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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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Neuro-counseling or Neuro-nonsense: You be the judge

This is a Book Review written by a current doctoral student, Tara Smart and John SF. It was published this past June in the online journal, The Professional Counselor: http://tpcjournal.nbcc.org/

As you may detect, Ms. Smart and I are circumspect about the neuroscience bandwagon.

Here’s the review:

In A Counselor’s Introduction to Neuroscience, the authors claim that “neurocounseling” is the fifth force in the history of psychology and counseling. Although a precise and detailed definition of neurocounseling is elusive (both in this book and in the professional literature), it is described as the marriage of counseling and neurobiology. They offer a crash course in brain anatomy, function, and development in order to lay the groundwork for how neurocounseling can be used effectively with clients. Several chapters focus on the ways the brain is affected by certain mental disorders, and how specific counseling approaches address various brain regions and functions. The remainder of the book focuses on assessment of brain function and fictional cases to illustrate neurocounseling techniques. The chapters include numerous tables, figures, cases and opportunities to stop and reflect. The overall intent of the book is to arm counselors “with yet another highly effective and efficient way to help clients cope with (overcome, etc.) their personal psychological distress.”

Although the authors are clearly enamored with the interaction between neurobiology and counseling, they purposefully offer honest words of caution regarding the nascent and speculative nature of contemporary brain science. However, on occasion, they also make promising statements without citing scientific evidence and generalize results from animal studies (including rodents) to humans without offering their reasoning for doing so. As with any other resource, practitioners are responsible for weighing information and evaluating whether it is accurate and whether it will be helpful in their work. It is important to note that this book bills itself as an “introduction”—readers should not expect concrete or realistic examples of how professional counselors can use their new neuroscience knowledge to understand and enhance client functioning.

A Counselor’s Introduction to Neuroscience will help counselors begin to grapple with the implications of neuroscience for our profession. Although the neuroscience knowledge base that the authors provide is a good start, scientific rigor in terms of concrete application would be useful. Years from now, neurocounseling may well be a new force in counseling, but presenting it to the counseling community as an effective and efficient way to help clients today is premature. In the end, it is best to consider this book as a reasonable beginning and food for thought rather than a how-to guide for counselors seeking neurocounseling training. Hopefully in the ensuing years, there will be clearer guidance available to help professional counselors integrate neuroscience into their practice.

John using his Star Trek tricorder (cell phone) to do a quick selfie brain scan. The results were not promising.

2014-06-03_15-45-11_474

 

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Reviews of our Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories and Clinical Interviewing DVDs

For those interested, I’ve put together some information on our Theories and Clinical Interviewing DVDs. Obviously these are positive reviews and I feel shy about posting them, but I also am very happy that these tools for helping people become better counselors and psychotherapists have been so well-received. Thanks to everyone who made these productions possible.

The Theories DVD

From Psychotherapy.net:

Finding a single video demonstrating psychotherapy’s major theoretical orientations has long been next to impossible. Now, Psychotherapy.net is thrilled to offer a masterful survey of the field’s most studied theories to students and instructors alike. You won’t want to miss this video, in which seasoned clinical educators John and Rita Sommers-Flanagan present a practical, in-depth guide through the origins, recent developments, and applications related to eleven major counseling theories, complete with valuable learning aids and extended case studies.

Over the course of eleven compelling segments, the Sommers-Flanagans outline a range of therapeutic orientations, from psychoanalysis to solution-focused therapy and more; each has its own strategies, interventions, and beliefs about the nature of change. Watch John Sommers-Flanagan help 10-year-old Clayton feel better about his “tattletale” brother using an Adlerian family constellation interview. Understand what’s preventing Brittany from attending college classes—and how she can correct this to avoid expulsion—during a behavioral therapy session with Selena Beaumont Hill. See how a feminist approach informs Rita Sommers-Flanagan’s moving work with Amanda, a young woman finding her identity amid a culturally complex web of relationships. And see how family systems therapist Kirsten Murray reengages a stressed family of four in a powerful family sculpt.

Designed for beginners and seasoned therapists alike, this video distills the essence of the major theories of psychotherapy, offering theoretically-grounded interventions and techniques that will be of use to any therapists looking to broaden their toolbox.

