Using Therapeutic Storytelling with Children: Five Easy Steps

Books

Everybody loves a good story.

Good stories grab the listener’s attention and don’t let go. I’ve been reading and telling stories for as long as I can remember. Whether its kindergartners, clients, or college students, I’ve found that stories settle people into a receptive state that looks something like a hypnotic trance.

Nowadays, mostly we see children and teens entranced with their electronic devices, television, and movies. Although it’s nice to see young people in a calm and focused state, the big problem with devices (other than their negative effects on sleep, attention span, weight, brain development, and nearly everything else having to do with living in the real world), is that we (parents, caretakers, and concerned adults), don’t have control over the electronic stories our children see and hear.

Storytelling is a natural method for teaching and learning. Children learn from stories. We’re teaching when we tell them. We might as well add our intentionally selection of stories to whatever our children might be learning from the internet.

Way back in 1997, Rita and I wrote a book called Tough Kids, Cool Counseling. One of the chapters focused on how to use therapeutic storytelling with children and teens. Although the content of Tough Kids, Cool Counseling is dated, the ideas are still solid. The following section is good material for counselors, psychotherapists, parents, and other adults who want to influence young people.

In counseling, storytelling was originally developed as a method for bypassing client resistance. Stories are gentle methods that don’t demand a response, but that stimulate, “thinking, experiencing, and ideas for problem resolution” (Lankton & Lankton, 1989, pp. 1–2)

Storytelling is an alternative communication strategy. For counselors, it should be used as a technique within the context of an overall treatment plan, rather than as a treatment approach in and of itself. For parents and caregivers, stories should be fun, and engaging . . . and told in a way to facilitate learning.

Story construction. Even if you’re an excellent natural storyteller, it can help to have a guide or structure for story construction and development. I like using a framework that Bill Cook, a Montana psychologist, wrote about and shared with me. He uses the acronym S-T-O-R-I, to organize the parts of a therapeutic story.

S: Set the stage for the story. To set the stage, you should create a scenario that focuses on a child living in a particular situation. The child can be a human or an animal or an animated object. The central child character should be described in a way that’s positive and appealing. Because much of my work back in the 1990s involved working with boys who were angry and impulsive, the following story features a boy who has an arguing problem. Depending on your circumstances, you could easily feature a girl or a child who doesn’t have a particular gender identity.

Here’s the beginning of the story.

Once upon a time there was a really smart boy. His name was Lancaster. Lancaster was not only smart, he was also a very cool dresser. He wore excellent clothes and most everyone who met Lancaster immediately was impressed with him. Lancaster lived with his mother and sister in the city.

In this example, the client’s name was Larry. If it’s not too obvious, you can give the central character a name that sounds similar to your client’s name. You may also develop a story that has other similarities to your client’s life.

T: Tell about the problem. This stage includes a problem with which the central character is struggling. It should be a problem similar to your client’s or your child’s. This stage ends with a statement about how no one knows what to do about this very difficult and perplexing problem.

Every day, Lancaster went to school. He went because he was supposed to, not because he liked school. You see, Lancaster didn’t like having people tell him what to do. He liked to be in charge. He liked to be the boss. The bad news is that his teachers at school liked to be in charge too. And when he was at home, his mother liked to be the boss. So Lancaster ended up getting into lots of arguments with his teachers and mother. His teachers were very tired of him and about to kick him out of school. To make things even worse, his mother was so mad at him for arguing all the time that she was just about to kick him out of the house. Nobody knew what to do. Lancaster was arguing with everyone and everyone was mad at Lancaster. This was a very big problem.

O: Organize a search for helpful resources. During this part of the story, the central character and family try to find help to solve the problem. This search usually results in identifying a wise old person or animal or alien creature as a special helper. The wise helper lives somewhere remote and has a kind, gentle, and mysterious quality. In this case, because Larry (the client) didn’t have many positive male role models in his life, I chose to make the wise helper a male. Obviously, you can control that part of the story to meet the child’s needs and situation.

Because the situation kept getting worse and worse and worse, almost everyone had decided that Lancaster needed help—except Lancaster. Finally, Lancaster’s principal called Lancaster’s mom and told her of a wise old man who lived in the forest. The man’s name was Cedric and, apparently, in the past, he had been helpful to many young children and their families. When Lancaster’s mother told him of Cedric, Lancaster refused to see Cedric. Lancaster laughed and sneered and said: “The principal is a Cheese-Dog. He doesn’t know the difference between his nose and a meteorite. If he thinks it’s a good idea, I’m not doing it!”

But eventually Lancaster got tired of all the arguing and he told his mom “If you buy me my favorite ice cream sundae every day for a week, I’ll go see that old Seed-Head man. Lancaster’s mom pulled out her purse and asked, “What flavor would you like today?”

After hiking 2 hours through the forest, they arrived at Cedric’s tree house late Saturday morning. They climbed the steps and knocked. A voice yelled: “Get in here now, or the waffles will get cold!” Lancaster and his mom stepped into the tree house and were immediately hit with a delicious smell. Cedric waved to them like old friends, had them sit at the kitchen table, a served them a stack of toasty-hot strawberry waffles, complete with whipped cream and fresh maple syrup. They ate and talked about mysteries of the forest. Finally, Cedric leaned back, and asked, “Now what do you two want . . . other than my strawberry waffles and this pleasant conversation?”

Lancaster suddenly felt shy. His mom, being a sensitive mom, looked up at Cedric’s big hulking face and described how Lancaster could argue with just about anyone, anytime, anywhere. She described his tendency to call people mean names and mentioned that Lancaster was in danger of being kicked out of school. Of course, Lancaster occasionally burst out with: “No way!” and “I never said that,” and even an occasional, “You’re stupider than my pet toad.”

After Lancaster’s mom stopped talking, Cedric looked at Lancaster. He grinned and chuckled. Lancaster didn’t like it when people laughed at him, so he asked, “What are YOU laughing about?” Cedric replied, “I like that line. You’re even stupider than my pet toad. You’re funny. I’m gonna try that one out. How about if we make a deal? Both you and I will say nothing but “You’re even stupider than my pet toad” in response to everything anyone says to us. It’ll be great. We’ll have the most fun this week ever. Okay. Okay. Make me a deal.” Cedric reached out his hand.

