What To Do About Bad News? Organize, Sublimate, and Repeat

This week, like last week, is saturated with bad news. As if racism, the pandemic, Ukraine, Buffalo, and Uvalde weren’t bad enough, this week we have the Supreme Court ruling on cases in stark opposition to public opinion.

When bad news strikes—especially bad news that feels beyond our control—it’s easy to feel helpless and hopeless. In response to my own helplessness (which feels even worse because I just tested positive for COVID-ugh), I’m reminded of Joe Hill’s old motto and song, “Don’t mourn. Organize!” To that, I’ll add that we should use the best of all the psychoanalytic defense mechanisms (sublimation) and channel our anger into constructive activities.

One lesson from politics over the past 30 years is: “Stay on message, repeat the message, and say it again and again until the message becomes truth.” Some of us have been reluctant to do this because we already have a good case and so why should we say it again? Besides, there are so many issues to address, it seems important to move on. . . which is why I’ve decided to linger a bit with my Superintendent message before I move on to firearms and private healthcare decisions.

Thanks for all the comments on and support for last week’s Missoulian Op-Ed piece on how our current Montana State Superintendent of Schools is a clear and present danger to Montana schoolchildren. Most of the feedback I received was positive, including many references to my phrase describing Superintendent Arntzen as having “Voldemortian-level malevolence.” Among other outcomes, this phrasing caused a pronunciation debate. Is it pronounced “Vold-uh-mort-ee-an” or “Volduh-morshan?” Although I prefer the former, I can see the case for the latter. Either way, I’m happy to report that if you Google Arntzen and Voldemortian-level malevolence you can find the article.

One person commenting on the Missoulian website suggested I should be put on the next list of the 101 most dangerous academics. If speaking up for children and school counselors makes me dangerous, count me in.

The big question about Superintendent Arntzen, firearms, private healthcare decisions and other world events is: What to do? Coming up with constructive activities for channeling our anger is difficult. The good news is that some responses to the Op-Ed included great recommendations for next steps, and so I’m posting them here. I’m leaving the names off, but if you read your content, feel free to claim it.

One reader wrote:

There are 2 Interim [Legislative] Committees that have meetings this summer & fall, and would respond to public outcry on this, especially from districts of Committee members. Dan Salomon (R) is on Education, from Ronan, and has been good on mental health, Medicaid expansion; worth talking to him directly about how to bring pressure. Education met today, June 14 (nothing like this on their agenda), will meet again Sept. 12-13. Children, Families, Health & Human Services is meeting twice this month, again in August, another good pressure point. Danny Tennebaum from Missoula is on it.

If anyone reading this has other ideas on how to advocate for School Counselors and Librarians and push back against Arntzen’s recommendations, please let me (us) know.

To close, another Op-Ed reader shared the following with me as an example of the Superintendent’s incoherence.

This is the Montana State Superintendent of Schools speaking at a federal meeting on school safety:

It is not so much what’s inside the plan because we are very unique. But to say that the plan needs to be revitalized every year. And then, it is not housed at the state level. It is housed within them. So it is their responsibility. Again, I come back to liability, responsibility flowing together. But in Montana, it is a belief. It’s very important for teachers as well. They are in the buildings. This is their livelihood. This is something that their children, their charges, regardless of what age of student that they have within their classrooms. Professional development on mental health is extremely important. We have Montana Hope as an initiative where we are working within the capacity that we have in very rural Montana who do not have social workers, who do not have counselors, psychologists at all, trying to employ something that a classroom teacher might be able to recognize. So to recognize what is happening in schools right now is very important to allow education to flow. Hardening buildings is a topic in Montana. But making sure that we have a quality teacher there that understands the capacity that they can, wherever they are located in Montana, is extremely important. Anything that we can do to instill that that teacher holds that child at that moment of wherever that child is, whatever that child comes into that school with or into that classroom with, to recognize that I think is extremely important. That’s where education is. We’re not growing children like we used to in Montana. They’re very precious resources to us. Professional development.

This is not the voice we want heading up OPI.

Why I Wrote Another Op-Ed Piece on State Superintendent of Schools Elsie Arntzen

Tomorrow morning (6/15/22) I’ll have an Opinion piece published in the Missoulian, and possibly statewide in Lee Newspapers. The piece is extremely critical of the Montana Superintendent of Public Schools, Elsie Arntzen.

