunked science if it weren’t for my teacher. He sucks big-time.”

Formula Responses: One key to responding to this youth is to blatantly side with his or her affect. In the early stages, confrontation with this type of youth is generally ill-advised. For example, Bernstein (1996) states: “Despite a lack of evidence to back up their arguments, we listen carefully without passing judgment” (p. 45). The blamer is sometimes so hypersensitive to criticism that he sees it coming a mile away. Therefore, especially at the outset of therapy, therapists should be cautious about providing criticism or negative feedback. As the client blames others be sure to grunt and moan and say things like, “Oh yeah, I hate it when teachers aren’t fair.” or just use standard person-centered reflections, “You’re saying that being around your teacher really sucks . . .it feels real bad.”

Resistance Style: The Silent Youth
This youth may refuse to speak or may boldly claim that she doesn’t have to talk to you. This youth may have strong needs for power and control and/or may be afraid of what she might say during counseling.

SAMPLE STATEMENT: “I don’t have to talk to you. And you can’t make me.”

Formula Responses: For the completely silent youth who appears to be stonewalling, it may be useful to use a combination of youth-centered reflection of feeling/content and self-disclosure or forced teaming. For example, you might say: “Seems like you really don’t want to be here and you also really don’t want me to know anything about you.” And/or: “If I were you, I wouldn’t trust me either. After all, you were sent here by people you don’t trust and so you probably think I’m on their side. I’d like to prove I’m not on their side, but the only way we can really shock your parents (or probation officer) is by you talking with me and then you and I teaming up to help you have more control over your life.” In the case where the client boldly claims that she does not have to talk with you, it can be helpful to strongly agree with the youth’s assertion (and then simply inquire as to what has been happening in the youth’s life.: “You are absolutely right. You ARE totally in control over whether you talk with me and how much you talk with me.” Then, after a short pause say, “Now, what do you want to talk about?” Sometimes acknowledging the youth’s power and control can decrease his/her need for it.

Resistance Style: The Denier
This is the youth who Repeatedly says: “I’m fine” or “I don’t know” when neither statement is likely to be the truth. These youths can be especially frustrating to therapists because whatever life circumstances that led the youth to therapy are clearly difficult and progress might be made if the youth would admit to having problems. Unfortunately, these youths may have such fragile self-esteem that admitting that any problems are occurring in their lives is very threatening.

SAMPLE STATEMENT: “I’m fine, I don’t have any problems.”

Formula Responses: With youth who say, “I’m fine” we suggest one of two possible formula responses. First, you might say: “If you’re fine, then somebody in your life must not be fine, otherwise, you wouldn’t be here. So, tell me about who forced you to come and what his or her problems are?” The purpose of this statement is to get youths to at least become “blamers” so that you can side with the affect and start building rapport. Second, Bernstein (1996) suggests a statement similar to the following: “You may be right and you may be fine, but if you don’t talk with me about your life, I’ll never know whether you’re fine or not.” Suggested formula responses to “I don’t know” include: “Okay, then tell me something you do know about this problem” or “Tell me what you might say if you did know” or “Boy, it sounds like there are lots of things about your life that you don’t know anything about. We’d better get to work on figuring this stuff out” or John’s favorite, which is: “Take a guess.”

Resistance Style: The Nonverbal Provocateur
Some young clients are so good at irritating other people with their nonverbal behavior that they deserve an award. These youth are often keeping adults at a distance because they don’t trust that the adults will understand or appreciate their adolescent dilemmas. These youths also are notorious for being able to “piss off” their parents, teachers, probation officers, and therapists. They may do so through eye-rolls, sneers, lack of eye contact, or other irritating nonverbal behaviors. Analytic theorists believe this is because they have such profound self- hatred that they unconsciously believe they deserve to be treated poorly by others, especially adults (Willock, 1986, 1987).

SAMPLE STATEMENT: “Yeah, right. Duh” (while youth’s eyes roll back and she heaves a significant sigh).

Formula Responses: When faced with the nonverbal provocateur, we recommend using the strategy we have referred to elsewhere as “interpersonal interpretation” (See Tough Kids, Cool Counseling). This strategy includes several steps. First, the therapist allows the youth to make whatever disrespectful nonverbal behaviors she wants to, without acknowledgment. Second, after a substantial number of eye-rolls, etc., have occurred, the therapist makes a statement such as: “Are people treating you okay.” This statement is designed to provoke complaints from the youth about whomever has been treating her so poorly. Third, the therapist discloses his or her reactions to the nonverbal behaviors: “The reason I bring this up is because, for a moment, significant sigh).I felt like being mean to you.” Fourth, the therapist suggests that the youth may already realize why the therapist “felt like being mean” to the youth or discloses that these feeling arose in response to the youth’s nonverbal behaviors. Fifth, the therapist suggests that the reason other people are treating the youth poorly is related to eye-rolls, etc., outside of therapy. Sixth, the therapist inquires as to whether the youth has control over his/her irritating nonverbal behaviors. Seventh, the therapist encourages the youth to conduct an experiment to see how people treat him/her one day when using lots of eye-rolls and another day while not using eye-rolls.