Lancaster was confused. He just automatically reached back and said, “Uh, sure.”

Cedric quickly stood up and motioned Lancaster and his mom to the door, smiling and saying, “Hey you two toad-brains, see you next Saturday!!”

Searching for helpful resources can be framed in many ways. For counselors, you might construct it to be similar to what children and parents experience during their search for a counselor. Consistent with the classic Mrs. Piggle Wiggle book series, the therapeutic helper in the story has tremendous advantages over ordinary counselors. In the Lancaster example, Cedric gets to propose a maladaptive and paradoxical strategy without risk, because the whole process is simply a thought experiment. Depending on your preference and situation, you can use whatever “treatment” strategy you like.

R: Refine the therapeutic intervention. In this storytelling model, the initial therapeutic strategy isn’t supposed to be effective. Instead, the bad strategy that Cedric proposes is designed for a core learning experience. During the fourth stage (refinement) the central character learns an important lesson and begins the behavior change process.

Both Lancaster and Cedric had a long week. They called everyone they saw a “stupid toad-brain” and said, “You’re even stupider than my pet toad” and the results were bad. Lancaster got kicked out of school. That morning, when they were on their way to Cedric’s, Lancaster got slugged in the mouth for insulting their taxi driver and he was sporting a fat lip.

When Lancaster stepped into Cedric’s tree house, he noticed that Cedric had a black eye.

“Hey, Mr. Toad-Brain, what happened to your eye?” asked Lancaster. “Probably the same thing that happened to your face, fish lips!” replied Cedric.

Lancaster and Cedric sat staring at each other in an awkward silence. Lancaster’s mom decided to just sit quietly to see what would happen. She was felt surprisingly entertained.

Cedric broke the silence. “Here’s what I think. I don’t think everyone appreciates our humor. In fact, nobody I met seemed to like the idea of having their brain compared to your pet toad’s brain. They never even laughed once. Everybody got mad at me. Is that what things are usually like for you?”

Lancaster muttered back, “Uh, well, yeah.” But this week was worse. My best friend said he doesn’t want to be best friends and my principal got so mad at me that he put my head in the toilet of the boys’ bathroom and flushed it.”

Cedric rolled his eyes and laughed, “And I thought I had a bad week. Well, Lanny, mind if I call you Lanny?”

“Yeah, whatever, Just don’t call me anything that has to do with toads.”

“Well Lanny, the way I see it, we have three choices. First, we can keep on with the arguing and insulting. Maybe if we argue even harder and used different insults, people will back down and let us have things our way. Second, we can work on being really nice to everyone most of the time, so they’ll forgive us more quickly when we argue with them in our usual mean and nasty way. And third, we can learn to argue more politely, so we don’t get everyone upset by calling them things like ‘toad brains’ and stuff like that.”

After talking their options over with each other and with Lancaster’s mom, Cedric and Lancaster decided to try the third option: arguing more politely. In fact, they practiced with each other for an hour or so and then agreed to meet again the next week to check on how their new strategy worked. Their practice included inventing complimentary names for each other like “Sweetums” or “Tulip” and surprising people with positive responses like, “You’re right!” or “Yes boss, I’m on it!”

As seen in the narrative, Lanny and Cedric learn lessons together. The fact that they learn them together is improbable in real life. However, the storytelling modality allows counselor and client the opportunity to truly form a partnership and enact Aaron Beck’s concept of collaborative empiricism.

I: Integrating the lesson. In the final stage of this storytelling model, the central character articulates the lesson(s) learned.

Months later, Lancaster got an invitation from Cedric for an ice cream party. When Lancaster arrived, he realized the party was just for him and Cedric. Cedric held up his glass of chocolate milk and offered a toast. He said, “To my friend Lanny. I could tell when I first met you that you were very smart. Now, I know that you’re not only smart, but you are indeed wise. Now, you’re able to argue politely and you only choose to argue when you really feel strongly about something. You’re also as creative in calling people nice names as you were at calling them nasty names. And you’re back in school and, as far as I understand, your life is going great. Thanks for teaching me a great lesson.”

As Lanny raised his glass for the toast, he noticed how strong and good he felt. He had learned when to argue and when not to argue. But even more importantly, he had learned how to say nice things to people and how to argue without making everyone mad at him. The funny thing was, Lanny felt happier. Mostly, all those mad feelings that had been inside him weren’t there anymore.

At the end of this story (or whatever story you decide to use), you can choose to directly discuss the “moral of the story” or not. In many cases, leaving the story’s message unstated is useful. Or you might ask the child, “What do you think of this story?”

Letting the child consider the message provides an opportunity for intellectual stimulation and may aid in moral development. Although it would be nice to claim that therapeutic storytelling causes immediate behavior change, the more important outcome is that storytelling provides a way for an adult and a child to have pleasant interactions around a story . . . with the possibility that, over time, positive behavior change may occur.

Suicide Myths — Part Two

From M 2019 Spring

This is part two of my “Four Suicide Myths” blog post. If you read part one, you probably noticed that it ended abruptly. Apparently, that’s how I do two-part blog posts. Thinking back, I should have added something like, “end of part one.” 

And so, as an introduction, here’s the beginning of part two . . .

Myth #2: Suicide and suicidal thinking are signs of mental illness.

Philosophers and research scientists agree: nearly everyone on the planet thinks about suicide at one time or another—even if briefly. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche referred to suicidal thoughts as a coping strategy, writing, “The thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets through many a dark night.” Additionally, the rates of suicidal thinking among high school and college students is so high (estimates of 20-40% annual incidence) that it’s more appropriate to label suicidal thoughts as common, rather than a sign of deviance or illness.

Edwin Shneidman—the American “Father” of suicidology—denied a relationship between suicide and so-called mental illness in the 1973 Encyclopedia Britannica, stating succinctly:

“Suicide is not a disease (although there are those who think so); it is not, in the view of the most detached observers, an immorality (although . . . it has often been so treated in Western and other cultures).”

