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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).

P1030724

 

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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

 

Check Out Our Latest Parenting Journal Article

While working with Families First several years ago, I collaborated with several graduate students and we collected data on the effectiveness of parenting consultations–from the perspective of the parents who participated in the consultations. It was a very small and uncontrolled study, but the results were positive and we just got word that the publication–in The Family Journal–is available. And so, if you’re interested in this sort of thing, the abstract is below and you can link to the whole article right about here:   http://tfj.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/10/25/1066480714555696

Effectiveness of Solution-Focused Consultations on Parent Stress and Competence

John Sommers-Flanagan, Sara Polanchek, Waganesh A. Zeleke, Meredith H. E. Hood, and Sidney L. Shaw

Abstract

Parenting is a challenging activity and many parents report high stress and feelings of
incompetence. Both of these factors (a) stress and (b) feelings of incompetence are associated with
a variety of negative parenting outcomes. This study evaluated the effectiveness of a
community-based, solution-focused, 2-session parent consultation intervention on parent
perceptions of stress and competence. A pre-post quasi-experimental design was employed.
Forty-five consecutive parents who sought consultation services were administered three
preintervention questionnaires. Results included positive outcomes across all three outcome
measures as well as high ratings on a satisfaction questionnaire. Although significant reductions
in parenting stress and increased parenting self-efficacy were obtained, the study design and small
and homogeneous sample limit generalization of these findings. Nevertheless, this study highlights
the possibility that a straightforward, positive, brief, and community-based
intervention may have the potential to decrease parental stress and increase parenting sense of
competence.

 
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Posted by on October 28, 2014 in Parenting

 

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Entering the Danger Zone: Why Counselors (and Psychologists) Need to Find the Courage to Talk with Boys about Sex and Pornography

This article was published in the Reader Viewpoint section of Counseling Today magazine this week. If you get the magazine, you’ll find it on page 52. If not, because it’s not available online, I’m posting the article (with minor modifications) in-full right here. To check out the Counseling Today magazine, click here: http://ct.counseling.org/

Here’s the article:

Reader Viewpoint

Entering the Danger Zone

Why Counselors Need to Find the Courage to Talk with Boys about Sex and Pornography

By John Sommers-Flanagan

For the most part, the United States lacks a coherent and systematic approach to sexual education. Instead, as lampooned in an online issue of The Onion, sex education is typically informal, unorganized, and inaccurate. The Onion article describes a scene in which a 10-year-old boy takes his 8-year-old cousin behind his parents’ garage with a page ripped out of a magazine and shares “the vast misguided knowledge of human sexuality he had gleaned from classmates’ hearsay as well as 12 minutes of a Real Sex episode he watched in a hotel room once.” The older boy recounts his rationale: “Every time people have sex the woman has a baby, and I just want [my younger cousin] to be completely prepared before getting naked with a girl.”

The good news about this is that The Onion is a fictional news source. The bad news is that the current state of sex education in our country isn’t much better than The Onion’s version.

Consider that a report this past April from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated that more than 80 percent of adolescents between the ages of 15 and 17 have no formal sexual education before actually having sex. If teenagers have no formal sex education, then what informal sex education do you suppose they take with them into their first sexual experiences?

One such source of informal sex education is pornography. In 2009, University of Montreal professor Simon Louis Lajeunesse designed a study to evaluate how pornography use affects male sexual development. He planned to interview 20 males who had viewed pornography and then compare their responses with those of 20 males who had never viewed porn. Remarkably, Lajeunesse had to abandon his project because he couldn’t find any college-aged males who hadn’t already viewed porn.

Other researchers report similar experiences. It appears that most boys, rather than learning about sex from a well-meaning, albeit uninformed cousin, get their information from the pornography industry … and my best guess is that the porn industry isn’t focusing on the best interests of American youth. This is one way in which reality may be worse than The Onion.

The absence of formal and accurate sexual education is a particularly American problem that may find its way into the offices of professional counselors. Many young males probably have very little basic knowledge or hold unhelpful ideas about sex and sexuality. Some will have porn addictions. Others will want to talk about how pornography may be affecting their real sex lives. You may also have clients who are concerned about their partner’s or potential partner’s porn viewing behaviors. Working with young (and older) males (and females) who want to talk about their sexual knowledge, beliefs and behaviors, including watching pornography, is both a challenge and an opportunity for professional counselors.

Counselors have an ethical mandate to strive toward competence. As articulated in the multicultural counseling literature, this requires cultivating personal awareness, gathering knowledge and developing skills.

Awareness: Expanding your comfort zone

Talking about sex, sexuality and sexual attraction can be difficult at every level. Think about yourself: How easy is it to talk about sex with your supervisor, colleagues, students, or clients? Your own experience may give you a glimpse into how challenging it can be to broach the topic of sex — even for professionals.

In comparison, it’s probably an understatement to say that it is especially difficult for boys to initiate a conversation about sex or sexuality with a professional counselor. This is why counselors who work with boys should become comfortable initiating conversations about sex. If you don’t ask at least a few gentle, polite, yet direct questions, you may be waiting a long time for the boy in your office to bring up the subject.