Resistance Style: The Absent Youth
There are at least two types of absent youths. First, there are young people who arrive with their parent or parents, but who refuse to leave the waiting room. Second, there are young clients who, after an initial appointment, keep missing their subsequent appointments.
In either case, resistance is high. These youth may be even more afraid of therapy and losing power the control than other youth, who at least make it into the counseling office.

SAMPLE STATEMENT: “I’m not going back and you can’t make me.”

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Formula Responses: It’s essential that young clients or students not be “dragged” into the therapy office. Therefore, the youth is simply informed that the session(s) will proceed without the youth present but that the session will still be “about” the youth. Subsequently, the session focuses on parent education and family dynamics. During this session, therapist should offer and serve food and drink to the participating family members. Also, partway through the session (if the young client is in the waiting room) one family member may ask once more if the youth would like to join them in the meeting. However, this request should only occur once and it should not involve any pleading. For young clients who miss their appointments, an invitation letter as suggested by White and Epston may be useful or, if you’re more behaviorally inclined, a contingency program may be designed to provide the youth with appropriate reinforcers and consequences.

Resistance Style: The Attacker
Similar to Matt Damon in the film Good Will Hunting, some youth will try to provoke the therapist by attacking whatever therapist personal traits that he or she can identify. It may be office decor, personal items (e.g., family pictures), clothing, the office itself, the voice tone, body posture, attractiveness, etc. The attacker’s ploy is often clear from the outset: The best defense (aka: resistance) is a good offense.

SAMPLE STATEMENT: “I noticed that everyone else here has a bigger office than you. You have a shitty little office; you must be a shitty little therapist.”

Formula Responses: We believe that two rules are crucial with young clients who consistently verbally attack the therapist. First, unlike Robin William’s character in the popular movie, you should not attempt to “choke” the youth (even therapist’s though you may feel like choking the client). In other words, therapists should not respond defensively or offensively to attacks by the youth. Second, the therapist may interpret the youth’s behavior by clearly demonstrating that the comments, whether true or not, say much more about the youth than they say about the therapist. After a few interpretations of the youth’s underlying psychodynamics, the youth usually will cease and desist with the attacks because he or she sees that every attack comes back to him or her in the form of an interpretation.

Resistance Style: The Apathetic Youth
The apathetic youth is similar to the denier, except that the formidable strategy of simply not caring about anyone or anything is the primary defense. This defense often arises out of depressive or substance related emotional and behavioral problems

SAMPLE STATEMENT: “Trust me, I really don’t give a shit about anything you’re saying!”

Formula Responses: Hanna and Hunt (1999) recommended using a sub-personality or ego state approach to dealing with adolescent apathy. This approach involves three steps: (a) take great care to empathize with the youth’s apathy; this might involve saying things like, “Okay, okay, I get it, you really don’t give a shit.”; (b) after empathizing, use a question like, “I know you don’t care, but isn’t there a little part of you, maybe a voice in the back of your head or something, that worries, maybe only a tiny bit about what might happen to you?”; (c) focus on the part of the youth that acknowledges caring about what happens and eventually begin labeling the “caring” part of the adolescent as the “real” self, while reducing the apathetic part of the self to the “fake” self.

More information about how to work through resistance is in our Tough Kids, Cool Counseling book, which happens to have five 5-star ratings on Amazon. Check it out:

 

 

 

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Suicide Risk Factors, Part III

It’s been awhile since I started my holiday and post-holiday look at suicide risk factors. In previous posts I focused on Demographic and Ethnic Factors related to death by suicide and then on the broad category of Mental Disorders and Psychiatric Treatment. This post focuses on Personal and Social Factors that are linked to suicide.

Not to worry, soon I’ll be moving beyond this tragic but important topic.

The following is mostly an excerpt from our Clinical Interviewing text.

Social and Personal Factors

There are a number of social and personal factors linked to increased suicide risk. Many of these factors have been reviewed and integrated into Thomas Joiner’s interpersonal theory of suicide (Joiner & Silva, 2012; Van Orden et al., 2010).

Social Isolation/Loneliness
In a review of the literature, 34 research studies were identified that include support for social isolation as a suicide risk factor (Van Orden et al., 2010). These findings provide support for Joiner’s (Joiner & Silva, 2012) attachment-informed interpersonal theory of suicide. Van Orden et al (2008) described the two primary dimensions of Joiner’s interpersonal theory:

The theory proposes that the needs to belong and to contribute to the welfare of close others are so fundamental that the thwarting of these needs (i.e., thwarted belongingness and perceived burdensomeness) is a proximal cause of suicidal desire. (Van Orden et al., 2008, p. 72)

Interpersonal theory explains why a number of social factors, such as unemployment, social isolation, reduced productivity, and physical incapacitation are associated with increased suicide risk. Specifically, research indicates that divorced, widowed, and separated people are in a higher suicide-risk category and that single, never-married individuals have a suicide rate nearly double the rate of married individuals (Van Orden et al., 2010). Based on interpersonal theory, an underlying reason that these factors are linked to suicidality is because they involve thwarted belongingness and a self-perception of being a burden to family and friends, rather than contributing in a positive way to the lives of others.

In a fairly recent study, the suicide notes of 98 active duty U.S. Air Force (USAF) members were analyzed. Using Joiner’s interpersonal theory, results indicated strong themes of hopelessness, perceived burdensomeness, and thwarted belongingness. Overall, interpersonal risk factors were communicated more often than intrapsychic risk factors. (Cox et al., 2011).