A recent report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) supported Shneidman’s perspective. The CDC noted that 54% of individuals who died by suicide did not have a documented mental disorder. Keep in mind that the CDC wasn’t focusing on people who think about or attempt suicide; their study focused only on individuals who died by suicide. If most individuals who die by suicide don’t have a mental disorder, it’s even more unlikely that people who think about suicide (but don’t act on their thoughts), meet diagnostic criteria for a mental disorder.  As one of my mentors used to say, “Having the thought of suicide is not dangerous and is not the problem.”

Truth #2: Suicidal thoughts are not—in and of themselves—a sign of illness. Instead, suicidal thoughts arise naturally, especially during times of excruciating distress.

Myth #3: Scientific knowledge about suicide risk factors and warning signs allows for the prediction and prevention of suicide.

In 1995, renowned suicidologist, Robert Litman 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.” (p. 135)

Litman’s comments remain true today. Part of the problem stems from the fact that suicide is what is referred to as a low base rate event. When something occurs at a low base rate, it becomes mathematically very difficult to predict. Suicide is a prime example of a low base rate event. According to the CDC, in 2017, only about 14 of every 100,000 citizens died by suicide.

Imagine you’re at the Neyland football stadium at the University of Tennessee. The stadium is filled with 100,000 fans. Your job is to figure out which 14 of the 100,000 fans will die by suicide over the next 365 days.

A good first step would be to ask everyone in the stadium the question that many suicide prevention specialists ask, “Have you been thinking about suicide?” Assuming the usual base rates and assuming that every one of the 100,000 fans answer you honestly, you might rule out 85,000 people (because they say they haven’t been thinking about suicide) and ask them to leave the stadium. Now you’re down to identifying which 14 of 15,000 will die by suicide.

For your next step you decide to do a quick screen for the diagnosis of clinical depression. Let’s say you’re highly efficient, taking only 20 minutes to screen and diagnose each of the 15,000 remaining fans. Only 50% of the 15,000 fans meet the diagnostic criteria for clinical depression.

At this point, you’ve reduced your population to 7,500 University of Tennessee fans, all of whom are depressed and thinking about suicide. How will you accurately identify the 14 fans who will die by suicide? Mostly, based on mathematics and statistics, you won’t. Every effort to do this in the past has failed. Your best bet might be to provide aggressive psychological treatment for the remaining 7,500 people. However, many of the fans will refuse treatment, including some of whom will later die by suicide. Further, as the year goes by, you’ll discover that several of the 85,000 fans who denied having suicidal thoughts, and whom you immediately ruled out as low risk, will confound your efforts at prediction and die by suicide.

To gain a broader perspective, imagine there are 3,270 stadiums across the U.S., each with 100,000 people, and each with 14 individuals who will die by suicide over the next year. All this points to the magnitude of the problem. Most professionals who try to predict and prevent suicide realize that, at best, they will help some of the people some of the time.

Truth #4: Although there’s always the chance that future research will enable us to predict suicide, decades of scientific research doesn’t support suicide as a predictable event. Even if you know all the salient suicide predictors and warning signs, odds are, in the vast majority of cases, you won’t be able to efficiently predict or prevent suicide attempts or suicide deaths.

Myth #4: Suicide prevention and intervention should focus on eliminating suicidal thoughts.

Logical analysis implies that if suicidal thoughts within an individual are eliminated, then suicide will be prevented. Why then, do the most knowledgeable psychotherapists in the U.S. advise against directly targeting suicidal thoughts in psychotherapy? The first reason is because most people who think about suicide never make a suicide attempt. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

After his son died by suicide, Rick Warren, a famous pastor and author, created a Youtube video titled, “Rick Warren’s Message for Those Considering Suicide.” The video summary reads, “If you have ever struggled with depression or suicide, Pastor Rick has a message for you. The pain you are experiencing will not last forever. There is hope!”

Although over 1,000 viewers clicked on the “thumbs up” sign for the video, there were 535 comments; these comments mostly pushed back on Pastor Warren’s well-intended message. Examples included:

  • Are you kidding me??? You’ve clearly never been suicidal or really depressed.
  • To say “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem” is like saying: “You couldn’t possibly have suffered long enough, even if you’ve suffered your entire life from many, many issues.”
  • This is extremely disheartening. With all due respect. Pastor, you just don’t get it.

Pastor Rick isn’t alone in not getting it. Most of us don’t really get the excruciating distress, deep self-hatred, and chronic shame linked to suicidal thoughts and impulses. And because we don’t get it, most of us try to use rational persuasion to encourage individuals with suicidal thoughts to regain hope and embrace life. Unfortunately, a nearly universal phenomenon called psychological reactance helps explain why rational persuasion—even when well-intended—rarely makes for an effective intervention.

While working with chronically suicidal patients for over two decades, Dr. Marsha Linehan of the University of Washington made an important discovery: when psychotherapists try to get their patients to stop thinking about suicide, the opposite usually happens—the patients become more suicidal.

Linehan’s discovery has played out in my clinical practice. Nearly every time I’ve actively pushed clients to stop thinking about suicide—using various psychological ploys and techniques—my efforts have backfired.

Truth #4: Most individuals who struggle with thoughts of suicide resist outside efforts to make them stop thinking about suicide. Using direct persuasion to convince people they should cheer up, have hope, and embrace life is rarely effective.

Starting Over

Individuals who are suicidal are complex, unique, and in deep distress. Judging them as ill is unhelpful. Believing that we can successfully predict and prevent suicide borders on delusional. Direct persuasion usually backfires. Letting go of the four common suicide myths might make you feel nervous. At least they provided guidance for action, right? But just like having the female on top to prevent pregnancy, clinging to unhelpful myths won’t, in the end, be effective. How do we start over? Where do we go from here?

All solutions—or at least most of them—begin with a clear understanding of the problem. As someone who has worked directly with suicidal individuals for decades, there’s no better person to start us on the journey toward a deeper understanding of suicide than Dr. Marsha Linehan.