Update: Here’s the link to the article: https://missoulian.com/opinion/columnists/john-sommers-flanagan-a-clear-and-present-danger/article_9018bcfa-7277-548c-a218-436b52cabb7e.html

I don’t like being publicly critical of anyone, so I thought I should clarify why I’m criticizing the Superintendent.

Recently, Superintendent Arntzen recommended eliminating school counselor “ratios” in Montana public schools. Montana state statute currently requires that schools employ one school counselor for every 400 students. If you know the work of school counselors, you know that facilitating the academic, career, and personal and social development for 400 students is no easy task. Nationally, the recommendation is for a 250 to 1 ratio.

In the midst of the worst youth mental health crisis ever, the Superintendent is recommending fewer requirements for school counselors in public schools.

As someone who has been involved in the training of school counselors in Montana since 1993, I can say without reservation that people who dedicate their lives to being school counselors are some of the best people in Montana. They’re smart, compassionate, dedicated to improving children’s lives, and support the academic success of all students. They’re also, along with school psychologists, the most informed and capable school mental health professionals in schools. School counselors are masters level professionals with extensive training in how to support children’s mental health.  

If you support school counselors, I hope you’ll go online, find my opinion piece and share it widely . . . especially if you live or work in Montana. I’ll post the link tomorrow. We need to push back against the Superintendent’s efforts to devalue children’s mental health and potentially reduce their access to school counselors.

Thanks for joining me in the effort to maintain school counselors in schools and to support the mental health and well-being of school counselors.

Suicide Assessment and Treatment Planning Handouts for the Montana Association of School Psychologists — Billings — 2022

Emily Sallee and I had an excellent (and inspiring) day 1 at the 2022 MASP Summer Institute. The MASP members and other participants have been fabulous. Today, we built a foundation upon which we will build great things tomorrow.

What’s up for tomorrow? Advanced treatment planning using the seven-dimensional strengths-based model. Just in case you’re at the Summer Institute OR you want a peek into what we’re doing, here are some handouts.

Weaving Evidence-Based Happiness Interventions into Suicide Assessment & Treatment Planning

Here’s a visual/cartoon with a nice message, despite the outdated language.

And here’s some late-breaking news related to Montana Schools.

Next Monday and Tuesday (June 6 and 7), in Billings, I’m partnering with the amazing Dr. Emily Sallee to offer a two-day workshop for the Montana Association of School Psychologists. This is an in-person workshop—which is pretty darn exciting, especially because COVID cases in Billings right now are low.  

The workshop is titled,Weaving Evidence-Based Happiness Interventions into Suicide Assessment & Treatment Planning .

Here’s the description:

In this 2-day workshop you will build your skills for providing evidence-based suicide assessment and treatment. Using a strengths-based foundation, this workshop includes a critique of traditional suicide assessment, a review of an alternative assessment approach for determining “happiness potential,” and skill-building activities on how to use more nuanced and therapeutic approaches to assessment. We will view video clips and engage in active practice of strategies for building hope from the bottom up, safety-planning and other essential interventions. Throughout the workshop, we will explore how to integrate evidence-based happiness and wellness strategies into suicide assessment, treatment, and professional self-care.

Emily and I will be weaving together strands from the CAST-S model adopted by the state of Montana, our strengths-based approach to suicide assessment and treatment, and some evidence-based happiness literature. There will be videos and more fun than usually expected when covering the challenging content of suicide assessment and treatment. The price is reasonable and profits support Montana School Psychologists, so that’s a good thing! If you’re around Billings and want to attend, here’s a link to register: https://masponline.us/summer-institute-2022/#!event-register/2022/6/6/weaving-evidence-based-happiness-interventions-into-suicide-assessment-treatment-planning

Also, if you know someone who might want to attend, please send them the preceding link.

Thanks, and all the best in the important and challenging work you’re doing.

JSF

Teaching Group Counseling

I forgot how much I love teaching group counseling.

Maybe I forgot because I haven’t taught Group Counseling at the University of Montana since 2017. Whatever the reason, last week, I remembered.