Physical Illness

Many decades of research have established the link between physical illness and suicide. Specific illnesses that confer suicide risk include brain cancer, chronic pain, stroke, rheumatoid arthritis, hemodialysis, and HIV-AIDS (e.g., (Lin, Wu, & Lee, 2009; Martiny, de Oliveira e Silva, Neto, & Nardi, 2011). Overall, although physical illness is a major predictor, several social factors appear to mediate the relationship between illness and death by suicide. In particular, Joiner’s concept of becoming a social burden seems a likely contributor to suicidal behavior, regardless of specific diagnosis (Van Orden et al., 2010). Similar to previously hospitalized psychiatric patients, medical patients also exhibit higher suicidal behavior shortly after hospital discharge (McKenzie & Wurr, 2001).

Previous Attempts

Over 27 separate studies have indicated that suicide risk is higher for people who have previously attempted (Beghi & Rosenbaum, 2010). Van Orden et al. (2010) refer to previous attempts as “. . . one of the most reliable and potent predictors of future suicidal ideation, attempts, and death by suicide across the lifespan” (p. 577).

As one example, in a 15-year prospective British study of deliberate self-harm, repeated self-harm was a strong predictor of eventual suicide, especially in young women (Zahl & Hawton, 2004). By the study’s end, 4.7% of women who had repeatedly engaged in deliberate self-harm committed suicide as compared to 1.9% in the single episode group. In this study, deliberate self-harm was defined as intentionally poisoning or self-injuring that resulted in a hospital visit. The study concluded that repeated deliberate self-harm increases suicide risk in males and females, but is a particularly salient predictor in young females. This is the case despite the fact that some clients use cutting, burning, or other forms of self-harm to aid in emotional regulation. Overall the research suggests that self-harm that rises to the level of hospitalization is likely beyond that which enhances self-regulation and instead constitutes practicing or successive approximation toward suicide.

Unemployment

Individuals who have suffered any form of recent, significant personal loss should be considered higher suicide risk (Hall, Platt, & Hall, 1999). However, in particular, unemployment is a life situation that repeatedly has been linked to suicide attempts and death by suicide. Joiner’s (2005) interpersonal theory of suicide posits that unemployment confers suicide risk at least partly because of individuals experiencing an increased sense of themselves as a burden on others. Other losses that can increase risk include (a) status loss, (b) loss of a loved one, (c) loss of physical health or mobility, (d) loss of a pet loss, and (e) loss of face through recent shameful events (Beghi & Rosenbaum, 2010; Packman, Marlitt, Bongar, & Pennuto, 2004).

Sexual Orientation

Over the years the data have been mixed regarding whether gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender individuals constitute a high suicide risk group. More recently, a 2011 publication in the Journal of Homosexuality reported there is no clear and convincing evidence that GLBT individuals die by suicide at a rate greater than the general population (Haas et al., 2011).
Although this is good news, the data also show that GLB populations have significantly higher suicide attempt rates. Haas et al (2011) wrote:

Since the early 1990s, population-based surveys of U.S. adolescents that have included questions about sexual orientation have consistently found rates of reported suicide attempts to be two to seven times higher in high school students who identify as LGB, compared to those who describe themselves as heterosexual. (p. 17)

Overall, it’s likely that transgender people and youth questioning their sexuality may be at increased risk for suicide attempts or death by suicide. Additionally, GLBT youth who have experienced homosexual-related verbal abuse and parental rejection for their behaviors related to gender and sexuality are more likely to engage in suicidal behaviors (D’augelli et al., 2005).

In conclusion, as you can probably see from this and the two previous posts, there are many complex and potentially interacting factors associated with increased suicide risk, but no great predictors. This is unfortunate for those of us who would like to use prediction methods to prevent and reduce suicide rates. But, at the same time, the fact that many people who experience great suffering in their lives still choose life, is a testament to human strength and resiliency.

And, speaking of resiliency, maybe I’ll be focusing on an exciting and upbeat topic like that next time. Until then, I wish you all the best in your efforts to help your clients through difficult times in their lives. Your work may be more important than you think.

 

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Suicide Risk Factors: Part II

There are many ways to think about suicide risk factors. In my last post, I focused on demographic and ethnic factors related to death by suicide. In this post, the focus is on the broad category of Mental Disorders and Psychiatric Treatment. The next post will focus on Personal and Social Factors that are linked to suicide.

As you’ll see below, the relationship between mental disorders, psychiatric treatment, and suicide is complex. The following material is adapted from our textbook, Clinical Interviewing and so you can find more information there: http://www.amazon.com/Clinical-Interviewing-John-Sommers-Flanagan/dp/1118270045/ref=asap_B0030LK6NM?ie=UTF8

Mental Disorders and Psychiatric Treatment

In general, psychiatric diagnosis is considered a risk factor for suicide. However, some diagnostic conditions (e.g., bipolar disorder and schizophrenia) have higher suicide rates than others (e.g., specific phobias and oppositional-defiant disorder). Several diagnostic conditions associated with heightened suicide risk are discussed in this section.

Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a good example of a mental disorder that has a complex association with increased suicide risk. As you may realize, many individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia are unlikely to attempt suicide or die by suicide. Some individuals with a schizophrenia diagnosis are at higher suicide risk than others.

In 2010, Hor and Taylor conducted a research review of risk factors associated with suicide among individuals with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. They initially identified 1,281 studies, eventually narrowing their focus to 51 with relevant schizophrenia-suicide data. Overall, they reported a lifetime suicide risk of about 5% (Hor & Taylor, 2010). Given that the annual risk in the general population is about 12 in 100,000 and assuming a life expectancy of 70 years the general lifetime risk is likely about 840 in 100,000 or 0.84%. This suggests that suicide risk among individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia is about 6 times greater than suicide risk within the general population.

However, there are unique predictive factors within the general population of individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia that further refine and increase suicide prediction. Hor and Taylor (2010) reported the following more specific suicide risk factors within the general population of individuals with a schizophrenia diagnosis:

  • Age (being younger)
  • Sex (being male)
  • Higher education level
  • Number of prior suicide attempts
  • Depressive symptoms
  • Active hallucinations and delusions
  • Presence of insight into one’s problems
  • Family history of suicide
  • Comorbid substance misuse (p. 81)

If you’re working with a client diagnosed with schizophrenia, the lifetime suicide prevalence for that client is predicted to be higher than in the general population. Presence of any of the preceding factors further increases that risk. This leaves a “highest risk prototype” among clients with schizophrenia as:

A young, male, with higher educational achievement, insight into his problems/diagnosis, a family history of suicide, previous attempts, active hallucinations and delusions, along with depressive symptoms and substance misuse.

Given what’s known about suicide unpredictability, it’s also important to remember that someone who fits the highest risk prototype may not be suicidal, whereas a client with no additional risk factors may be actively suicidal.

Depression

The relationship between depression and suicidal behavior is very well established (Bolton, Pagura, Enns, Grant, & Sareen, 2010; Holikatti & Grover, 2010; Schneider, 2012). Some experts believe depression is always associated with suicide (Westefeld and Furr, 1987). This close association has led to the labeling of depression as a lethal disease (Coppen, 1994).

It’s also clear that not all people with depressive symptoms are suicidal. In fact, it appears that depression by itself is much less of a suicide predictor than depression combined with another disturbing condition or conditions. For example, when depression is comorbid (occurring simultaneously) with anxiety, substance use, post-traumatic stress disorder, and borderline or dependent personality disorder, risk substantially increases. (Bolton et al., 2010). Earlier research also supports this pattern, with suicidality increasing along with additional distressing symptoms or experiences, including:

  • Severe anxiety
  • Panic attacks
  • Severe anhedonia
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Substantially decreased ability to concentrate
  • Global insomnia
  • Repeated deliberate self-harm
  • History of physical/sexual abuse
  • Employment problems
  • Relationship loss
  • Hopelessness (Fawcett, Clark, & Busch, 1993; Marangell et al., 2006; Oquendo et al., 2007)

Given this pattern it seems reasonable to conclude that when clients are experiencing greater depression severity and/or additional distressing symptoms, suicide risk increases. Van Orden and colleagues offered a similar conclusion:

. . . data indicate that depression is likely associated with the development of desire for suicide, whereas other disorders, marked by agitation or impulse control deficits, are associated with increased likelihood of acting on suicidal thoughts. (Van Orden et al., 2010, p. 577)

Bipolar Disorder

Research has repeatedly shown that individuals diagnosed with bipolar disorder at increased risk of suicide. Similar to schizophrenia and depression, there are many specific risk factors that predict increased suicidality among clients with bipolar disorder.

In a large-scale French study, eight risk factors were linked to lifetime suicide attempts (Azorin et al., 2009). These included:

1. Multiple hospitalizations
2. Depressive or mixed polarity of first episode
3. Presence of stressful life events before illness onset
4. Younger age at onset
5. No symptom-free intervals between episodes
6. Female sex
7. Greater number of previous episodes
8. Cyclothymic temperament (p. 115)

These findings are consistent with the research on unipolar depression; it appears that severity of bipolar disorder and accumulation of additional distressing experiences increase suicide risk. Another study identified (a) White race, (b) family suicide history, (c) history of cocaine abuse, and (d) history of benzodiazepine abuse were associated with increased suicide attempts (Cassidy, 2011)

Post-Traumatic Stress

In 2006, renowned psychologist Donald Meichenbaum reflected on his 35-plus years of working with suicidal clients. He wrote:

In reviewing my clinical notes from these several suicidal patients and the consultations that I have conducted over the course of my years of clinical work, the one thing that they all had in common was a history of victimization, including combat exposure (my first clinical case), sexual abuse, and surviving the Holocaust. (Meichenbaum, 2006, p. 334)

Clinical research supports Meichenbaum’s reflections. For example, in a file review of 200 outpatients, child sexual abuse was a better predictor of suicidality than depression (Read, Agar, Barker-Collo, Davies, & Moskowitz, 2001). Similarly, data from the National Comorbidity Survey (N = 5,877) showed that women who were sexually abused as children were 2 to 4 times more likely to attempt suicide, and men sexually abused as children were 4 to 11 times more likely to attempt suicide (Molnar, Berkman, & Buka, 2001). Overall, research over the past two decades points to several stress-related experiences as linked to suicide attempts and death by suicide (Wilcox & Fawcett, 2012). These include general trauma, stressful life events, and childhood abuse and neglect. Characteristics of these experiences that are most predictive of suicide are:

  • Assaultive abuse or trauma.
  • Chronicity of stress or trauma.
  • Severity of stress or trauma.
  • Earlier developmental stress or trauma. (Wilcox & Fawcett, 2012)

These particular life experiences appear related to suicidal behavior across a variety of populations—including military personnel, street youth, and female victims of sexual assault (Black, Gallaway, Bell, & Ritchie, 2011; Cox et al., 2011; Hadland et al., 2012; Snarr et al., 2010; Spokas, Wenzel, Stirman, Brown, & Beck, 2009).