Dr. Linehan is the developer of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT for short). DBT is widely hailed as the most effective evidence-based approach for working with chronically suicidal patients. To help her students at the University of Washington better understand the dynamics of suicide, Dr. Linehan begins her teaching with this story:

The suicidal person [is] trapped in a small, dark room with no windows and high walls (in my mind always with stark white walls reaching very, very high). The room is excruciatingly painful. The person searches for a door out to a life worth living but, alas, cannot find it. Scratching and clawing on the walls does no good. Screaming and banging brings no help. Falling to the floor and trying to shut down and feel nothing gives no relief. Praying to God and all the saints one knows brings no salvation. The only door out the individual can find is the door to death. The task of the therapist in this situation, as I always tell my clients also, is to somehow find a way to get into the room with the person, to see the person’s world from his or her point of view; to get inside the person, so to speak, and then together search again for that door to life that the therapist knows must be there.

Efforts to understand someone else’s reality are destined to fall short. You can’t always get it right, but that’s okay, because empathy is more about being with and feeling with others, than it is about perfectly understanding them. Trying to understand the inner world of others is an act of courage and compassion. Thus, our next step is to suspend judgment and begin our descent into that small, dark room with no windows.

Four Suicide Myths (and Truths) — Part I

Let’s start with a myth and a truth.

Myth: Rita bought me a pair of “Joker” pants (as in Batman). I think wearing them will make me funnier.

Truth: Wearing them makes me look funny, but they don’t actually make me funnier.

Joker Pants

The word “myth” has two primary meanings.

A myth is a traditional or popular story or legend used to explain current cultural beliefs and practices. This definition emphasizes the positive guidance that myths sometimes provide. For example, the Greek myth of Narcissus warns that excessive preoccupation with one’s own beauty can become dangerous. Whether or not someone named Narcissus ever existed is irrelevant; the story tells us that too much self-love can lead to our own downfall.

The word myth is also used to describe an unfounded idea, or false notion. Typically, the false notion gets spread around and, over time, becomes a generally accepted, but inaccurate, popular belief. One contemporary example is the statement, “Lightning never strikes the same place twice.” In fact, lightning can and does strike the same place twice (or more). During an electrical storm, standing on a spot where lightning has already struck, isn’t a good safety strategy. . . and wearing “Joker” pants won’t necessarily make you funnier.

The statement “We only use 10% of our brains” is another common myth. Although it’s likely that most of us can and should more fully engage our brains, scientific researchers (along with the Mythbusters television show) have shown that much more than 10% of our brains are active most of the time—and probably even when we’re sleeping.

False myths stick around for much longer than they should, sometimes they stick around despite truckloads of contradictory evidence. As humans, we like easy explanations, especially if we find them personally meaningful or affirming. Never mind if they’re accurate or true.

Not long ago I was discussing sex education with a group of teenagers. Several of them reported—with great confidence—that if a woman is on top during intercourse she can’t get pregnant.

“How might that work?” I asked.

“Gravity,” the leader explained. The rest of group nodded in agreement. “Sperm can’t swim uphill.”

Immediately, I tried to dispute their gravitational theory of birth control. To me, their belief in a birth control myth would likely lead to unhappy outcomes. But the teenagers held their ground.

Historically, myths were passed from individuals to groups and other individuals via word of mouth. Later, print media was used to more efficiently communicate ideas, both factual and mythical. Today we have the internet and instant mythical messaging.

Unfortunately, some myths are used for political or financial gain. Other myths, like the gravitational theory of birth control, lead to unplanned and adverse outcomes. Today, primarily through the internet, people are pummeled with information, misinformation, and outright lies. Despite amazing scientific, psychological, and technical progress, sorting fact from fiction remains an enormous challenge.

Suicide myths weren’t and aren’t designed to intentionally mislead; mostly (although there are some exceptions) they’re not about pushing a political agenda or selling specific products. Instead, suicide myths are the product of dedicated, well-intended people whose passion for suicide prevention sometimes outpaces their knowledge of suicide-related facts.

In some cases, people believe so hard in certain suicide myths that they cling to and defend their myths, even when the myths have become dysfunctional and even in the face of substantial contrary logical and empirical evidence. Thinking back to the teenagers and their gravitational theory of birth control, I recall their response to my scientific rebuttal. One of them said, “Well. Maybe so, but that’s what I heard, and it still makes sense to me. Even if sperm can swim uphill, gravity must make it harder to get a woman pregnant if she’s on top.”

When suicide (or birth control) myths take on a life of their own despite contradictory evidence, it’s usually because the myths have deep emotional roots or because people have an incentive that motivates them to hang on to their mythical beliefs.

Depending on your perspective, experiences, and your knowledge base, it’s possible that my list of suicide myths will push your emotional buttons. Maybe you were taught that “suicide is 100% preventable.” Or maybe you believe that suicidal thoughts or impulses are inherently signs of deviance or a mental disturbance. If so, as I argue against these myths, you might find yourself resisting my perspective. That’s perfectly fine. The ideas that I’m labeling as unhelpful myths have been floating around in the suicide prevention world for a long time; there’s likely emotional and motivational reasons for that. Also, I don’t expect you to immediately agree with everything in this book. However, I hope you’ll give me a chance to make the case against these myths, mostly because I believe that hanging onto them is unhelpful to suicide assessment and prevention efforts.

In this chapter, I list the four myths and provide brief descriptions. Read them, see what you think, and notice your reactions. In the next 4 chapters, we’ll dive deeper into evidence against these myths, why they’re potentially destructive, and alternative ways to think about suicide and suicide prevention.

Myth #1: Suicidal thoughts are about death and dying.

Most people assume that suicidal thoughts are about death and dying. It seems like a no-brainer: Someone has thoughts about death, therefore, the thoughts must be about death.

But the truth isn’t always how it appears from the surface. The human brain is complex. Thoughts about death may not be about death itself.

Let’s look at a parallel example. Couples who come to counseling often have conflicts about money. One partner likes to spend and the other is serious about saving. From the surface, you might mistakenly assume that when couples have conflicts about money, the conflicts are about money—dollars, cents, spending, and saving. However, romantic relationships are complex, which is why money conflicts are usually about other issues, like love, power, and control. Nearly always there are dynamics bubbling under the surface that fuel couples’ conflicts over money.

Truth #1: Among suicidologists and psychotherapists, the consensus is clear: suicidal thoughts and impulses are less about death and more about a natural human response to intense emotional and psychological distress. I use the term, excruciating distress to describe the intense emotional misery that nearly always accompanies the suicidal state of mind.