I remembered because I got to provide a group-oriented counseling training to seven very cool program managers and staff of the Big Sky Youth Empowerment program in Bozeman. We started with a structured question and answer opening, followed with a self-reflective debrief, and then re-started with a different version of the same opening so we could engage in a second self-reflective debrief. I’ve used this opening several times when teaching group; it’s getting better every time.

I love the experiential part where I get to flit back and forth between process facilitator and contributor. I love the opportunity to quote Irvin Yalom about the “self-reflective loop” and “The group leader is the norm-setter and role model.” Then I love getting to quote Yalom again, “Cohesion is the attraction of the group for its members.”  And again, “I have a dilemma . . .” Boom. When teaching group counseling, the Yalom quotes never stop!

Groups are about individuals and groups and individuals’ learning from the power of groups. I get to learn and re-learn about strong openings, monopolizers, closing for consolidation, and the natural temptation of everyone in the group to fix other group members’ problems—and the need for group facilitators to tightly manage the problem-solving process. We get to “go vertical” and back out through linking and then “go horizontal.”

Tomorrow I head back to Bozeman for more training with the fabulous BYEP staff. Part of the day we’ll focus on specific group facilitation techniques, which reminded me of a handout I created back in 2017. The handout lists and provides examples for 18 different group counseling techniques/strategies. For anyone interested, the group techniques handout is here:

I hope you’re all having a great Memorial Day and engaging in something that feels like just the right amount of meaningful or remembrance for you on this important holiday when we recognize individuals who made huge sacrifices for the sake of the greater and common good of the group.

All my best,

John

Tips for Quickly Engaging and Influencing Parents: The One-Page Handout

Over the past several weeks I’ve provided a flurry of short professional talks. In an effort to keep up, I’m posting a one-page handout from my presentation at the Pediatric Mental Health conference in Fairmont on April 29, 2022. If you’re into parenting and/or working with parents, this handout and content may be of interest.

The handout is pasted below:

Tips for Quickly Engaging and Influencing Parents

With John Sommers-Flanagan, Ph.D., john.sf@mso.umt.edu

  1. Remember: Parents are Facing Immense Challenges: Many parents are isolated and reluctant to reach out for support they need. Many parents feel super self-conscious and judged by American society, not to mention grocery story onlookers. Some children can access porn on the internet before they can tie their shoes. Children have more mental health problems than ever before in the history of time. No wonder parents are just a bit hypersensitive to criticism.
  2. Use Your Common Wisdom and Take Time to Make Empathic Statements: Never say, “I know how you feel” or imply that parents are being silly or dumb (even if you think they are), or react to parents out of irritation. Instead, make empathic statements like, “You’re managing a lot” or “The challenges parents face today are bigger than ever.” As time permits, listen to a story the parent tells you and follow that with an empathic summary before offering ideas.
  3. Know Your Buttons – Cultivate Self-Awareness: Be aware of things parents say that push your buttons and be aware of how you react. Make a personal plan to deal with these a little better every day. Replace your judgments with compassion for parents. Stay calm.
  4. Teach Parents to Use Child-Directed Play AND to Set Limits: Nondirective play with young children is like a developmental vitamin pill, especially in situations involving sibling rivalry and separation/divorce. Just 15-20 minutes of child-directed play twice a week can help build parent-child connection and address children’s needs for control (see “Special Time” tipsheet:  https://johnsommersflanagan.com/tip-sheets/). Limit setting (along with love😊) is essential to development. Using techniques like “Grandma’s Rule” (When you . . . then you. . .;  https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2012/10/12/grandmas-rule-an-example-of-using-direct-parenting-power-and-influence/ and clear limits (up-front) and small consequences will help with consistency in limit-setting.
  5. Teach Parents a Brief Problem-Solving Model They Can Use with Their Children: Join with parents to discuss problems and solutions. Hope and believe along with parents for positive outcomes: “I know you can do this.” Remember the five steps: (1) identify the problem, (2) generate alternatives, (3) review and rank the alternatives, (4) select one or more, and (5) evaluate what you tried. Consider giving a mutual problem-solving tip sheet: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/tip-sheets/

*Free content related to parenting is on John’s blog at  https://johnsommersflanagan.com/

**Content of this presentation is mostly taken from the book, How to Listen so Parents will Talk and Talk so Parents will Listen. You can find it on online.                                     