Substance Abuse

Research is unequivocal in linking alcohol and drug use to increased suicide risk (Sher, 2006). Suicide risk increases even more substantially when substance abuse is associated with depression, social isolation, and other suicide risk factors.

One way that alcohol and drug use increases suicide risk is by decreasing inhibition. People act more impulsively when in chemically altered states and suicide is usually considered an impulsive act. No matter how much planning has preceded a suicide act, at the moment the pills are taken, the trigger is pulled, or the wrist is slit, some theorists believe that some form of disinhibition or dissociation has probably occurred (Shneidman, 1996). Mixing alcohol and prescription medications can further elevate suicide risk.

Several other specific mental disorders have clear links to death by suicide. These include:

  • Anorexia nervosa
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Conduct disorder (see Van Orden et al., 2010)

Post-Hospital Discharge

For individuals admitted to hospitals because of a mental disorder, the period immediately following discharge carries increased suicide risk. This is particularly true of individuals who have additional risk factors such as previous suicide attempts, lack of social support, and chronic psychiatric disorders. Overall, suicide ideation and attempts are predictably high. In one study 3.3% completed suicide within 6 months of discharge, whereas 39.4% had self-harm behaviors or suicide attempts (Links et al., 2012). Another study reported “3% of patients categorized as being at high risk can be expected to commit suicide in the year after discharge” (Large, Sharma, Cannon, Ryan, & Nielssen, 2011, p. 619).

Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs)

Over the past two decades, empirical data linking SSRI medications to suicidal impulses has accumulated to the point that recent administration of SSRI medications should be considered a possible suicide risk factor (Breggin, 2010; Valenstein et al., 2012). This is true despite the fact that some research also shows that SSRI antidepressants reduce suicide rates (Kuba et al., 2011; Leon et al., 2011). Overall, it appears that in a minority of clients (2–5%) SSRI antidepressants may increase agitation in a way that contributes to increased risk for suicidal behaviors (J. Sommers-Flanagan & Campbell, 2009).

In September 2004, an expert panel of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) voted 25–0 in support of an SSRI-suicide link. Later, the panel voted 15–8 in favor of a “black box warning” on SSRI medication labels. The warning states:

Antidepressants increased the risk compared to placebo of suicidal thinking and behavior (suicidality) in children, adolescents, and young adults in short-term studies of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) and other psychiatric disorders. Patients of all ages who are started on antidepressant therapy should be monitored appropriately and observed closely for clinical worsening, suicidality, or unusual changes in behavior. Families and caregivers should be advised of the need for close observation and communication with the prescriber.

In 2006, the FDA extended its SSRI suicidality warning to adult patients aged 18–24 years (United States Food and Drug Administration, 2007).

There’s no doubt that debate about whether SSRI medications increase suicide risk will continue. In the meantime, prudent practice dictates that mental health providers be alert to the possibility of increased suicide risk among clients who have recently been prescribed antidepressant medications (Sommers-Flanagan & Campbell, 2009).

In the next post in this series I’ll be focusing on Personal and Social factors associated with suicide.

 

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Talking about Suicide Risk Factors for the Holidays

In honor of the upcoming holidays, I’ll be posting information on suicide assessment and intervention in the coming days. You might think this is because December, the holidays, or Winter are highly linked to death by suicide, but in fact, although the holidays can be a depressive trigger for some individuals, Winter is NOT associated with especially high suicide rates. Instead, somewhat surprisingly, Spring is consistently the season when suicide rates are highest.

Suicide risk factors are the main focus of today’s post . . . along with an embracing of the reality that even with the best suicide risk factors and predictors available, predicting suicide and managing suicidal behaviors is exceedingly difficult. The following material is adapted from our textbook titled, “Clinical Interviewing” and published by John Wiley and Sons (2014).

I hope you’re all having the best time possible in the run-up (as the Brits would say) to the holidays.

Suicide Risk Factors

A suicide risk factor is a measurable demographic, trait, behavior, or situation that has a positive correlation with suicide attempts and/or death by suicide. Not surprisingly, given the immense number of variables involved in human decision-making, the science of predicting suicide risk is challenging and complex. For example, in 1995 a renowned suicidologist wrote:

At present it is impossible to predict accurately any person’s suicide. Sophisticated statistical models . . . and experienced clinical judgments are equally unsuccessful. When I am asked why one depressed and suicidal patient commits suicide while nine other equally depressed and equally suicidal patients do not, I answer, “I don’t know.” (Litman, 1995, p. 135)

Since Litman’s 1995 statement, research on suicide risk has accumulated. This is good news in that research potentially aids in the prediction and prevention of death by suicide. However, as researchers have increased their focus, the number and range of potential suicide risk factors have multiplied and when considered in the context of a practical suicide assessment, can feel overwhelming. To help clinicians deal with so many possible suicide-related variables, researchers and practitioners have developed various acronyms to use as a guide to risk factor assessment (see my IS PATH WARM post:http://johnsommersflanagan.com/2013/07/12/is-path-warm-an-acronymn-to-guide-suicide-risk-assessment/).

