Bad News in Threes: Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain, and the CDC Suicide Report

Rainbow 2017

My mother always said, “Bad news comes in threes.” That concept, along with many of her other superstitions, never made much sense to me.

In truth, the bad news never stops. She knew that. I suppose that organizing bad news into groups of three offered hope that the suffering might soon end—at least until the next set of three bad things came round.

This week we’ve had bad news in waves, with three particular pieces distinctly linked to suicide. On Tuesday, there was fashion designer, Kate Spade. Yesterday, there was the release of a new CDC report on Suicide. And then this morning there was Anthony Bourdain.

When people like Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain die by suicide, it’s hard not to be mystified. By all measures, both Spade and Bourdain were highly successful. They were passionate and fully alive. The dynamics that may have led them to choose death are opaque. We can’t see these dynamics. They’re not obvious.

Another thing that’s not easily seen or especially obvious is the fact that, along with Spade and Bourdain, 865 other Americans will die by suicide this week. Let that number sink in. Many of these other American suicides will be military veterans. These 865 Americans may choose suicide for reasons similar or different than Spade and Bourdain. We can’t know the deeply personal reasons why individuals choose suicide.

In honor of my mother’s desire to manage bad news in groups of three, I’ve got some other threes to share:

Three Things to Remember About Suicide

  1. As Spade and Bourdain’s deaths illustrate, suicide is unpredictable. Many respected suicidologists have thrown suicide risk factors and warning signs into the trash bin. Because we may not know if someone is suicidal, our best strategy is to treat everyone with kindness, compassion, and respect. This approach is all about connecting with others in ways that are meaningful and authentic. Then, from the context of your interpersonal connection, if you suspect or intuit that suicide is possible, ask directly in a way that normalizes suicidal thinking. You might ask something like, “It’s not unusual for people to think about suicide. Has that been true for you?”
  2. As the CDC report highlights, a person’s mental health may or may not be linked to suicide. In the CDC’s analysis, about 54% of suicides were not associated with a known mental disorder or pre-suicide warning signs. This implies that thinking about suicide or acting on suicidal impulses may be something that arises from challenging life stresses or circumstances. This information also means that you shouldn’t blame yourself for suicide deaths. We imagine suicide to be a terrible tragedy for the person who dies, but it’s also a palpable tragedy for many survivors. Of course, if you knew a person who died by suicide you deeply wish you could have known the right thing to say or do to save that person’s life. But the reality is, suicide is unpredictable, and so you and I shouldn’t beat ourselves up over not being able to effectively intervene. If you feel guilty after a suicide, talk about your feelings with someone you trust. Although it’s natural to blame yourself, there’s no point in being alone with your guilt, so please reach out for support for yourself.
  3. The deaths of Spade and Bourdain bring suicide to the front and center of our national consciousness. Although it’s good to shine a light on suicide, the deaths of Spade and Bourdain overshadow the 865 other Americans who have or will die by suicide this week. Many of these Americans will not have sought help. The irony of not seeking help is that there are several excellent talk-therapies that specifically target suicide risk. These therapies can be highly effective. Hotlines are a fine first step and medications might help, but the interpersonal connection that comes with evidence-based talk therapies, is profoundly important to positive outcomes. Effective help is available. Let’s bring the evidence-based talk therapies front and center in our national consciousness also.

Three Evidence-Based Therapies

Here are links to the three top evidence-based therapies for suicide.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT): https://www.amazon.com/DBT%C2%AE-Skills-Training-Manual-Second/dp/1462516998/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1528498109&sr=1-1&keywords=linehan+suicide

Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicide (CAMS): https://www.amazon.com/Managing-Suicidal-Risk-Second-Collaborative/dp/146252690X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1528498077&sr=1-1&keywords=jobes

Cognitive Therapy for Suicide: https://www.amazon.com/Cognitive-Therapy-Suicidal-Patients-Applications/dp/1433804077/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1528497986&sr=1-4&keywords=cognitive+therapy+suicide

Three More Resources

The CDC Report, although depressing, includes excellent information. You can read it here: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/67/wr/mm6722a1.htm?s_cid=mm6722a1_w  You can also listen to or read an NPR interview with the report’s lead author, Deborah Stone, here: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/06/07/617897261/cdc-u-s-suicide-rates-have-climbed-dramatically