The Clinical Interview as an Assessment Tool

Chair

The following is another excerpt from a chapter I wrote with my colleagues Roni Johnson and Maegan Rides At The Door. This excerpt focuses on ways in which clinical interviews are used as assessment tools. The full chapter is forthcoming in the Cambridge Handbook of Clinical Assessment and Diagnosis. For more (much more) information on clinical interviewing, see our textbook, creatively titled, Clinical Interviewing, now in its 6th edition. If you’re a professor or college instructor, you can get a free evaluation copy here: https://www.wiley.com/en-us/Clinical+Interviewing%2C+6th+Edition-p-9781119215585

The clinical interview often involves more assessment and less intervention. Interviewing assessment protocols or procedures may not be limited to initial interviews; they can be woven into longer term assessment or therapy encounters. Allen Frances (2013), chair of the DSM-IV task force, recommended that clinicians “be patient,” because accurate psychiatric diagnosis may take “five minutes. . .”  “five hours. . .”  “five months, or even five years” (p. 10).

Four common assessment interviewing procedures are discussed next: (1) the intake interview, (2) the psychodiagnostic interview, (4) mental status examinations, and (4) suicide assessment interviewing.

The Intake Interview

The intake interview is perhaps the most ubiquitous clinical interview; it may be referred to as the initial interview, the first interview, or the psychiatric interview. What follows is an atheoretical intake interview model, along with examples of how theoretical models emphasize or ignore specific interview content.

Broadly speaking, intake interviews focus on three assessment areas: (1) presenting problem, (2) psychosocial history, and (3) current situation and functioning. The manner in which clinicians pursue these goals varies greatly. Exploring the client’s presenting problem could involve a structured diagnostic interview, generation and analysis of a problem list, or clients free associating to their presenting problem. Similarly, the psychosocial history can be a cursory glimpse at past relationships and medical history or a rich and extended examination of the client’s childhood. Gathering information about the client’s current situation and functioning can range from an informal query about the client’s typical day to a formal mental status examination (Yalom, 2002).

Psychodiagnostic Interviewing

The psychodiagnostic interview is a variant of the intake interview. For mental health professionals who embrace the medical model, initial interviews are often diagnostic interviews. The purpose of a psychodiagnostic interview is to establish a psychiatric diagnosis. In turn, the purpose of psychiatric diagnosis is to describe the client’s current condition, prognosis, and guide treatment.

Psychodiagnostic interviewing is controversial. Some clinicians view it as essential to treatment planning and positive treatment outcomes (Frances, 2013). Others view it in ways similar to Carl Rogers (1957), who famously wrote, “I am forced to the conclusion that … diagnostic knowledge is not essential to psychotherapy. It may even be … a colossal waste of time” (pp. 102–103). As with many polarized issues, it can be useful to take a moderate position, recognizing the potential benefits and liabilities of diagnostic interviewing. Benefits include standardization, a clear diagnostic focus, and identification of psychiatric conditions to facilitate clinical research and treatment (Lilienfeld, Smith, & Watts, 2013). Liabilities include extensive training required, substantial time for administration, excess structure and rigidity that restrain experienced clinicians, and questionable reliability and validity, especially in real-world clinical settings (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2017).

Clinicians who are pursuing diagnostic information may integrate structured or semi-structured diagnostic interviews into an intake process. The research literature is replete with structured and semi-structured diagnostic interviews. Clinicians can choose from broad and comprehensive protocols (e.g., the Structured Clinical Interview for DSM-5 Disorders – Clinician Version; First et al., 2016) to questionnaires focusing on a single diagnosis (e.g., Autism Diagnostic Interview – Revised; Zander et al., 2017). Additionally, some diagnostic interviewing protocols are designed for research purposes, while others help clinicians attain greater diagnostic reliability and validity. Later in this chapter we focus on psychodiagnostic interviewing reliability and validity.

The Mental Status Examination

The MSE is a semi-structured interview protocol. MSEs are used to organize, assess, and communicate information about clients’ current mental state (Sommers-Flanagan, 2016; Strub & Black, 1977). To achieve this goal, some clinicians administer a highly structured Mini-Mental State Evaluation (MMSE; Folstein, Folstein, & McHugh, 1975), while others conduct a relatively unstructured assessment interview but then organize their observations into a short mental status report. There are also clinicians who, perhaps in the spirit of Piaget’s semi-clinical interviews, combine the best of both worlds by integrating a few structured MSE questions into a less structured interview process (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2017).

Although the MSE involves collecting data on diagnostic symptoms, it is not a psychodiagnostic interview. Instead, clinicians collect symptom-related data to communicate information to colleagues about client mental status. Sometimes MSEs are conducted daily or hourly. MSEs are commonly used within medical settings. Knowledge of diagnostic terminology and symptoms is a prerequisite to conducting and reporting on mental status.

Introducing the MSE. When administering an MSE, an explanation or role induction is needed. A clinician might state, “In a few minutes, I’ll start a more formal method of getting … to know you. This process involves me asking you a variety of interesting questions so that I can understand a little more about how your brain works” (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2017, pp. 580–581).

Common MSE domains. Depending on setting and clinician factors, the MSE may focus on neurological responses or psychiatric symptoms. Nine common domains included in a psychiatric-symptom oriented MSE are

  1. Appearance
  2. Behavior/psychomotor activity
  3. Attitude toward examiner (interviewer)
  4. Affect and mood
  5. Speech and thought
  6. Perceptual disturbances
  7. Orientation and consciousness
  8. Memory and intelligence
  9. Reliability, judgment, and insight.

Given that all assessment processes include error and bias, mental status examiners should base their reports on direct observations and minimize interpretive statements. Special care to cross-check conclusive statements is necessary, especially when writing about clients who are members of traditionally oppressed minority groups (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2017). Additionally, using multiple assessment data sources (aka triangulation; see Using multiple (collateral) data sources) is essential in situations where patients may have memory problems (e.g., confabulation) or be motivated to over- or underreport symptoms (Suhr, 2015).