Whether you’re a student wanting to understand the basics of different theoretical orientations, a practitioner seeking review materials, or an instructor looking for a single video comparing and contrasting a range of approaches, you’ll find what you need in this comprehensive, one-of-a-kind video.

Theories covered in this video include:
• Psychoanalytic/psychodynamic
• Existential
• Rogerian/Person-Centered
• Gestalt
• Behavior
• Cognitive-Behavioral (CBT)
• Solution-Focused
• Feminist
• Adlerian
• Reality
• Family Systems

Reviews of the Theories DVD from Amazon

1. I just completed my Marriage and Family Psychotherapist graduate program. This book and the DVD helped me to study for my comps.

I recommend that you buy it. I love the way that it is written. Very easy to follow. I really like these two authors. I have other books written by them.

2. There are some horrible counseling instructional videos out there on the market from the 70’s and 80’s and it is hard to find such a rare gem here.

This video can be watched in full screen on a HD television with excellent audio and instructional effects (being able to see counselor’s drawings, written goals, highlights of therapy, etc.). The two authors/producers of this video are also in roughly half of the respective therapies that are gone over. As for behavioral therapy, solutions focused therapy, and family systems they use outside “expert” counselors that do a fantastic job.

I am almost exclusively a visual learner, and this video not only made it simple to understand and grasp all common therapies out there in the professional counseling realm, but also was instrumental in measuring and understanding the intangible traits all good counselors should have (using pause appropriately, asking questions, demeanor, body language, etc.).

3. For the aspiring counselor, this video is worth its weight in gold. Thank you! This DvD is excellent for the classes I teach. It reinforces the students learning. I highly recommend it. Buy it.

4. Thank you Sommers-Flanagans for this great additional resource! Insightful look into the work of masters of the art of therapy.

You can access these DVDs through Wiley: http://lp.wileypub.com/SommersFlanagan/

psychotherapy.net: http://www.psychotherapy.net/

and other online booksellers like Amazon.

The Clinical Interviewing DVD

Professional Reviews:

“Indispensable interviewing skills imparted by two master teachers in an engaging, multimedia presentation. Following the maxim of ‘show and tell,’ the Sommers-Flanagans provide evidence-based, culture-sensitive relational skills tailored to individual clients. An instructional gem!”
– John C. Norcross, PhD, ABPP, Distinguished Professor of Psychology, University of Scranton; Editor, Psychotherapy Relationships That Work

“Before watching this video, I’d considered the text Clinical Interviewing a ‘must-read,’ and now after watching the accompanying video, I consider the book in combination with the video video to be a ‘must-have!’ This video clearly demonstrates essential skills for beginning therapists with a culturally diverse group of clients, and is a valuable resource for training programs and any beginning clinician who wants to be the best they can be!”
– Pamela A. Hays, PhD, Author of Addressing Cultural Complexities in Practice; Supervisor for The Kenaitze Tribe’s Nakenu Family Center, Soldotna, Alaska

From Psychotherapy.net

Simply put, we believe this to be the best video on this topic ever produced, and in fact one of the top training videos in the entire field of psychotherapy and counseling! We’ve been in the business of producing and distributing videos in the field since 1995, so we don’t make this statement lightly. (And we aren’t patting ourselves on the back; we wish we could take credit for this one, but we didn’t actually produce it ourselves.)

Whether you’re just starting out with clients or looking to expand your intake and assessment skills, this comprehensive video with John and Rita Sommers-Flanagan will guide you through the full assortment of clinical interviewing techniques.

This video will help you gain confidence in both the science and the art of the clinical interview, and offer you the “foundation for intuition” that informs therapeutic assessment, intervention, and relationship-building skills.

Skills, steps, and protocols are all covered here, with discussions of multicultural counseling, mental status examinations, and collaborative processes. You’ll also see what not to do with a client, as part of a comical but cautionary demonstration on the pitfalls of directive interventions. For new and experienced clinicians alike, this comprehensive yet accessible video is a must-have in your toolkit.

By watching this video, you will:
• Identify interventions along a continuum of clinical listening responses, from basic to complex.
• Understand the goals and steps of different clinical assessments and examinations.
• Learn tools for establishing and deepening the therapeutic alliance during various types of clinical interventions.