A while back I wrote an Op-Ed piece for the Missoulian newspaper. This Op-Ed emphasized core factors or dimensions that often drive suicidal behavior. Reading the article can give you a better understanding of suicide dynamics and could help you help others, but in no way will it make you capable of successfully preventing suicide amongst all of your family and friends. This article is available through the Missoulian: https://missoulian.com/news/opinion/columnists/suicide-prevention-ignore-the-math/article_ce3c7f1e-ab86-587e-9505-310cc00b3355.html

In January I had a suicide assessment and intervention article published in the Journal of Health Service Psychology. This article is a good resource for professionals who work with suicidal clients. It’s an easy read and might also be of interest to non-professionals seeking to understand more about how professionals work with suicidal people. https://www.nationalregister.org/pub/the-national-register-report-pub/journal-of-health-service-psychology-winter-2018/conversations-about-suicide-strategies-for-detecting-and-assessing-suicide-risk/

I wish you all a weekend of connection and healing.

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Self-Regulation is Central

Scarecrow

Self-regulation is central to nearly everything in life. I suppose maybe that’s why Dr. Sara Polanchek and I have been ruminating on it so much in our Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast series. In fact, the podcast that became available today is more general and less parent-focused than is usual. Again, that’s because self-regulation or self-control in the fact of outside forces or stressors is so important for everyone.

To read my more general self-regulation blogpost, click here: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2018/06/04/the-secret-self-regulation-cure-seriously-this-time/

To listen to the podcast on iTunes, click here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/practically-perfect-parenting-podcast/id1170841304?mt=2

To listen on Libsysn, click here: http://practicallyperfectparenting.libsyn.com/

And finally, here’s a description of the podcast that’s live today!

The Secret Self-Regulation Cure (Seriously, this time)

For this Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast you should just let yourself relax, let go of all expectations, and tune in. You can even practice being bored, because one part of the secret to self-regulation is that it’s all about embracing your boringness (Spoiler alert, Sara gets bored at the end). Another way of putting this, is that the deep secret to self-regulation (which John shares in this episode) is to repeatedly focus on one comforting thing that is—or becomes—boring (for you science types, that means focusing in on one comforting stimulus). Another big part of the secret to self-regulation is mindful acceptance. Of course, you probably know that mindful acceptance is from Buddhist philosophy, but the concrete application of mindful acceptance involves accepting the fact that you will always get distracted and won’t ever be able to meditate or use progressive muscle relaxation perfectly. You can only strive to be imperfectly mindful (and you shouldn’t even strive to hard for that).

If you make it through this podcast episode without falling asleep, then you might be able to answer one of the following questions:

  1. According to Herbert Benson, What are the four parts of the “relaxation response.”
  2. What’s the problem with counting sheep as a method for dealing with insomnia?
  3. What was the spiritual mantra that John shared?

And if you can answer one of these questions and be the first person to post it on our Facebook page, then you will win something—something in addition to having that warm, positive feeling of having been the first person to post the answer.

Here’s the link to our Podcast Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/PracticallyPerfectParenting/?hc_ref=ARRyCtUkbbKwI1usTfQpgCtCAHB3Pi4EVR3fikiq3gd5A-C07BjG7mY7Lqtel9x2jiA&fref=nf

 

 

The Secret Self-Regulation Cure (Seriously this time)

The Road“I’m in suspense,” Sara said. “I’ve been in suspense since the last time we recorded, because John said he had this big secret and I don’t know what it is.”

Partly Sara was lying. She wasn’t in much suspense, mostly because the “last time we recorded” had been only five minutes earlier. But, as I’m sure you realize, capturing and magnifying in-the-moment excitement is the sort of behavior toward which we Hollywood podcasting stars are inclined.

Sara stayed enthusiastic. When I told her that I thought every self-regulation and anxiety reduction technique on the planet all boiled down to a single method that Mary Cover Jones developed in 1924, she said things like, “That’s exciting!” and “I love Mary Cover Jones.”

[Side note] If you end up needing a podcasting co-host, be sure to find someone like Sara who will express enthusiasm even when you’re talking about boring intellectual stuff. [End of side note.]