MSE reports. MSE reports are typically limited to one paragraph or one page. The content of an MSE report focuses specifically on the previously listed nine domains. Each domain is addressed directly with at least one statement.

Suicide Assessment Interviewing

The clinical interview is the gold standard for suicide assessment and intervention (Sommers-Flanagan, 2018). This statement is true, despite the fact that suicide assessment interviewing is not a particularly reliable or valid method for predicting death by suicide (Large & Ryan, 2014). The problem is that, although standardized written assessments exist, they are not a stand-alone means for predicting or intervening with clients who present with suicide ideation. In every case, when clients endorse suicide ideation on a standardized questionnaire or scale, a clinical interview follow-up is essential. Although other assessment approaches exist, they are only supplementary to the clinical interview. Key principles for conducting suicide assessment interviews are summarized below.

Contemporary suicide assessment principles. Historically, suicide assessment interviewing involved a mental health professional conducting a systematic suicide risk assessment. Over the past two decades, this process has changed considerably. Now, rather than taking an authoritative stance, mental health professionals seek to establish an empathic and collaborative relationship with clients who are suicidal (Jobes, 2016). Also, rather than assuming that suicide ideation indicates psychopathology or suicide risk, clinicians frame suicide ideation as a communication of client distress. Finally, instead of focusing on risk factors and suicide prediction, mental health professionals gather information pertaining to eight superordinate suicide dimensions or drivers and then work with suicidal clients to address these dimensions through a collaborative and therapeutic safety planning process (Jobes, 2016). The eight superordinate suicide dimensions include:

  • Unbearable emotional or psychological distress: Unbearable distress can involve one or many trauma, loss, or emotionally disturbing experiences.
  • Problem-solving impairments: Suicide theory and empirical evidence both point to ways in which depressive states can reduce client problem-solving abilities.
  • Interpersonal disconnection, isolation, or feelings of being a social burden: Joiner (2005) has posited that thwarted belongingness and perceiving oneself as a burden contributes to suicidal conditions.
  • Arousal or agitation: Many different physiological states can increase arousal/agitation and push clients toward using suicide as a solution to their unbearable distress.
  • Hopelessness: Hopelessness is a cognitive variable linked to suicide risk. It can also contribute to problem-solving impairments.
  • Suicide intent and plan: Although suicide ideation is a poor predictor of suicide, when ideation is accompanied by an active suicide plan and suicide intent, the potential of death by suicide is magnified.
  • Desensitization to physical pain and thoughts of death: Fear of death and aversion to physical pain are natural suicide deterrents; when clients lose their fear of death or become desensitized to pain, suicide behaviors can increase.
  • Access to firearms: Availability of a lethal means, in general, and access to firearms, in particular, substantially increase suicide risk.

(For additional information on suicide assessment interviewing and the eight suicide dimensions, see other posts on this site).

Five Stages of a Clinical Interview

Baseball Seager

The following is a preview from a chapter I wrote with my colleagues Roni Johnson and Maegan Rides At The Door. The full chapter will be in the Cambridge Handbook of Clinical Assessment and Diagnosis . . . which is coming out soon.

The clinical interview is a fundamental assessment and intervention procedure that mental and behavioral health professionals learn and apply throughout their careers. Psychotherapists across all theoretical orientations, professional disciplines, and treatment settings employ different interviewing skills, including, but not limited to, nondirective listening, questioning, confrontation, interpretation, immediacy, and psychoeducation. As a process, the clinical interview functions as an assessment (e.g., neuropsychological or forensic examinations) or signals the initiation of counseling or psychotherapy. Either way, clinical interviewing involves formal or informal assessment.

Clinical interviewing is dynamic and flexible; every interview is a unique interpersonal interaction, with interviewers integrating cultural awareness, knowledge, and skills, as needed. It is difficult to imagine how clinicians could begin treatment without an initial clinical interview. In fact, clinicians who do not have competence in using clinical interviewing as a means to initiate and inform treatment would likely be considered unethical (Welfel, 2016).

Clinical interviewing has been defined as

a complex and multidimensional interpersonal process that occurs between a professional service provider and client [or patient]. The primary goals are (1) assessment and (2) helping. To achieve these goals, individual clinicians may emphasize structured diagnostic questioning, spontaneous and collaborative talking and listening, or both. Clinicians use information obtained in an initial clinical interview to develop a [therapeutic relationship], case formulation, and treatment plan” (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2017, p. 6)

A Generic Clinical Interviewing Model

All clinical interviews follow a common process or outline. Shea (1998) offered a generic or atheoretical model, including five stages: (1) introduction, (2) opening, (3) body, (4) closing, and (5) termination. Each stage includes specific relational and technical tasks.

Introduction

The introduction stage begins at first contact. An introduction can occur via telephone, online, or when prospective clients read information about their therapist (e.g., online descriptions, informed consents, etc.). Client expectations, role induction, first impressions, and initial rapport-building are central issues and activities.

First impressions, whether developed through informed consent paperwork or initial greetings, can exert powerful influences on interview process and clinical outcomes. Mental health professionals who engage clients in ways that are respectful and culturally sensitive are likely to facilitate trust and collaboration, consequently resulting in more reliable and valid assessment data (Ganzini et al., 2013). Technical strategies include authentic opening statements that invite collaboration. For example, the clinician might say something like, “I’m looking forward to getting to know you better” and “I hope you’ll feel comfortable asking me whatever questions you like as we talk together today.” Using friendliness and small talk can be especially important to connecting with diverse clients (Hays, 2016; Sue & Sue, 2016). The introduction stage also includes discussions of (1) confidentiality, (2) therapist theoretical orientation, and (3) role induction (e.g., “Today I’ll be doing a diagnostic interview with you. That means I’ll be asking lots of questions. My goal is to better understand what’s been troubling you.”). The introduction ends when clinicians shift from paperwork and small talk to a focused inquiry into the client’s problems or goals.

Opening

The opening provides an initial focus. Most mental health practitioners begin clinical assessments by asking something like, “What concerns bring you to counseling today?” This question guides clients toward describing their presenting problem (i.e., psychiatrists refer to this as the “chief complaint”). Clinicians should be aware that opening with questions that are more social (e.g., “How are you today?” or “How was your week?”) prompt clients in ways that can unintentionally facilitate a less focused and more rambling opening stage. Similarly, beginning with direct questioning before establishing rapport and trust can elicit defensiveness and dissembling (Shea, 1998).