Max

Max in 1945

People who write obituaries use small words to describe big lives. I recently wrote one for my father, but could only capture a shred of the immensely positive, honest, kind, generous, and loving man, husband, and father he was. The words I have to describe him and his life are terribly insufficient. Nevertheless, below is the long form of our family’s obituary for Max Richard Sommers.

Max Richard Sommers, 95, passed away on May 1, 2022. Max was born on August 18, 1926 in Portland, OR, to Fern Langdon and Sam Sommers. If the past can be judged by the future, August 18, 1926 was an amazing day. Max attended school in Portland, graduating from Benson Tech in 1944, and attending one semester at the University of Portland, before joining the army and serving, partly in Korea, from August 1945 to January, 1947.

In 1949, along with his wife Paula, Max started a business called “City Shade Company” in downtown Vancouver, Washington. Max was more dedicated to his customers than he was to making money. He took great pride in and responsibility for the window coverings and awnings he installed. He watched the local weather with such intensity that we all believed he wished he had become a meteorologist. He did love watching the weather, but he was also watching for storms. Although he could have made substantial money on repairs, when strong winds were forecast, Max hopped in his van and drove frantically around Vancouver securing awnings he had installed. Max and Paula owned and operated City Shade for over 44 years.

Max lived life with passion. He loved fastpitch softball, golf, bowling, pinball, gin, cribbage, and poker. He loved nearly all competitive games, and never let his children win. If any of us happened to beat him in cards, we might have to stay up as long as it took for Max to win and regain the family card-playing crown. Max also loved watching sports, especially Oregon State Beaver football and Seattle Mariner baseball. A few days after nearly dying from a heart attack, Max hosted a raucous group of men in his hospital room to watch the Beavers beat the “evil” Ducks in the Civil War.

Max was simple, yet complex and adaptive. Hard work and honesty were his deepest values. He taught his children to “Never lie” and that you should never claim to be “sick” unless you can’t get out of bed. Max lived his values, getting out of bed every day and getting to work. Most mornings, he met some configuration of his best friends, Ed, Milt, Willie, Diz, and Bob for breakfast in downtown Vancouver at Spic n’ Span restaurant. Most weeks, he put in six workdays, but scheduled work around his children’s activities, Thursday afternoon golf at Green Meadows, and Paula. There was only one 3-day family vacation each year, over Labor Day weekend at Long Beach Washington, where Max loved to fish and dig for clams.

Max’s first love—above all else—was Paula. They overcame religious differences (she was Catholic, he was Jewish), forging a stable and loving marriage that lasted 70 years (until Paula died in August, 2020). After 40 years of marriage, Max finally donned a pair of shorts and headed out on his first real vacation, a cruise with Paula. Together, they went on several more cruises, returning with stories of great food and great fun. In addition to the sports page, Max suddenly started reading novels, biographies, and occasional nonfiction. He had many favorite books, including Seabiscuit and The Brothers K. Despite his Jewish roots, Max lived the quotation from Father Theodore Hesburgh, former president of Notre Dame, who said, “The greatest gift a father can give his children is to love their mother.”

Max loved Paula for better and for worse. When Paula began having memory problems, Max quit golfing to stay home. When she began asking him the same question 30 times a day, he repeatedly answered her with great patience, explaining, “She doesn’t mean to forget, so how can I be annoyed with her.” Max’s capacity to adapt to life’s challenges continued . . . after his heart attack, after colon cancer surgery, after a double bypass, after breaking his hip, and after a stroke. When Max—a man who had thrived on physical activity and competition—had been bedridden for over three years he still maintained his cheerful and kind disposition. Even in the end, when asked by his children, “How are you doing dad?” he struggled to awaken and would then say, “Good” and grin. Max was so wonderful that his caregivers quickly came to love him. One caregiver took to calling him “the Brother of Jesus.”