Mary Cover Jones was the first researcher to employ counterconditioning with humans (although she rarely gets the credit she deserves—but that’s another story). Counterconditioning involves the pairing a desirable (pleasant or comforting) stimulus with a stimulus that usually causes anxiety or dysregulation. Over time, with repeated pairing, the pleasant feelings linked with the desirable stimulus are substituted for the anxiety response. Eventually, the person who has experienced counterconditioning can more comfortably face the undesirable and previously anxiety-provoking stimulus.

My belief is that counterconditioning is the first, best, and only approach to self-regulation and anxiety reduction. Put another way, I’d say, “If it works for self-regulation, then what you’re doing is counterconditioning—even if you call it something else.”

I know that’s a radical statement. Rather than defend my belief and philosophy, let me move on and describe how you can begin using counterconditioning to make your life better.

Let’s say your goal is for you to experience more calmness and relaxation and less agitation and anxiety. That’s reasonable. According to Herbert Benson of Harvard University, you need four things to elicit the relaxation response.

  1. A quiet place
  2. A comfortable position
  3. A mental device
  4. A passive attitude

Benson was studying meditation way back in the early 1970s. Okay. I know I’m digging up lots of old moldy stuff from the past. But take a deep breath and stay with me.

Let’s say you’re able to find a quiet place and a comfortable position. If you’re a parent, that might be tough. However, even if you find it for 12 minutes as you lie in bed, waiting for sleep, that’s a start. And really, all you need is a start, because once you get going, you don’t really even need the quiet place and comfortable position. On airplanes, I use this all the time and it’s not quiet and I’m not physically comfortable.

The next question that most people ask is: “What’s a mental device?” or, “Is that something I have to strap on my head?”

A mental device is a mental point of focus. In Benson’s time and in transcendental meditation, the popular word for it was “Mantra,” but Benson’s research showed that it can be almost anything. One mental device (that’s actually physical) is deep breathing. Another one is to sit comfortably and to think (or chant) the word OM. Benson also found that simple words, like the numbers “one” or “nine” also were effective. But, as I mentioned on the podcast, you can use other words, as long as they are—or can become—comforting. For example, I know people who use the following words:

  1. I am here
  2. Here I am
  3. Peace
  4. Shalom
  5. Banana

For those of you with religious leanings, you might want to use a specific prayer as your mental device. For those of you who are more visually inclined, you could use a mental image as your mental device. For those of you who are physically-oriented, you could use progressive muscle relaxation or body scanning.

The point is that all you need is a point . . . of focus.

Now comes the hard part. Because we’re all human and therefore, imperfect, no matter how compelling or comforting or soothing your mental device might be, you won’t be able to focus on it perfectly. You will become distracted. At some point (and for me it’s usually very early in the process), you’ll find your mind wandering. Instead of focusing on your prayer, you’ll suddenly realize that you’re thinking about a recent movie you saw or a painful social interaction you had earlier in the day or your mind will drift toward a future social situation that you’re dreading.

What’s the solution to the wandering mind?

Well, one thing that’s not the solution is to try harder.

Instead, what Benson meant by a “passive attitude” is that we need to gently accept our mental wanderings and distractions. More commonly, the words we use for Benson’s passive attitude are “Mindful acceptance.” In other words, we accept in the moment of distraction and every moment of distraction, that we are humans who naturally become distracted. And then, after the noticing and after the acceptance, we bring ourselves back to the moment and to our chosen mental device.

On the podcast, Sara asked, “What if, as I try to focus on my mental device, I notice that all the while I have an inner voice talking to me in the background?”

What an excellent question! The first answer is, of course, mindful acceptance. For example, when you notice the inner voice, you might say to yourself, I notice my mind is chattering at me in the background as I focus on my mental device. Then, without judging yourself, you return to your mental device. A second option is for you to find a more engaging or more soothing mental device. Perhaps, you need two mental devices at once? For example, that might include a soft, silky blanket to touch, along with your “I am here” mantra.