 

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Hanging Out at Big Sky High School

This morning I had the fabulous opportunity to hang out with the staff at Big Sky High School. What I like best about this is that it gives me a chance to be in the presence of teachers, school counselors, school psychologists, and other great people without whom our entire civilized culture in the U.S. would devolve. It reminds me of my political platform (should I ever run for public office). Here it is:

If we want a clean and sustainable environment and if we want a functional economy and if we want an excellent health care system and if we want a country where we have justice for all, then we all better remember that the road to all those things runs right through EDUCATION!

Okay. That being said, I told the wonderful staff at Big Sky that I’d post my powerpoint here and so here it is:

BSHS 2014

And here’s a photo of my daughter just before or after my exorcism:)

Rylee

 

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The Montana Parenting Podcast Needs You!

The Montana Parenting Podcast Needs You!

In about 10 days Dr. Sara Polanchek and I will produce our first parenting podcast. This is a project supported by grants from the Engelhard Foundation and the Morris and Helen Silver Foundation. We are very grateful for this support.

If you’re reading this, consider offering us some assistance. Nope, I’m not asking for cash (not yet anyway). What we need is a little of your fabulous creative input. In particular, please email Sara or me or post on this blog your answer to the following question:

WHAT COOL, CATCHY, AND PROFOUND TITLE SHOULD WE GIVE TO OUR PODCAST?

Okay, maybe you need more information.

The plan is for Sara and I to produce about 50 parenting podcasts. Each one will be about 15-20 minutes long. We’re trying to be interesting, sometimes provocative, and cutting edge. For example, our first podcast will be on spanking or corporal punishment and, among other things (like our pithy and educational anecdotes),  we’ll be weaving science and Adrian Peterson and Chris Carter’s commentary on corporal punishment into the show. In fact, we have so much to say on this that it may end up being a two-parter.

We have many planned topics, but since our goal is 50 “episodes” you’re also welcome to provide us with your thoughts on topics YOU think we should cover.

We also have lots of expertise (IMHO), but if you happen to be an expert or know an expert whom you think we should have as a guest on our program, feel free to offer that too.

The goal of the podcast is to provide interesting and helpful information for parents and parenting educators. The podcast will be posted on the National Parenting Education Network (NPEN) website, as well as other websites interested in promoting positive, research-based, developmentally sensitive parenting for the 21st century. You can check out NPEN at npen.org. We advocate FIRM, but NONVIOLENT parenting.

In summary, please share any or all of the following:

YOUR IDEAS FOR A SMASHING PODCAST TITLE

YOUR IDEAS FOR FUN AND INTERESTING TOPICS

and (here’s the money thing)

YOUR IDEAS FOR COMPANIES OR INDIVIDUALS WHOM YOU THINK WOULD LIKE TO SPONSOR INDIVIDUAL SHOWS FOR THE BARGAIN PRICE OF $200 (OR MORE).

Thanks for reading and have a fabulous weekend!

John SF

 

 

 
4 Comments

Posted by on September 27, 2014 in Parenting

 

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Suicide Assessment and Intervention for the 21st Century

This past year, Alexander Street Press has been filming and producing a number of Ted-like talks focusing on counseling and psychotherapy. These are 15 minute talks, followed by a short Q & A on the topic. Below is a transcript from a talk I gave this summer in their studio at Governor’s State University in Chicago. I’m posting this talk in honor of National Suicide Prevention Day. This talk, and another couple dozen talks, should be available later this year or early next year from Alexander Street Press: http://search.alexanderstreet.com/counseling-therapy

Here’s the transcript:

Ironically I usually feel happy when I’m asked to do a talk on suicide and then I start with great confidence. I think it’s because suicide is such an extremely important and stressful issue for mental health professionals. But once I dive into the content, I remember how difficult this topic is. During one public presentation a therapist-friend of mine walked out because, as he told me later, the content was hitting too close to home. So please, as you listen, take care of yourself and talk to friends and colleagues for support.

To be perfectly honest, I DON’T REALLY LIKE to talk about suicide, but I think it’s VERY IMPORTANT that we do so directly . . . with each other and with our clients . . . and so here we go.

Death by suicide is pretty rare. Every year, only about 1 in 10,000 Americans commit suicide.