Max is survived by his children, Gayle Klein (Terry), Peggy Lotz (Dan), and John Sommers-Flanagan (Rita); and grandchildren, Chelsea Bodnar, Jason Lotz, Patrick Klein, Aaron Lotz, Rylee Sommers-Flanagan, and Stephen Klein. Max is also survived by nine great-grandchildren along with many nieces and nephews. Max was preceded in death by his parents and sisters, Geraldine Goldberg and Barbara Smith.

Our family would like to thank Noble AFH for providing Max with loving care over the last year. Memorial plans will be announced at a later date. In lieu of donations, Max would like you to get up, work hard, be honest, treat everyone with love and kindness, and enjoy a strawberry shake. If you have memories of Max you would like to share, sprinkle them here or anywhere you like . . . including his old Facebook page:  https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100007868177628

In case you want to see a video of Max and Paula Sommers – compliments of Blue Shield of Oregon and Gayle Klein: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5yUspNiCBdw&t=2s

Happy Graduation 2022

And then there were more counselors . . .

This Saturday, graduation ceremonies were held in college towns across the United States. Every year, I’m stunned and humbled by the event here at the University of Montana. Even more, I’m struck by the incredible commitment so many students, young and old, have made to learning, growing, and making the world a better place. I know many college campuses have fallen on lean times, but when it comes to learning and fulfilling intellectual and career potentials, there’s really nothing like colleges and universities.  

Our department planned a small informal post-commencement 1pm event with minimal light snacks in an outdoor plaza adjacent to a large auditorium. TBH, after about 1:05pm, I’m not sure what happened. Maybe it was post-shut down enthusiasm, but students, parents, friends, families, supervisors, and adjunct faculty started pouring in at an unexpected rate. Before anyone could take control, the masses had flowed into the large auditorium (that ordinarily has to be specially reserved) and taken seats, as if a formal event was about to begin. Other than having a few positive comments about each graduate, we (the faculty), had no formal event planned. With about 200 people gathered expectantly in an unreserved and likely “off limits” venue, the faculty briefly conferred, and made a simple and short plan for the festivities.

As they have been for the past 2+ years, our counseling graduates were amazing. Along with their guests, they whooped and hollered and clapped for each other throughout. The 50 minute spontaneous event was, IMHO, the most fun, genuine, warm, and fuzzy feeling graduation event ever.

As a first-generation college student who started out as an athlete at a community college and experienced an intellectual and personal transformation, I have an irrationally passionate love for all colleges and universities. Although colleges and universities are always imperfect, the goal and process of intellectual development as a purposeful life activity is phenomenal. I am grateful to play my small role at the of the University of Montana.

Happy graduation day to everyone. If you haven’t experienced an intellectual developmental epiphany yet, I’m hoping there’s one in your future. If you’ve already had one, I wish you many more. Education is the road to our better selves.

Grief 101

Grief is always personal and universal. Nobody understands anyone else’s grief . . . except possibly everyone and anyone capable of empathy. You don’t have to be an empath to resonate with another person’s grief; you just need a heart that lets you feel along with someone who’s suffering pain and loss. At some point or another, we all experience pain and loss. Grief is always a unique and common experience.

I’ve written about and practiced psychotherapy for about 35 years. In my classes I give impassioned lectures about the power and significance of emotion. Nevertheless, I’m still stunned and puzzled and humbled when the waves of emotion roll on in. There’s nothing quite like the rush of powerful sadness.  

Last Thursday I made the mistake of playing a melancholy song of loss at the beginning of my University of Montana Happiness class. Maybe it wasn’t a mistake, because I learned that if you want to cry about the death of a loved one, this particular song—Golden Embers by Mandolin Orange—will help with that. If you want to cry now or later, you can listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fEt2lf7L13g.

On the other hand, if you don’t want to begin your online Happiness course by struggling to contain your tears and grief, take my advice, don’t play it right before class starts.

I’m a fan of emotional openness, honesty, and vulnerability. But choking back tears as you welcome everyone to Happiness class isn’t the nuanced and titrated professional vulnerability I prefer. Perhaps no one noticed my misty eyes via Zoom; perhaps they also didn’t notice my brief my slide toward verbal incoherence.