As Mary Cover Jones illustrated over 90 years ago, the counterconditioning process is a powerful tool for anxiety reduction and self-regulation. I happen to think that it’s the only tool for anxiety reduction and self-regulation. Whether you agree with me or not isn’t important; either way, don’t let anything I’ve written here get in the way of you identifying and using your own cherished mental (or physical) device. At first, it might not work. It will never work perfectly. But, like Charles Shulz was thinking when he created Linus’s special blanket, life is way better when you live it with a comforting counterconditioning stimulus.

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For more information about Mary Cover Jones, you can go here: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2011/11/25/a-black-friday-tribute-to-mary-cover-jones-and-her-evidence-based-cookies/

Or here: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2017/07/17/brain-science-may-be-shiny-but-exposure-therapy-is-pure-gold/

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As I write this (6/4/18), the podcast isn’t quite up yet . . . but will be soon!

To listen to The Secret Self-Regulation Cure on iTunes, go here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/practically-perfect-parenting-podcast/id1170841304?mt=2

To listen to The Secret Self-Regulation Cure on Libsyn, go here: http://practicallyperfectparenting.libsyn.com/

To check out our podcast Facebook page, go here: https://www.facebook.com/PracticallyPerfectParenting/

It’s Not Unusual: John’s Weekend Reflections

john-rapA stranger posted a comment on my blog today. As Tom Jones might say, “It’s not unusual” for my blog to stimulate reader commentary. After all, I’m expressing my opinion, distributing professional information, and often I specifically ask for reader feedback.

Mostly I get positive feedback. Occasionally, I touch a nerve with someone and get pushback or criticism. What’s most interesting to me is that the nerves I touch are nearly always nerves related to White privilege or feminism. I suppose that’s not unusual either.

Today’s comment started with, “Wow. All u do is wafle here. . .” and went on to provide a rambling critique of White privilege (I think). Three thoughts on this: First, to find my several year-old White privilege blog post requires significant effort and searching. Second, with the advent of spellcheck, typically it’s very hard for your computer to let you misspell “waffle” as “wafle.” Third, the critique, as is not unusual, didn’t seem to have much to do with the content of my blog post. Instead, the commenter was clearly focusing in on his own personal issues and history and not so much on what I had written.

The next part of all is also not unusual. In response, I felt disappointment, hurt, and defensiveness. To be perfectly honest, I wanted to counterpoint or counterpunch my commenter. I managed to stop myself. Instead, I labeled his comment as spam and moved on.

Upon reflection, my “spamming” his comment was probably passive-aggressive. And, it was (and is) clear that I haven’t moved on. Funny how criticism has a way of hanging on long after the party has ended and everyone should go home.

In conclusion, here’s the sort of thing I wish I’d written . . .

“Hello beloved fellow human. I’m grateful that you took the time to read my blog and make a comment. Thank you for that. Based on your comment, I think you and I probably disagree on this topic. Rather than arguing and trying to convince you that I’m right and you’re wrong (which likely wouldn’t work anyway), I want to say that I respect your right to a perspective and opinion that’s different from mine. I’m sure we’ve lived very different lives and so it’s not unusual that we would disagree on White privilege. Although I feel defensive about what I wrote, I can also feel a part of myself that’s way down deep and not defensive. That part of me wants to reach out and say ‘Hey. No big deal that we disagree. It wasn’t my intent to write something that offended you. I wish you health and happiness. I wish us a better and deeper mutual understanding. Wherever you feel hurt or pain, I wish you healing. I hear your disagreement with me and, in the future, although I know I won’t be perfect, I will try to be more sensitive and compassionate in what I write.’

If you like, you can read the offending blog post here: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2012/09/14/a-white-male-psychologist-reflects-on-white-privilege/

Have a fantastic Saturday night.

John SF

News Flash: The 3rd Edition of Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice is Now Available!

Theories III Photo

Hello Theories Fans.

I have exciting and good news! The third edition of Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice is NOW AVAILABLE. Here’s the publisher’s link: https://www.wiley.com/en-us/Counseling+and+Psychotherapy+Theories+in+Context+and+Practice%3A+Skills%2C+Strategies%2C+and+Techniques%2C+3rd+Edition-p-9781119473312

The “less good” news (as the MI folks like to say) is that I wrote up a promotional piece for our publisher to distribute, but they thought it was TOO POSITIVE:) . . . so I’ll do what I can to temper my enthusiasm here.