As you read this post and my next post, keep in mind that although knowledge of suicide risk factors is useful, developing a positive working alliance with potentially suicidal clients is of far greater import. Additionally, at the end of this risk factor frenzy, we will step back and look at another model for anticipating suicide. Finally, always remember that an absence of risk factors in an individual client is no guarantee that he or she is safe from suicidal impulses.

Sex, Age, and Race as Suicide Predictors

Historically, various client demographics have been used to estimate suicide risk. For example, because males, in general, commit suicide at approximately three to four times the rate of females, boys and men are usually considered a higher risk for suicide than girls and women.

Unfortunately, most demographic variables include moderating and mediating factors that increase uncertainty when trying to predict suicide risk. To return to the example of sex as a suicide predictor, it also happens to be true that females attempt suicide at approximately three times the rate of males. Although there are many potential explanations for these apparently contradictory trends, no one really knows why these patterns exist and persist. However, preventing suicide attempts (primarily among females) is nearly as important as preventing death by suicide (primarily among males). Consequently, every male and female who enters your office should receive equal care, attention, and if appropriate, a suicide assessment interview and intervention. Similarly, just because Black females have extremely low suicide base rates and older Asian women have somewhat elevated suicide base rates doesn’t mean that we should always conduct a suicide assessment interview with Chinese American women, while never conducting one with Black American women. Obviously, whether a suicide assessment interview is conducted and how extensive that interview is, depends on the characteristics of the specific client in the consulting room.

Despite these unique patterns of suicide potential associated with sex, age, and race, there are some trends in the data worth committing to memory. Based on 2005–2009 mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control, these include:

• White males over 65 have very high suicide rates (32.4/100.000).
• Alaskan Native and American Indian males, ages 10 to 24 have very high suicide rates (31.3/100,000).
• White males from 25 to 64 years old and American Indian/Alaskan Native males have similarly high suicide rates (slightly over 29/100,000)
• The lowest suicide rates seem to consistently be among Black females at less than 2/100,000.
• Across all ages and races, males are about 4 times more likely to commit suicide than females.
• Although suicide rates typically increase with age, rates among Alaskan Native and American Indian males typically decrease with age.

To get a sense of how difficult it is to predict suicide even in the highest risk demographic group, the percent of completed suicides among White males over 65 is 0.032 percent or approximately 1 per every 3,125. The good news is that suicide continues to be a rare event, even in high-risk populations. The bad news is that it remains highly improbable that we can efficiently predict, in advance, which one white male over 65 out of a group of over 3,000 will commit suicide.

Race and religion may sometimes function as suicide protective factors. For example, African American women have exceedingly low suicide rates. It has been speculated that these rates may be associated with a high sense of familial responsibility, which in turn may be associated with specific religious beliefs or convictions (C. L. Davidson & Wingate, 2011). suicide rates and speculation suggests that these rates may be associated with a high sense of familial responsibility, which in turn may be associated with specific religious beliefs or convictions (C. L. Davidson & Wingate, 2011).

Overall, remember that knowledge about suicide risk factors is important and sometimes useful, but nothing replaces positive relationship connections among friends, family, social groups, and/or with competent mental health professionals.

More on risk factors soon.

 
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Posted by on December 20, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

A Guest Essay on the Girl Code and Feminism

The past several years I’ve offered a few extra credit points for students in my theories class who write me a short essay on the Girl Code. The Girl Code is defined–using William Pollack’s Boy Code as a guide–as the unhealthy societal and media-based rules by which girls and women are supposed to live. These rules are typically limiting (e.g., women who get angry are considered bitches) and are often damaging to girls and women.

This year students had to watch three feminist-related video clips as a part of this extra credit assignments and then write a short essay. The clips are listed below so you can click on the links and watch them if you like:

Eve Ensler doing a TED talk: Embrace Your Inner Girl — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YhG1Bgbsj2w

Emma Watson speaking to the U.N.: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c9SUAcNlVQ4

Cameron Russell’s TED talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/cameron_russell_looks_aren_t_everything_believe_me_i_m_a_model?language=en

The following essay was written by Tristen Valentino. He gave me permission to post it here.

I’m featuring Tristen’s essay not only because I found it to be well-written and insightful, but also because his ideas stretch my thinking. Frequently I find myself puzzled as to why so many people in our society have such negative reactions to the word “feminist.” Why would anyone be against equal rights and opportunities for males and females? What’s the problem with that? In fact, this past year Time Magazine went so far as to suggest it be eliminated from the dictionary (inserted stunned silence here). For me, Tristen’s essay is important because, although he strongly criticizes what he sees as the overly generalized messages within the assigned video clips (which I happen to like), he also explicitly condemns the mistreatment of women based on gender.