On the opposite extreme, some young clients will jump right into talking about sexuality and push us straight out of our comfort zones. Recently, I was working with a 16-year-old boy who described himself as a polyamorous “furry” (which I later learned involved sexualized role-playing as various animals). Admittedly, it was a challenge to maintain a nonjudgmental attitude. But without such an attitude, we wouldn’t have been able to have repeated open and useful conversations about his sexuality and sexual identity development.

Knowledge: The effects of pornography on boys and men

Many potential areas related to sexuality deserve attention, focus, and discussion in counseling. But because pornography and mixed messages about pornography are everywhere, it can be an especially important subject.

Most counselors probably believe that repeated exposure to pornography has a negative impact on male sexual development. This negative impact is likely exacerbated by the fact that most boys aren’t getting any organized, balanced, and scientific sexual information. Nevertheless, within the dominant American culture, there remains strong resistance to both sex education and pornography regulation. Even in a recent issue of Monitor on Psychology, the authors of an article questioned whether porn is addictive and blithely noted that “people like porn.”

It’s not surprising that porn has advocates. After all, it’s estimated to be a $6 billion-plus industry. In addition, media outlets explicitly and implicitly use pornlike sexuality to attract an audience and sell products. Recently, we’ve seen the increased use of hypermasculine male body types in the media, but most of the rampant sexual objectification still focuses on young female bodies.

Given that sexual development includes a complex mix of culture, biology and life experience, it’s not surprising that researchers have had difficulty isolating pornography as a single causal factor in male sexual developmental outcomes. However, a summary of the research indicates that as the viewing of pornography increases, so does an array of negative attitudes, behaviors, and symptoms. Generally, increased exposure to pornography is correlated with:
• More positive attitudes toward sexual aggression, increases in sexual aggression, multiple sexual partners, and engaging in paid sex
• Increased depression, anxiety and stress, and poorer social functioning
• Positive attitudes toward teen sex, adult premarital sex, and extramarital sex
• More positive attitudes toward pornography and more viewing of violent or hypersexual pornography
• Higher alcohol consumption, greater self-reported sexual desire, and increased rates of boys selling sexual acts

In contrast to these findings, a 2002 Kinsey Institute survey indicated that 72 percent of respondents considered pornography to be a relatively harmless outlet. This might be true for adults. I recall listening to B.F. Skinner talk about how older adults could use pornography as a sexual stimulant in ways similar to how they use hearing aids and glasses.

But the point isn’t whether people like porn or whether porn can be relatively harmless for some adults. The point is that pornography is a bad primary source of sexual information for developing boys and young men. As a consequence, it’s crucial for counselors who work with males to be knowledgeable about the potential negative effects of pornography.

Skills: How can counselors help?

A big responsibility for professional counselors who work with boys is to consistently keep sex and sexuality issues on the educational and therapeutic radar. This doesn’t mean counselors should be preoccupied with asking about sex. Rather, we should be open to asking about it, as needed, in a matter-of-fact and respectful manner.

As with most skills, asking about sex and talking comfortably about sexuality requires practice and supervision. But as Carl Rogers often emphasized, having an accepting attitude may be even more important than using specific skills. This implies that finding your own way to listen respectfully to boys (and all clients) about their sexual views and practices is essential. It also requires openness to listening respectfully even when our clients’ sexual views and practices are inconsistent with our personal values. As with other topics, if we ask about it, we should be ready to skillfully listen to whatever our clients are inclined to say next.

Case example
Some years ago, I had a young client named Ben who was in foster care. We began working together when he was 10 and continued intermittently until he was 17.
When Ben was around 13, I started routinely asking about possible romance in his life. He typically redirected the conversation. Occasionally he gave me a few hints that he wanted a girlfriend, but he mostly still seemed frightened of girls. As my counseling with Ben continued, I became aware that I had been conspiring with him to avoid talking directly about sex, possibly because I was afraid to bring it up.

I finally faced the issue when I realized (far too slowly) that Ben had no father figure in his life and, thus, I was one of his best chances at having a positive male role model. With encouragement from my supervision group, I was able to face my anxieties, do some reading about male sexual development, and finally broach the subject of having a sex talk with Ben.

Toward the end of a session I said, “Hey, I’ve been thinking we’ve never really talked directly about sex. And I realized that maybe you don’t have any men in your life who have talked with you about sex. So, here’s my plan. Next week we’re going to have the sex talk. OK?”

Ben’s face reddened and his eyes widened. He mumbled, “OK, fine with me.”

The next session I plowed right in, starting with a nervous monologue about why talking directly about sex was important. I then asked Ben where he’d learned whatever he knew about sex. He answered, “Sex ed at school, some magazines, a little Internet porn, and my friends.”