What’s new in the Third edition?

Other than a massive reference overhaul, empirical updating, and re-writing and editing in response to reviewer feedback, the biggest news is that we added sections Sexuality, Neuroscience, and Spirituality.

The other good news is that our book (2nd edition) already had the highest average Amazon customer rating of all Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories texts, a whopping 4.6 out of 5.0 stars! [for comparison, 4.6 is the same rating as John Grisham’s “The Firm” and higher than Mary Pipher’s “Reviving Ophelia” . . . although, not surprisingly, Grisham’s and Pipher’s works tend to get a few more reviews]

It’s also important to note that our textbook is still relatively inexpensive (compared to other Theories textbooks).

This text also has excellent ancillaries. There is an accompanying video, test bank, online instructor’s resource manual, and a student study guide. The video clips are imperfect and spontaneous demonstrations of specific counseling skills that include counselors and clients with various cultural backgrounds.

Rita and I are humbled and happy to have the opportunity to publish the third edition of our Theories text with John Wiley & Sons. As in previous editions, our primary goal has been to translate complex theoretical material into prose that is engaging, reader friendly, easy to understand, and has a practical/skill-building emphasis. Most, but not all, of the reader reviews on Amazon are affirming and give us hope that we’ve accomplished this goal. To capture some of the positive responses, I’m sharing several Amazon reviews below:

  • The best text book I’ve ever read! Thoroughly enjoy the humor. Each chapter is written slightly different to capture the feel of the theory it describes. Laughed out loud at the final fantasy writing.
  • I love the writers of this book, it is like a conversation and sometimes humorous. Got the book right away.
  • Absolutely amazing read! Every line has important information and I actually enjoy when chapters are assigned for my theories class in this book!
  • While this was purchased for a class, I am really enjoying the information and case studies the author’s present. I do not mind reading this material and think this is one textbook I will not sell back to the bookstore, instead using it for reference throughout my new career.
  • This book was incredibly helpful to me as a counseling student. This is my first semester in the counseling program and this book was full of useful information, very easy to read and understand, and provided a vast overview of the different theories. I will definitely be keeping this book to use as a resource on future papers.

To see all 43 reviews, you have to go to the 2nd edition: https://www.amazon.com/Counseling-Psychotherapy-Theories-Practice-Resource/dp/1119084202/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1527631412&sr=8-1&keywords=John+Sommers-Flanagan

And here’s the 3rd edition on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Counseling-Psychotherapy-Theories-Context-Practice/dp/1119473314/ref=pd_cp_14_2?_encoding=UTF8&pd_rd_i=1119473314&pd_rd_r=229a780b-638c-11e8-890c-a735446468c0&pd_rd_w=A4Hos&pd_rd_wg=zISf0&pf_rd_i=desktop-dp-sims&pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_p=80460301815383741&pf_rd_r=SY3RS8RHYZYD8HPR7W7Y&pf_rd_s=desktop-dp-sims&pf_rd_t=40701&psc=1&refRID=SY3RS8RHYZYD8HPR7W7Y

As always, let me know if you have questions or comments on this post or on our third edition of Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice.

Sincerely,

John SF

 

Memories of Memorial Day: How to Use Memory Re-consolidation to Cope with Pain from the Past

Green Shadow II

Back in the 1970s, I remember singing the lyrics to, The Way We Were, along with Barbra Streisand. Using my best falsetto, Barbra and I crooned, “Memories, light the corners of my mind.”

These lyrics aren’t technically correct. But then Barbra and the song’s lyricists, Alan and Marilyn Bergman, didn’t have access to modern brain scans. Based on neuroscience research, it would have been more accurate for Barbra and I to sing, “Memories, light the center of my mind.”

Memories live deep within the brain. If you could magically poke your index finger down through the top center of your skull, you still couldn’t quite reach your brain’s memory structures, the hippocampus and amygdala.

Memories are a fascinating electrical, molecular, cellular, and inter-structural phenomenon. I won’t be providing scientific details about memory, because then I’d have to write something about how the interaction of glucocorticoids and noradrenaline in the basolateral region of the amygdala can modulate the strength of memories in the hippocampus and other brain areas . . . and by then our fascination with memory would doubtless give way to boredom and sleepiness.