Despite its low frequency, suicide is still a major social problem that affects nearly everyone in one way or another. Over the years you’ve probably heard of many famous people who died by suicide. Marilyn Monroe and Kurt Cobain are two prime examples.

Perhaps even more important is the problem of suicide attempts. About 10% of the human population has attempted suicide and about 20% report struggling with suicidal thoughts and impulses. In surveys of high school students about 50% report “thinking about suicide.”

To summarize what we know about suicide base rates we can say:
I. Death by suicide is infrequent
II. Suicide attempts are NOT infrequent. In fact, many people attempt suicide and then go on to lead happy and meaningful lives
III. Suicide ideation (thoughts) are common
IV. And this is what makes suicide prediction very difficult, because it occurs so infrequently, but this is also what makes suicide prevention very necessary.

In 1991, I worked with a young man who ended up killing himself. This was a tragedy and I remember feeling that gut-wrenching guilt and regret that really stays with you a long time. Afterwards, my consultation group quizzed me and declared that I had done what I could, following all the standard and customary professional suicide assessment procedures. But in my mind and in my heart, then and now, I know I could have done better.

You see back in 1991, professionals (and the public) lived by a big suicide-related myth. We generally viewed suicidal thoughts as DEVIANCE. And so, when clients talked of suicide, it was our job to take action to assess and intervene to eliminate the suicidal thoughts.

This way of thinking about suicide is unhelpful. It creates distance between the professional therapist and his or her client; it also takes power away from clients. And so it’s NOW TIME FOR US TO BUST THE BIG SUICIDE MYTH.

NO LONGER should we consider suicidal thoughts and impulses simply as SIGNS OF DEVIANCE. Instead, we should view suicidal thoughts and impulses as normal signs of human distress. THIS IS THE NEW – and the more accurate – REALITY

Let’s take a minute now to contrast traditional and contemporary or post-modern suicide assessment and intervention approaches. The old Narrative is sort of a checklist approach where we emphasize risk factors, diagnostic interviewing, and no-suicide contracts. The New Narrative is different; it involves looking for protective factors, client strengths, normalizing suicide ideation, and initiating a collaborative safety plan.

This is what I wish I’d understood back in 1991. And so I’d like to be more specific about what I would have done differently and what all mental health professionals should be doing differently.
I wish I had asked more about his protective factors. Protective factors are things like reasons for living and so I wish I’d been more courageous in sitting with him and exploring the reasons why he wanted to live. I wish I’d asked him, over and over, what would or what could help him want to live.

I wish I had asked him more directly about what would help him control his suicide impulses. I would have asked him who he wanted around to help him. I would have lingered on this and asked, who else, what if that person can’t be there, who else would be your next choice to turn to for help.

One of the big changes in the suicide intervention field is that we no longer ask clients to sign No-Suicide contracts. Instead, we work to collaboratively develop a safety plan. As a part of this different focus, I wish I had clearly and unequivocally said to him: “I WANT YOU TO LIVE.” This is different than arguing with clients about their right or need to commit suicide. We should never argue against suicide because that can activate client resistance and make the act even more likely. But the language, “I WANT YOU TO LIVE” is just a self-disclosure and is therefore unarguable. It clearly communicates the intent to help.

Overall, I should have been MORE BALANCED and asked about what my client was doing when his depressive symptoms were gone. I should have asked about what he hoped for today and tomorrow and into the future. I should have asked him more about what brought a little light into his darkness. We should have brainstormed how to bring the light in when he was feeling down.
One problem with the old No-Suicide contracts is that clients sometimes viewed them as designed more to protect the counselor than the client. Obviously this is backward and not the sort of message we want to give clients who are suicidal. And so no-suicide contracts are out . . . and collaborative safety plans are in. What this requires is for counselors to dig in deeper and explore together specifically what the client is willing to do if the suicidal impulses come.

And now, because this talk is all about balancing negative and positive and I want to give an example of two suicide interventions, I’m going to share a positive story about suicide. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that, because now you already know there’s a happy ending. Oh well. Having a happy ending story is a good thing when you’re doing a suicide presentation.