Many contemporary therapists prefer opening statements or questions with positive wording. For example, rather than asking about problems, therapists might ask, “What are your goals for our meeting today?” For clients with a diverse or minority identity, cultural adaptations may be needed to increase client comfort and make certain that opening questions are culturally appropriate and relevant. When focusing on diagnostic assessment and using a structured or semi-structured interview protocol, the formal opening statement may be scripted or geared toward obtaining an overview of potential psychiatric symptoms (e.g., “Does anyone in your family have a history of mental health problems?”; Tolin et al., 2018, p. 3).

Body

The interview purpose governs what happens during the body stage. If the purpose is to collect information pertaining to psychiatric diagnosis, the body includes diagnostic-focused questions. In contrast, if the purpose is to initiate psychotherapy, the focus could quickly turn toward the history of the problem and what specific behaviors, people, and experiences (including previous therapy) clients have found more or less helpful.

When the interview purpose is assessment, the body stage focuses on information gathering. Clinicians actively question clients about distressing symptoms, including their frequency, duration, intensity, and quality. During structured interviews, specific question protocols are followed. These protocols are designed to help clinicians stay focused and systematically collect reliable and valid assessment data.

Closing

As the interview progresses, it is the clinician’s responsibility to organize and close the session in ways that assure there is adequate time to accomplish the primary interview goals. Tasks and activities linked to the closing include (1) providing support and reassurance for clients, (2) returning to role induction and client expectations, (3) summarizing crucial themes and issues, (4) providing an early case formulation or mental disorder diagnosis, (5) instilling hope, and, as needed, (6) focusing on future homework, future sessions, and scheduling (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2017).

Termination

Termination involves ending the session and parting ways. The termination stage requires excellent time management skills; it also requires intentional sensitivity and responsiveness to how clients might react to endings in general or leaving the therapy office in particular. Dealing with termination can be challenging. Often, at the end of an initial session, clinicians will not have enough information to establish a diagnosis. When diagnostic uncertainty exists, clinicians may need to continue gathering information about client symptoms during a second or third session. Including collateral informants to triangulate diagnostic information may be useful or necessary.

See the 6th edition of Clinical Interviewing for MUCH more on this topic: https://www.amazon.com/Clinical-Interviewing-John-Sommers-Flanagan/dp/1119215587/ref=sr_1_1?crid=1J46F6YFDV7XG&keywords=clinical+interviewing+6th+edition+sommers-flanagan&qid=1561646075&s=books&sprefix=clinical+inter%2Cstripbooks%2C242&sr=1-1

Continuing the Trapper Creek Job Corps Magic

The RoadLast night’s (6/19/2019) news that Trapper Creek and the other Civilian Conservation Corps Job Corps will stay open is good news for everyone. Cutting Trapper Creek would have made little sense. Job Corps builds on common sense and conservative principles: Young Americans experiencing poverty need what Job Corps offers, “A hand up, not a hand-out.”

For 11 years I dodged deer and Bitterroot drivers on the 140 mile round trip from Missoula to work as a mental health consultant at Trapper Creek. From the moment I started back in 2003, I was hooked on Job Corps. I got hooked the same way most Job Corps employees get hooked. Helping young people turn their lives around is deeply fulfilling. I’m thrilled that the Trapper Creek magic will continue.

At Trapper, many students told me grim stories of their lives before Job Corps. These stories included school failure, chronic delinquency, gang and family violence, residential treatment, alcoholic black-outs, psychiatric hospitalization, foster care, parental suicides, and desperation so disturbing that teenagers regularly talked of putting the barrel of a gun into their mouths or a bottle of pills into their stomachs.

Trapper Creek magic often worked quickly. Students who came in on heavy doses of psychiatric medications were often medication-free in 3-6 months. Somehow, three meals a day, a safe place to live, being around adults who set limits and provided encouragement, opportunities for education, vocational training, and recreational pursuits accomplished the unlikely: mental disorders simply went away.

In one (of many) cases I treated a young man whose nightmares of a violent past were keeping him up at night. He showed up. We got to work. After 10 minutes, I stopped and asked him to reflect on his experience.

He turned his head back and forth and said, “My neck doesn’t hurt anymore.”

Then he grinned, “I feel like I can breathe again.”

And then, “I wish I’d known about this ten years ago.”

My favorite Job Corps scene was at an evening recreation event. I invited two counseling interns to stay late and attend “Trapper-Idol.” A man named “Fergie,” the recreation director, organized a talent show like you’ve never seen.

A short, stocky blonde girl stepped up to the microphone. She squeaked through a solo singing performance. She was completely vulnerable. My interns and I ached with anxiety for her. But we didn’t understand how Trapper-Idol worked. As she finished, the crowd of about 50 Job Corps students leapt to their feet, shouting and clapping in support. She bowed, walking off the stage to a series of hugs and high-fives.

On the drive home my interns and I couldn’t stop replaying the event. None of the performers had much talent, but they stepped up, performed, and were greeted with enthusiastic acceptance. We marveled at the therapeutic magic. These young people—young people who were never cool in school—got to have a health experience of social support and acceptance.

The Trapper-Idol experience is a microcosm of Trapper Creek magic. Students don’t have to be perfect—and they aren’t. What they have to do is show up, stand up, face their doubts, manage their behavior, and get to work.

I’m ecstatic that Trapper Creek didn’t die a cruel bureaucratic death. I’m happy for the community and for the Trapper employees. But mostly, I’m thrilled for the current and future students. Trapper Creek isn’t perfect, but for many students who have experienced poverty, it’s a balm of opportunity . . . and it’s one of the ways we can invest our tax dollars in America’s future.

Now I’m hoping for more Trapper Creek magic for decades to come.

Why You Should Open with a Focus on the Negative When Using a Strength-Based Suicide Treatment Model

Keno Horse

I’m working on a book manuscript tentatively titled something like: Strength-Based Suicide Assessment and Treatment. As I do more work and professional training in this area, I’m struck by the natural dialectic involved in the whole area of suicide (I’m sure Marsha Linehan discovered this long ago).