Speaking of sleepiness, it’s metaphorically accurate to say that most of our memories typically just lay around dozing in their hippocampal bed until awakened. Not surprisingly, some memories are lighter sleepers than others; they can be easily awakened. Sometimes, when sleeping memories are rudely awakened (triggered) they tend to be rather grumpy and unpleasant.

Here are three examples:

Say you’re creeping around on Facebook. You see an old high school photo from 25 years ago. The visual stimulus of the photo is a memory trigger; several related images and narratives pop into your mind. These images and narratives aren’t grumpy or unpleasant. Instead, you feel warmly nostalgic. This is an example of a visual trigger that activates a mildly pleasant set of associated memories.

In contrast, if you’re a veteran who has experienced war trauma and you hear firecrackers on the 4th of July, your consciousness may flood with vivid, multisensory memories. These memories could link to deep emotional pain. This is an example of an auditory trigger that awakens or activates disturbing memories—memories that you might prefer to put back to sleep.

Now, think of the smell of coffee in the morning. For me, the scent of coffee is neutral. No clear memories are activated. But, when coffee smells are combined with the aroma of bacon on the griddle, I have instant flashbacks to my Grandma Lucy making breakfast. This is an olfactory stimulus triggering a pleasant memory. I see my grandma’s grey hair, pulled back with bobby pins. I can see my own small hands touching and feeling the textured floral pattern on her white milk glass china as I wait for breakfast, watching her. I hear the pop of bacon sizzling. I can imagine the pain I might feel if I get too close to grandma’s griddle. I instantly know the past and future of this memory. First, Grandma Lucy peeled the bacon apart, dangling each piece before laying them on the griddle. Later, she’ll save the bacon grease, for another purpose. She was like that. Another emotion emerges. I feel sad. I miss her.

In honor of memory science, it’s important to note that each of the preceding memories may be more or less historically accurate. Even more important is the likelihood that these memories, like all memories, have changed, shifted, and evolved over time.

How can memories change? Isn’t it true that humans have an experience and then store a record of it in their brain, ready for later retrieval? Not exactly.

As it turns out, new memories are more fluid than solid. Following a memorable experience, memories stay unstable for somewhere between a few minutes and a few hours. New memories are in flux and shaped or degraded by additional new experiences that immediately follow. More remarkable is the fact that, even after storage, every time memories are pulled out (or retrieved) they return to an unstable or vulnerable state, until they re-stabilize or reconsolidate. And when they reconsolidate (a process that involves cellular protein synthesis), they can include new, different, or less information. This is how and why memories change over time.

For many Americans, Memorial Day is an intentional memory day. For example, yesterday there were flowers, speeches, and flag waving. Yesterday, you were probably in the company of family, possibly kneeling at a gravesite, perhaps celebrating the life of someone whom you loved and lost.

Memorial Day is a memory trigger. It’s a time set aside to honor the lives of men and women who died in service of our country. It’s natural and good to engage in this honoring ritual. People also honor non-military family members with flowers and graveside visits. But, amidst the celebrations, as is often the case, the emotional side of life gets short shrift. Typically, we celebrate and move on, despite the fact that it’s equally natural and good to honor the grief that we feel in response to Memorial Day celebratory rituals.

It might have been the 21 gun salute or the color of the flowers or the taste of the potato salad or the smell of your uncle’s cologne. Whatever the case, yesterday you probably had old memories awaken and stroll past you in an internal memory parade. Some of these memories may have been neutral. Others may have been pleasant. Still others, felt angry, sad, guilty, or lonely.

But memories are open to change, and that fact begs for intentionality. What I mean is that we should all have a plan for Memorial Day (and then a plan for Memorial Night). Not only do we need plans for how to celebrate, we need plans for dealing with the raw emotions that Memorial Day can trigger.

I wish I could offer up a simple method for helping you to deal effectively with Memorial Day memory activation and reconsolidation. But you (and everyone) are a unique entity with layers of fantastic idiosyncrasy. Nevertheless, here’s a quick glimpse into the emerging science of memory reconsolidation.