Here’s Tristen’s essay. I hope you enjoy it . . . or at least find it thought-provoking.

Extra Credit Commentary on Feminism Clips
Tristen Valentino
COUN 485
November 24, 2014

Advocating equal rights is a noble and admirable pursuit. The video clips featuring Eve Ensler, Emma Watson, and Cameron Russell each speak about sexual discrimination, and their own personal roles in feminism. While I fully support equality in opportunity, and applaud their intention, I believe their execution was flawed. The three of them generalized men across the globe, lumping all men from all cultures and nations together in the oppression of women. The three of them claimed that male chauvinism is not only prevalent but pervasive in all societies.

Eve Ensler speaks briefly of her violent and abusive father and alludes that her experiences at the hands of her father set her in motion to help end the victimization of women. In this case I feel that Eve Ensler is looking at everything through the same tinted lens. In her world, the lens with which she views the world is completely blue (victimization of women), so when she looks upon the world she sees everything as blue. While not incorrect, since there are many things blue in the world, this view is incomplete as there are many things not blue. So too with her view on victimization and the causes of it.

Emma Watson’s speech appealed to emotion, but wilted under even slight pressure from a factual basis. She claimed that in her country (United Kingdom) women were oppressed and drew comparisons between the UK and African nations. She failed to mention that in her country the longest serving Prime Minister was a female (Margaret Thatcher) and that the longest living monarch, and second longest reigning monarch, is a female (Queen Elizabeth II).

Cameron Russell speaks about how damaging the media can be to female self-esteem and the female identity. She attributes insecurity, eating disorders, and other self-image issues with fantastical, and often fictional, portrayals of the female form. I find this to be incredibly hypocritical and disingenuous coming from someone who is an active participant in the very mechanism that she claims is doing harm to the female psyche.

However, those issues aside, the issue of gender equality is a serious one, and one that deserves our attention. There is little doubt that acts of female oppression and victimization are completely evil. There is no arguing that in some areas, horrible atrocities happen to women simply because they are women. This culture of male predatory behavior resulting in the victimization of women needs to be addressed and halted immediately. The damage that is caused is not always as easily seen and overt as physical injury. The mental and psychological injuries inflicted by the gender expectations of such things as the “Girl Code” apply pressure to already stressed women to perform up to a standard, and in such a way, as to be unrealistic. Expectations—such as women must always look pretty, must always be as thin as they can be, or must be sexy, but not too sexy—place the value of women on their physical appearance. It prevents their self-expression and their validation of life by stripping away the value of all their other qualities. Women are not objects to be used or abused at the whims of men. Women are not toys to be played with and then discarded. They are equal partners in the venture of life. They are doctors, lawyers, teachers, police officers, and politicians. They are mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, confidants, and mentors. They are strong, intelligent, indomitable, competent, and capable. They are all that and more. They are women. They are human.

 

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Teaching Teens Better Strategies for Getting What they Want

On Thursday of this week I’ll be at the Hilton Garden Inn in Missoula doing a day-long workshop on how to work effectively with challenging youth and challenging parents. Of course, the first point to make about this is that this entire concept is flawed; it’s flawed because it’s not fair to call youth and parents “challenging” when, in fact, for them, the whole idea of sitting down and talking with a counselor is challenging. It would be equally reasonable to hold a workshop for parents and youth titled, “Working with Challenging Counselors.”

One of the approaches featured during the workshop will be to engage teenagers in using better (healthier and more legal) strategies for getting what they want. Rita and I wrote about this approach in our book, Tough Kids, Cool Counseling. . . and so here’s an excerpt that describes the approach and provides a case example:

INTERPERSONAL CHANGE STRATEGIES

The following techniques focus more specifically on interpersonal behavior patterns.

Teaching “Strategic Skills” to Adolescents
Weiner (1992) described many delinquent or “psychopathic” adolescents as inherently understanding the importance of using strategies to obtain their desired goals (p. 338). Despite this general understanding, disruptive, behavior-disordered adolescents frequently utilize ineffective interpersonal strategies and thereby obtain outcomes opposite to what they desire. For example, increased freedom is commonly identified by adolescents as one of their primary therapy goals. However, attention-deficit and disruptive, behavior-disordered adolescents consistently engage in behaviors that eventually restrict their personal freedom (e.g., curfew violation, disrespect toward parents, illegal behavior). The “strategic skills” intervention is designed to help adolescents understand how their own behavior contributes to their inability to attain personal goals (e.g., perhaps by producing increased limits and restrictions).

The therapist must provide two relationship-based explanations to implement the strategic skills procedure. First, the therapist must directly inform them of a willingness and commitment to assist them in personal goal attainment. For example:

It sounds like you want more freedom in your life. I imagine it’s a drag being 15 and still having all the restrictions you have. I want you to know that I’m willing to work very hard to help you have more freedom. We just have to put our heads together and think of some ways you can get more freedom.

The purpose of this statement is to reduce resistance and distrust. Many, if not most, adolescents expect therapists to side with their parents, teachers, or authority figures. The process of valuing the adolescent’s pursuit of freedom can surprise the adolescent and thereby reduce resistance.