About 5pm one evening I was about to head home and got a call from an alcohol and drug prevention organization across the street from where I was working. A suicidal 16-year-old had suddenly walked into their agency and they had no professional therapists on staff. They asked me to come over and help. I went right over and sat down with the girl in their lobby. We talked a while and she said she had left the local psychiatric unit and was planning to kill herself by jumping off a bridge about a quarter mile away. I listened and then began a specific suicide intervention developed by Edwin Shneidman, well-known as the father of suicidology. I said something like, “So you want to kill yourself. That’s one option, but let’s look at some others.” She said she wasn’t interested in any other options, but I got out a sheet of paper and wrote down “Kill myself” in the left hand column and asked her for other options. She said, “I don’t have any other options.” I said, how about going back to the hospital?” She said, “No way.” I said, that’s okay, we’re just making a list. Got any ideas? She said nothing. I said, “How about some family therapy?” She said, “No way.” I said, “Okay. I’ll write it down anyway because we’re just making a list. You don’t have to do any of these things.” Over time, I came up with about eight ideas of what she might do instead of kill herself, but she hadn’t come up with any. But the purpose of the intervention I was using was to address what Shneidman calls mental constriction. Mental constriction occurs when suicidal individuals are feeling so stressed and miserable that all they can consider is continued misery or death by suicide. With this intervention, I was working on opening up her mental blinders so she could see and consider alternatives to suicide. And so despite the fact that she didn’t generate or endorse any of the alternatives, I handed her the sheet of paper and asked her to rank order her preferences. And somewhat to my surprise, she ranked “Kill myself” as number three. There were two other options she preferred over suicide. I went for that and asked how I could help her get family therapy, which was her first choice. She re-escalated and headed out the door and down the street toward the bridge. I followed and walked with her and talked on and on about how “I want you to live.” She eventually got to the corner where we would cross the street to get on the bridge and I said I was stopping there. She stopped too and I reached out and grabbed her hand. She pulled back and yelled at me for touching her. Then I tried another specific suicide intervention, called Neodissociation. I said, “I know somewhere inside there’s a part of you that wants to live a happy and healthy life. Please, I want that part of you to just reach out and take my hand and walk with me back to the office so we can get you the help you deserve. She stared at me, reached out, took my hand, and then walked back to the office where I called the police and they took her back to the hospital.

[Insert big sigh here].

About two months later, I got a card from her that read, “The only bridges in my life now are bridges to health and happiness.” Now that’s a pretty good ending, but there’s more.

About six months later I asked her therapist if he thought it would be okay for me to interview her about what she thought was most helpful to her in choosing life over suicide. He asked her and then she came to my office for a short video interview. I remember asking her what was most helpful and she said she had a great student nurse at the hospital who was “Fresh” and genuine and that had helped a lot. Then I asked her what had helped her come with me on that first night we’d met. She said, “I’m not sure.” Eager for affirmation, I asked if it was when I used the neodissociation technique and she responded, “No way. That was really stupid.” Then she spontaneously said that she thought it was the look on my face, when I stopped and said I would go no further. She said that—in that moment—I looked like I really cared.

And so that’s the suicide story I prefer to remember.

Speaking of remembering, let’s review the main points.

In summary, there are three main modifications to the traditional approach, which I sometimes call the NEW MANTRA.
• There’s NO MORE BIG MYTH and so we normalize suicidal thoughts and impulses to counter our client’s feelings of deviance; they already feel deviant enough, we don’t need to add to that.
• Collaborate with clients. . . and be sure to do so from a place of genuine caring. It’s okay to say: “I WANT YOU TO LIVE” while collaboratively developing a safety plan.
• Use strength-based questioning, focusing on hope instead of hopelessness; meaning instead of meaninglessness.
• And of course, as always, like all good professionals, consult and document.

I’d like to end with a comment on self-care. As you can see in the final photo, my two daughters are engaged in what appears to be rather bizarre human behavior. I like to think of this as the one daughter performing a helpful “Pit-Check” for the other. We all need that and we especially need that when we’re working with clients who are suicidal. We need to keep talking and asking, “How am I doing?” We need to check up and check in with our colleagues and take very good care of ourselves because although the work we’re doing is essential . . . it can also be terribly stressful to face alone.

This reminds me of what another client once said to me. He said: The mind is a terrible place to go . . . alone . . . which is why we should keep on talking—directly to each other and to our clients—about suicide and suicide prevention.

Thanks for listening.

 

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