In one research study, participants were exposed to negative emotional memories from watching a trauma film. The next day, these memories were re-activated using a trauma-photo from the film. Then, after a 10 minute-break some participants played a game of Tetris, while others didn’t. The results: Over the next seven days, the participants who played Tetris after having traumatic memories re-activated, experienced significantly fewer intrusive trauma-related memories. The implications? Maybe the Memorial Night solution is to establish a Tetris-playing ritual.

But painful memories are complex and unique. What works for one person, might not work for another. As Drexler and Wolf (authors of a 2018 scholarly review) were inspired to write, “Indeed, when the activation of selective L-type voltage-gated calcium channels or GluN2B-containing NMDA receptors in the hippocampus was prevented before retrieval, thus blocking memory destabilization . . . the interfering air puff had no effect” (p. 15). Reading this led me to conclude that reading more of Drexler and Wolf’s article might serve as another possible memory disrupting intervention to employ during the reconsolidation period. I’m guessing, if you’ve made it to this point in this blog, that you’re inclined to agree.

From a practical perspective, it’s good to know that, generally, memory reconsolidation can take up to six hours. And so, in addition to Tetris and reading intellectual research papers, there are other reasonable strategies you can use to facilitate healthy memory reconsolidation, not just on Memorial Day (or Night), but any time of the year—as long as you’re within the six hour memory consolidation window.

  • Talk with a trusted friend or counselor about the emotions you’re experiencing. Even better, don’t just talk about your emotional pain, but also talk about and focus on the strengths you have for coping with your challenging emotions.
  • Engage in a physically strenuous activity. This could involve some sort of strenuous physical activity like cycling, running, yoga, or weight-lifting.
  • Ritual is good. This could involve a culturally appropriate spiritual activity like going to a sweat lodge or attending a religious service.
  • Writing is a common and effective method for expressing emotions. In particular, writing about your loss in ways that are meaningful to you can be therapeutic.
  • There may be no better way to deal with problematic emotions than engaging in positive helping behavior. Alfred Adler called this social interest. When you’re triggered, consider ways in which you can shift the spotlight away from yourself and toward fostering wellness in others.

Memorial Day is an intentional memory day. We created it and we celebrate it. But you can have other, self-created memory days. And what we know about memory and the disturbing emotions that can accompany memories, is that they present us with an opportunity. Some researchers call this an opportunity for “updating.” Recognizing this opportunity and intentionally engaging in healthy and soothing behaviors when difficult memories are activated is good guidance. This might be Tetris. It might even involve singing along with Barbra Streisand in your best falsetto. The point is that we have power, albeit limited, to update our activated memories . . . and so I wish you the best in finding intentional and healthy ways to soften your painful memories. It’s the honorable thing to do.

Suicide Assessment: Mood Scaling with a Suicide Floor

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The following material is adapted from an article in the Journal of Health Service Psychology. You can access the whole article here: https://www.nationalregister.org/pub/the-national-register-report-pub/journal-of-health-service-psychology-winter-2018/conversations-about-suicide-strategies-for-detecting-and-assessing-suicide-risk/

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My favorite suicide assessment procedure is to ask about suicide in the context of a mood assessment (as in a mental status examination). This procedure utilizes a scaling question to explore patient mood and possible suicide ideation (Sommers-Flanagan & Shaw, 2017). As you read through these steps, think about how you might apply this procedure with a recent or current patient of yours.