After a long unplanned, and unpleasant dementia experience, my mother gracefully died of COVID last year. We (my sisters, family, and I) were all very sad. My mother was the Queen of Caring. She never let a conversation end without an “I love you” and never let an in-person meet-up end without a hug. For me, the long, drawn-out dementia experience muted my grief. I was glad for her passing. I believe, had my mother had a functional brain, she would have been even gladder. We had lost my mother several years earlier. COVID just made it official.

But that damn Mandolin Orange song punched the mute button off my grief. Had the class not been ready to start, I could have been in heaving sobs. You probably know what I’m saying. Have you ever had the experience of envisioning and knowing how deeply emotional you could be, while barely managing to keep it at a distance? I could see myself sobbing . . . and . . . I stopped myself from sobbing.

Ironically, the first focus of class was a quick recap of James Pennebaker’s 1986 study on the physical toll of emotional inhibition. Seriously. Who writes these scripts? Pennebaker’s hypothesis, later affirmed through many more studies, was that emotional expression plus insight is emotionally and physically healthy. The opposite, the stuffing of significant emotions, along with the deadening or distancing from understanding our emotions, is emotionally and physically unhealthy. The physical unhealthiness seems linked to the physical exertion it takes to engage in chronic restraint of emotional expression.

Emotions are more like a river than not. You can try to dam them up, but they prefer flowing freely.

The next day, my partially unexpressed emotional river of grief over my mother joined up with my relatively unexpressed anticipatory grief for my father. As I write this, I’m in the Seattle airport waiting for a flight to take me to see him and possibly say goodbye. He’s been on this particular deathbed for years (literally), and so this may or may not be the end. Being the cosmic inverse of his wife (my mother), his brain has continued to process information, crunch numbers, and engage in abstract reasoning. Instead of dementia, his body wore down. He’s been bedridden for about three years. . . bouncing back from a broken hip, then a re-broken hip, then a stroke, then two collapsed lungs, and a myriad of other near-death experiences. In his latest medical exam, the verdict was that his skin is wearing out, splitting, coming unhinged, revealing muscle and bone.

Despite all this, the next day (after my Seattle airport writing and late arrival into Portland), when I walk into his room, he briefly awakens, offers a grin, and exclaims, “Hi John.” He says nothing more, and quickly drops back to sleep, because talking has become immensely difficult; it takes all he’s got to get out two words.

On this visit, I’ve been on the emotional edge, remembering vividly his reliable presence for me and for others. Being self-employed, he worked long hours, including many evenings and weekends. Being self-employed also gave him flexibility. He might go back to his shop to bend steel pipe in the evening, but he managed his work schedule so as to never miss one of my baseball, football, and basketball games. When I got in my first (and only) fight in 8th grade, he found me walking home alone, ashamed, embarrassed, and with a swollen eye. When my sister and I were in a car wreck, he got there nearly as quickly as the ambulance. When the Black kids or the Gay kids down the street wanted to come over to shoot baskets, swim in the pool, or eat food, he’d open the gate or the door and his heart, and let them all in . . . never scolding, never yelling, never criticizing. He even welcomed the White Christian kids.

For this visit, I brought old photos, scrapbooks, my old baseball glove, and game balls from the two no-hitters I pitched my senior year of high school. I had hoped for some mutual reminiscence. Instead, he slept, awakening occasionally with looks of confusion, while I murmured on about our trips to Boston and New York, his favorite dog, being dumped into the Belize River, the first time he let me work with him, and random memories that only we share.

Today, that’s the hardest pieces of my particular grief. We have shared memories. No one else has them. As soon as he passes, I will be the sole keeper of our mutual memories. The loneliness of that thought crushes my heart.

In the world of grief, there’s a thing called complicated grief. Grief becomes increasingly complicated when the person grieving has mixed feelings and bad memories of the person dying. My grief is simple. I loved my father. He was as near to perfect as I can imagine. I am grateful to have no bad memories to complexify my grief. In my simple grief, I only have the stunning and painful emptiness of a world without him.  

Before I leave for the day, I wake him up. His eyes struggle open. I say, “Dad, I’m going now. I love you. You know I love you.” I watch his massive effort to respond, “I love. . .” He tries for the third word, but comes up empty. I say, “I know. You love me.” He relaxes, and immediately loses his grip on the slippery slice of consciousness he has remaining, and drops back to sleep.

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