One dialectic on my mind today involves the fact that although I’m calling the approach that I’m writing about “Strength-Based,” I often (but not always) advise clinicians to open their sessions with a focus on negative distress. The following excerpt takes a bit of content from my 7.5 hour (3-part) published video with Psychotherapy.net and explains my rationale for opening a session with a focus on negative or painful emotions. You can access the 3-part training video here: https://www.psychotherapy.net/video/suicidal-clients-series

Here’s the case example:

In the following excerpt, I’m working with Kennedy, a 15-year-old girl whose parents referred her to me for suicide ideation (see https://www.psychotherapy.net/video/suicidal-clients-series, Sommers-Flanagan, 2018). Although I might meet with her parents first, or with the whole family, in this case I chose to start therapy with her as an individual. My opening exchange with Kennedy is important because, in contrast to what you might expect from a “strength-based” approach, my focus with her is distinctly negative. Pay close attention to the italicized words and [bracketed explanation].

John:  Kennedy, thank you for meeting with me. Let me just tell you what I know, okay, because I know that you’re not exactly excited to be here. But the thing is that I know that your parents have said you’ve been talking about suicide off and on for a little while, and so they wanted me to talk with you. [I already know that suicide ideation is an issue with Kennedy, so I share that immediately. If I pretend that I don’t already know about her and her situation, it will adversely affect our rapport. This is a basic principle for working with teens, but also true for adults: Lead with a statement of what you know . . . and be clear about what you don’t know.]

And I don’t know exactly what’s happening in your life. I don’t know how you’re feeling. And I would like to be of help. And so I guess if you’re even willing to talk to me, the first thing I’d love to hear would be what’s going on in your life, and what’s making you feel bad or sad or miserable or whatever it is that you’re feeling? [You’ll notice that my opening question has a negative focus. The reason I’m starting with a question that focuses on Kennedy’s negative affect and pulls for what makes her feel bad or sad or miserable is because (a) I want to start with Kennedy’s emotional distress, because that’s what brings her to therapy, and (b) I want to immediately begin linking her emotional distress to situations or experiences that trigger her distress. By doing this, I’m focusing on the presumptive primary treatment goal (according to Shneidman) for all clients who are suicidal, and that is to reduce the perceived intolerable or excruciating emotional distress. In Kennedy’s case, one of my very first treatment targets is to reduce the frequency and intensity of whatever it is that’s triggering Kennedy’s suicide ideation. We’ll get to the positive, strength-based stuff later.]

Kennedy: I think I’m just like really busy every day. I am in volleyball, and I got a lot of homework, and I don’t get a lot of sleep. So, it’s really stressful getting up early, and my parents are always fighting, and sometimes I miss the bus, and they don’t want to drive me. So, I have to call one of my older friends to drive me, and sometimes I’m late, and I just – it’s stressful, and the teachers get mad, but it’s not my fault.

John:   Yeah. So, you’ve got some stress piling up, volleyball, school, sometimes being late, and your parents arguing. Of those, which one adds the most misery into your life? [Again, my focus is purposefully on the negative. I want to know what adds the most misery to Kennedy’s life so that I can work with her and her family or her and her school to decrease the stimulus or trigger for her misery.]

Kennedy: I think being at home is the hardest. In volleyball at least I find some joy. Like I like enjoy being on the court and playing with my team. They’re there to lift me up. But like my parents, I don’t like being at home.

John:  Okay. What do you hate about it? [When Kennedy says, “I don’t like being at home” she’s not providing me with specific information about the trigger for her distress, so I continue with that focus and stay with the negative and use a word (hate) that I think is a good match for how a teenage girl might sometimes feel about being with her family.]

Kennedy: I just – they’re always fighting. Sometimes my dad will leave, and my mom cries, and I’ll cry. And he’s just mean, and she’s mean, and they’re both mean to each other. And I just lock myself in my room.

John:   Yeah. So, even as I listen to you talk, it feels like this is a – just being around them – I don’t know what the feeling is, maybe of just being alone. Like they’re fighting, and you retreat to your room. Any other feelings coming up when that happens? [Although I’m trying to tune into specific feeling words to link to what’s happening for Kennedy, I’m also being tentative and vague and wanting to collaboratively explore the right words to use with Kennedy.]

Kennedy: I don’t know. Just sometimes I don’t feel like – I don’t feel like I have a home, or my family is not there for me, and sometimes I just don’t feel like living anymore. [Kennedy uses the term “feel like” which often is a signal that she’s talking about a cognition and not an emotion. For example, “I don’t feel like I have a home” is likely more of a cognition that leaves her with an emotion like sadness. But it’s too soon to be that emotionally nuanced with Kennedy and the important part of what she’s saying is that there’s a pattern that’s something like this: her parents’ fighting triggers a cognition, that triggers an unspecified emotion, and that triggers the cognition of “I just don’t feel like living anymore.”]

John:   Yeah. So, there are times when the family stuff feels so bad, that’s when you start to think about suicide?

Kennedy: Yeah.

Using Shneidman’s (1980) model to guide my initial interactions with Kennedy leads me to focus on her immediate emotional distress and the triggers for her distress. Exploring her distress and the triggers takes me to an early treatment plan (that will likely be revised and refined).

  1. I will focus on Kennedy’s immediate distress and collaboratively work with her on a plan to reduce her distress and create more positive affect.
  2. I will focus on specific situational variables that trigger Kennedy’s suicide ideation. Part of the treatment plan is likely to involve her parents and to try to get them to stop their intense “fighting” in her presence.
  3. As I aim toward distress reduction and reducing or eliminating the distress trigger, I will keep in mind that—like most teenagers—it may be very difficult for me to get Kennedy to agree to let me work directly with her parents on their fighting. Getting Kennedy on board for an intervention with her parents will test my therapeutic and relational skills.

While I’m working on this next book, I’ll be posting excerpts like this. As always, I would love your feedback and input on this content. Please post comments here, or email me directly at: john.sf@mso.umt.edu.

The place to click if you want to learn about psychotherapy, counseling, or whatever John SF is thinking about.