  1. Is it okay if I ask some questions about your mood? (This is an invitation for collaboration; patients can say “no,” but rarely do.)
  2. I’d like you to rate your mood right now, using a zero to 10 scale. Zero is the worst mood possible. Zero would mean you’re totally depressed and so you’re just going to kill yourself. At the top, 10 is your best possible mood (you might hold your hand up high to illustrate the top of the scale). A 10 would mean you’re as happy as you could possibly be. Maybe you would be dancing or singing or doing whatever you do when you’re extremely happy. Using that zero to 10 scale, what rating would you give your mood right now? (Each end of the scale must be anchored for mutual understanding.)
  3. What’s happening now that makes you give your mood that rating? (This is what psychoanalysts call binding affect; it links the internal mood to an external situation.) At this point, you might ask questions to have your patient elaborate, in greater detail, the reason for the current mood rating.
  4. What’s the worst or lowest mood rating you’ve ever had? (This question informs you about the patient’s lowest lows.)
  5. What was happening back then to make you feel so down? (This question binds the sad affect to an external situation; it may lead to discussing previous attempts.) Again, you might take time here to explore a previous attempt, in an effort to understand the (a) dynamics that led to it, (b) the seriousness of suicide intent, and (c) what happened to help the patient live and be with you to work on suicide.
  6. For you, what would be a normal mood rating on a normal day? (You can insert this question at any point where it fits. Often, the best point is after the first mood rating because patients will immediately tell you whether they’re a little more up or a little more down than normal. The purpose is to get your patients to define their normal.)
  7. Now tell me, what’s the best mood rating you think you’ve ever had? (The process ends with a positive mood rating.)
  8. What was happening that helped you have such a high mood rating? (The positive rating is linked to an external situation.)

This procedure is a general map that can be used more or less creatively. No doubt, when you start the process with an individual patient, there will be opportunities to stray from the procedure. For example, when exploring the low end of her mood, your patient may begin sharing a traumatic experience. If so, you are at a key choice point. Should you continue with the next step in the procedure or focus in more detail on the trauma? Either option may be appropriate and will depend on one or more of the following factors:

  • Based on your best judgment, does your client want to talk about trauma in more detail? If so, you should move in that direction and come back to the procedure later.
  • Do you have time to immediately explore the trauma? If not, then you should say so and let your patient know that when you do have time, you will be interested in hearing details.
  • Do you sense that your rapport is minimal and your client is uncomfortable sharing details? If so, then the best option is to continue with the procedure, making a mental note to check back later when your client is more comfortable.

Numbers can be useful in rating patient mood, but because every patient is unique, the meaning of specific numbers will be subjectively variable. I have interviewed teenagers and young adults who emphasize their distress by saying something like, “I’m a negative three!” Despite the fact that having a negative three rating on the suicide scale indicates—in a quantitative sense—suicide certainty, these patients are typically making a point, and may or may not be an especially high suicide risk. In contrast, I have also worked with cases where adult patients burst into tears and admit to suicide ideation after giving themselves a current mood rating of 8 or 9. One patient who rated herself as “9” explained that she always thought of herself as being a 10. For her, anything outside of a perfect mood rating as terribly disturbing.

            Several of my supervisees who work with teenagers have creatively transformed the scaling method to eliminate numbers. One supervisee engaged a patient in mood scaling using musical genres. After a collaborative conversation, they established that listening to opera 24/7 was equivalent to zero and imminent suicide, while listening to heavy metal was a solid 10. When working with a middle school boy, another former student used Yoga as zero and pizza as 10. The point of these examples is that practitioners can collaborate with patients to identify a method to discuss mood. Collaborative rating systems makes the method personally meaningful to the patient; it also involves interpersonal connection, implying that the assessment method has become simultaneously therapeutic.

The mood scaling procedure offers several advantages. First, it is a process that facilitates engagement, and engagement or interpersonal connection is central part of suicide interventions. Second, when patients bind their low and high moods to concrete external situations, you gain knowledge about the themes and triggers that lift and depress your patient’s mood. Third, as illustrated in the case where a client begins talking about trauma, the mood scaling procedure can be abandoned (temporarily or permanently) in favor of more salient therapeutic opportunities. Fourth, mood scaling flows smoothly into safety planning or other suicide interventions (e.g., “When you say that being a zero always involves you being alone, it tells me that one thing we should talk about now or later is how you can reach out to others, and we should talk about who you want to reach out to, during those times when you’re feeling like a zero. It also tells me that we should talk some more about other methods you can use to move from a zero to a one.”).

One final note: The mood scaling technique is an indirect method for assessing suicidality. As such, it is not a replacement for using a normative frame and asking directly. In fact, you should be thinking about if and when you will weave asking directly into your mood scaling process. For example, if your client says “I’m a 3” you might follow that with a normative-based direct question: “It’s not unusual for people who rate themselves as a three to sometimes have thoughts about suicide. Has that been the case for you?”

Author, Speaker, University of Montana Professor