Second, therapists must set clear limits on the type or quality of behaviors they are willing to support and promote. This is because adolescents may try to manipulate therapists into supporting illegal or self-destructive behavior patterns (Weiner, 1992; Wells & Forehand, 1985).

I need to tell you something about what I am willing to help you accomplish. I’ll help you figure out behaviors that are legal and constructive and help you get more freedom. In other words, I won’t support illegal and self-destructive behaviors because in the end, they won’t get you what you want. And there may be times when you and I disagree on what is legal and constructive; we’ll need to talk about those disagreements when and if they arise.

If adolescents respond positively to their therapists’ offer of support and assistance, the door is open to providing feedback about how to engage in freedom-promoting behaviors. Therapists can then tell their clients: “Okay, let’s talk about strategies for how you can get more of what you want out of life.” Subsequent discussions might include the following problem areas that frequently contribute to adolescents’ restrictions: staying out of legal trouble, developing respect and trust in the adolescents’ relationships with parents and authority figures, and analyzing and modifying inaccurate social cognitions. Essentially, therapists have facilitated client motivation and cooperation and can move on to analyzing faulty cognitions, modeling and role-playing strategies, and other effective psycho-therapeutic interventions.

Case example. A 12-year-old boy entered the consulting room in conflict with his father over how many pages he was supposed to read for a specific homework assignment given to him by a teacher whom he “hated.” The boy was disagreeable and nasty in response to his father’s comments; direct discussion of issues while both father and son were present was initially ineffective. Therefore, the father was dismissed. After using distraction strategies and a mood-changing technique (See Chapter 3), the boy was able to focus in a more productive manner on the conflict he was having with his father. The boy indicated that his father was partially correct in his claims about the reading assignment, but that the boy’s “hate” for this particular teacher made him want to resist the assignment.
The individual discussion between the boy and his therapist focused on (a) how the boy’s dislike for the teacher produced a “bad mood,” which subsequently produced his resistance to the assign-ment, (b) how the boy’s bad mood and resistance to the assignment had produced disagreeable behavior toward his dad, and (c) how the boy’s bad mood, resistance to the assignment, and disagreeable behavior had produced a bad mood and disagreeable behavior within the father (who was now resisting the boy’s request that the assignment be modified). Consequently, after the boy’s mood was modified, the boy and therapist were able to brainstorm strategies for helping the father change his mood and become more receptive to the son’s request. With assistance, the boy chose to tell the father “You were right about the assignment . . . “ when his father returned to the room. This “improved” interpersonal strategy (which had been role-played prior to father’s return) had an extremely positive effect on the father. Additionally, the boy was able to introduce a compromise (“I’ll do the assignment if my dad will listen to me without disagreeing when I bitch about how unfair and stupid this teacher is”). In response to his son’s admission “Dad, you’re right,” the father stated (with jaw open): “I don’t know what happened in here when I was gone, but I’ve never seen Donnie change his attitude so quickly.” Donnie and his father successfully negotiated the suggested compromise, and before Donnie left, the therapist pointed out (by whispering to the boy) how quickly he had been able to get his father’s mood to change in a positive direction.

In this case scenario, the therapist helped to modify the son and father’s usual reciprocal negative interactions in a manner similar to one-person family therapy advocated by Szapocznik et al. (1990).

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Two Upcoming Workshops: Working with Challenging Parents and Youth . . . and Loving it

On November 6 (in Missoula) and November 20 (in Billings) Western Montana Addiction Services will be sponsoring a day-long workshop for professionals. The title of both workshops is the same: Working with Challenging Parents and Youth . . . and Loving it. Here’s a description of the workshop, along with workshop objectives:

Working with Challenging Parents and Youth . . . and Loving It.

John Sommers-Flanagan

Counseling difficult youth and challenging parents can be immensely frustrating or splendidly gratifying. Using storytelling, video clips, live demonstrations, group discussion, and skill-building break-out sessions, John Sommers-Flanagan will present essential evidence-based principles and over ten specific techniques for influencing “tough students” and “challenging parents.” Techniques for working with youth and parents will include (a) concession, (b) asset flooding, (c) cognitive storytelling, (d) generating behavioral alternatives, (e) grandma’s rule, and many more. Issues related to ethics, addictions, and culture will be highlighted and discussed throughout the workshop.

Workshop Objectives:

1. Understand the nature of resistance as often displayed by youth and parents

2. Identify and apply techniques for responding quickly and effectively when youth and parents resist counseling

3. Acquire skills for using numerous cognitive, emotionally, and constructive engagement and intervention strategies that facilitate youth interest in, and motivation for, counseling—even in situations when clients are using substances

4. Learn four specific parenting techniques that participants can immediately use to help parents respond more effectively to their children’s problems or challenges.

5. Increase awareness and articulation of important multicultural counseling issues with youth and parents

6. Understand how substance-related problems can directly contribute to client resistance and impede engagement with youth and parents

 

The link for registering through Western Montana Addiction Services for either workshop is here: http://www.westernmontanaaddictionservices.org/store/p2/Working_with_Challenging_Parents_and_Youth…_and_Loving_It.html

If you can make either workshop I will look forward to meeting or seeing you. If you think it’s a topic that would be useful for someone you know, feel free to pass this information on.

And have a great rest of the week.

John SF

 
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Posted by on October 29, 2014 in Uncategorized

 
 
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