I felt a sense of gratitude that he was listening and being open, even if we were both feeling awkward. We talked about homosexuality, pornography, sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy, contraception, and emotions. I tried to gently warn him that too much porn could become way too much porn. He agreed. He told me that he didn’t feel like he was gay but that he didn’t have anything against gays and lesbians. At the end of the conversation, we were both flushed. We had stared down our mutual discomfort and navigated our way through a difficult topic.

Professional sex educators emphasize that parents shouldn’t have just one sex talk with their kids; they should have many sex talks. What I thought was THE talk with Ben turned into something we could revisit. Over the next two years, Ben and I kept talking — off and on, here and there — about sex, sexuality, and pornography.

Final thoughts

Boys are a unique counseling population, and sex is a hot topic. Together, the two provide both challenge and opportunity for professional counselors. As counselors, we should work to develop our awareness, knowledge, and skills for talking with boys about sex and sexuality. You may not be the perfect sex educator, but when the alternatives for accurate information are pornography or someone’s uninformed older cousin, it becomes obvious that having open conversations about sex with boys is an excellent role for counselors to embrace.

BOX

John Sommers-Flanagan is a counselor educator at the University of Montana and the author of nine books. Get more information on this and other topics related to counseling and parenting at johnsommersflanagan.com.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

SIDEBAR
Readings and resources for working with boys and men
• A Counselor’s Guide to Working With Men, edited by Matt Englar-Carlson, Marcheta P. Evans & Thelma Duffey, 2014, American Counseling Association
• “Addressing sexual attraction in supervision,” by Kirsten W. Murray & John Sommers-Flanagan, in Sexual Attraction in Therapy: Clinical Perspectives on Moving Beyond the Taboo — A Guide for Training and Practice, edited by Maria Luca, 2014, Wiley-Blackwell
• Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, by Michael Kimmel, 2010, Harper Perennial
• Tough Kids, Cool Counseling: User-Friendly Approaches With Challenging Youth, second edition, by John Sommers-Flanagan & Rita Sommers-Flanagan, 2007, American Counseling Association
• The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help, by Jackson Katz, 2006, Sourcebooks
• The Good Men Project: goodmenproject.com

 

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Non-Drug Options for Dealing with Depression

Evidence supporting the efficacy of antidepressant medications continues to be weak. That doesn’t mean they never work; some individuals with depressive symptoms find them very helpful and that’s okay. But for many, antidepressant meds just don’t work very well . . . there are side effects and less than desirable antidepressant effects. This is why many people wonder: What are some of the best non-drug alternatives for treating symptoms of depression?

Here’s a short list that might be helpful.

1. Counseling or Psychotherapy: Going to a reputable and licensed mental-health professional who offers counseling or psychotherapy for depression can be very helpful. This may include individual, couple, or family therapy.

2. Vigorous aerobic exercise: Consider initiating and maintaining a regular cardiovascular or aerobic exercise schedule. This could involve a specific referral to a personal trainer and/or local fitness center (e.g., YMCA). In a recent small study of adolescents with clinical depression, 100% of the teens in the aerobic exercise group no longer met the diagnostic criteria for depression after receiving several months of exercise treatment.

3. Herbal remedies: Some individuals benefit from taking herbal supplements. In particular, there is evidence that omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil) and St. John’s Wort are effective in reducing depressive symptoms. It’s good to consult with a health-care provider if you’re pursuing this option.

4. Light therapy: Some people describe great benefits from light therapy. Specific information on light therapy boxes is available online and possibly through your physician.

5. Massage therapy: Research indicates some patients with depressive symptoms benefit from massage therapy. A referral to a licensed massage therapy professional is advised.

6. Bibliotherapy: Research indicates that some patients benefit from reading and working with self-help books or workbooks. The Feeling Good Handbook (Burns, 1999) and Mind over Mood (Greenberger and Padesky, 1995) are two self-help books used by many individuals.

7. Post-partum support: There is evidence suggesting that new mothers with depressive symptoms who are closely followed by a public-health nurse, midwife, or other professional experience fewer post-partum depressive symptoms. Additionally, new moms and all individuals suffering from depressive symptoms may benefit from any healthy and positive activities that increase social contact and social support.

8. Mild exercise and physical/social activities: Even if you’re not up to vigorous exercise, you should know that nearly any type of movement is an antidepressant. These activities could include, but not be limited to, yoga, walking, swimming, bowling, hiking, or whatever you can do! In the same exercise study mentioned above, 71% of the teenagers in the mild exercise group experienced a substantial reduction in their symptoms of depression.

9. Other meaningful activities: Never underestimate the healing power of meaningful activities. Activities could include (a) church or spiritual pursuits; (b) charity work; (c) animal caretaking (adopting a pet); and (d) many other activities that might be personally meaningful to you.

The preceding list is adapted from a tip-sheet in our book, “How to Listen so Parents will Talk and Talk so Parents will Listen.” See: http://www.amazon.com/How-Listen-Parents-Will-Talk/dp/1118012968/ref=la_B0030LK6NM_1_9?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1413432346&sr=1-9
Or: http://lp.wileypub.com/SommersFlanagan/

John and his sister working on their positive emotions.

Peg and John Singing at Pat's Wedding

 

 

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