Informed Consent in Counseling and Psychotherapy: Problems and Potential

A quick review of recent informed consent research leads me to think that informed consent should be a perfect blend of evidence-based information about the benefits, risks, and process of psychotherapy. Like all good hypnotic inductions, informed consent, has the potential to stir positive expectations or activate fear. But when I look at all that we’re supposed to include in informed consents I wonder, does anyone really read them? Informed consent could have significant effects on treatment process and outcome. But only if clients actually read the written document.

The alternative or a complementary strategy is a good oral description of informed consent. Again, as someone trained in hypnosis and sensitive to positive placebo effects, I’m inclined to use informed consent to set positive expectations. I think that’s appropriate, but it’s also easy for us, as practitioners, to become too enthusiastic and unrealistic about what we have to offer. The truth is that no matter how much passion I may have for a particular intervention, if there’s absolutely no scientific evidence to support my niche passion, and there is evidence to support other approaches, then I could come across like someone promoting ivermectin for treating COVID-19. If you think about the people who promote ivermectin, it’s likely they’re either (a) uninformed/misinformed and/or (b) profit-driven. To the extent that all professional helpers or healers aim to be honest and ethical in our informed consent processes, we should strive to NOT be uninformed/misinformed and to NOT be too profit-driven. I say “too profit-driven” because obviously, most clinical practitioners would like to make a profit. All this information about being balanced in our informed consent highlights how much we need to read and understand scientific research related to our practice and how much we need to check our enthusiasm for particular approaches, while remaining realistic, despite potential financial incentives. 

Informed Consent: Who Reads Them? Who Listens?

If informed consents are difficult to read and comprehend, they may be completely irrelevant. On the other hand, in their obtuseness, they may function like the confusion technique in hypnosis and psychotherapy. Although the confusion technique is pretty amazing and I’ll probably write more about it at some point, it’s inappropriate and unethical to use the confusion technique in the context of informed consent.

In medical and some therapy settings, informed consent often feels sterile. If you’re like me, you quickly sign the HIPAA and informed consent forms, without taking much time to read and digest their contents. The process becomes perfunctory. 

I recall a particularly memorable pre-surgery informed consent experience. After hearing a couple of low probability frightening outcomes and experiencing the sense of nausea welling up in my stomach, I stopped listening. I even recall saying to myself, “I can choose to not listen to this.” It was an act of intentional dissociation. I knew I needed the surgery; hearing the gory details of possible bad outcomes only increased my anxiety. Here’s a journal article quote supporting my decision to stop listening, “Risk warnings might cause negative expectations and subsequent nocebo effects (i.e., negative expectations cause negative outcomes) in participants” (Stirling et al., 2022, no page number)

Informed consent flies under the radar when clients or patients stop listening. Informed consent also flies under the radar because many people don’t bother reading them. In our theories textbook we have nice examples of how therapists can write a welcoming and fantastic informed consent that cordially invites clients to counseling. Do these informed consents get read? Maybe. Sometimes.

Informed consent has the potential to be powerful. To fulfill this potential, we need to contemplate on big (and long) question: “How can we best and most efficiently inform prospective clients about psychotherapy and maintain a balanced, conversational style that will maximize client absorption of what we’re saying, while appropriately speaking to the positive potential of our treatment and articulate possible risks without activating client fears or negative expectations?”

Here’s an abbreviated guide: Provide essential information. Use common language. Be balanced.

For example:

“Most people who come to counseling have positive responses and after counseling, they’re glad came. A small number of people who come to counseling have negative experiences. If you begin to have negative experiences, we should talk directly about those. Sometimes in life, confronting old patterns and talking about emotionally painful memories will make you feel bad, sad, or worse, but these negative feelings should be temporary. Getting through negative or difficult emotions can open us up to positive emotions. My main message to you is this: No matter what you’re experiencing in counseling, it’s good and important for you to share your thoughts, feelings, and reactions with me so we can make the adjustments needed to maximize your benefits and minimize your pain.”

I could go on and on about informed consent, but that might reveal too much of my nerdiness. These are my reflections for today. Tomorrow may be different. I just thought I should inform you in advance that consistency may not be my forte.

Five Buck Friday Consults: Tips on Presenting to an Organization that Works with Parents

Albert Ellis used to offer “Five Buck Friday” night presentations in New York. What a cool idea. People would show up and he would teach them Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT).

I do lots of presentations. I like to think I do lots of presentations because I’m good at doing presentations, but I also know I’m not a perfect presenter and need to be consistently open to feedback and new learning. Anyway, lately I’ve been doing more consultations with young professionals on how to do presentations. This humbling new “gig” is related to our work on the Montana Happiness Project (click here for to see the MHP website: https://montanahappinessproject.com/). Our MHP vision is: “To help create a world where people listen to and value one another while also living lives that are personally meaningful and saturated with eudaimonic happiness.” To help move toward our vision, Rita and I are doing more training of young professionals who want to help infuse more positivity and happiness into the challenges of life.

The young professionals are amazing. Sometimes I wonder when they sleep. Today, as part of supervising and consulting one of our amazing presenters, I responded to some specific questions he posed in an email.

This is my free blog-version of Ellis’s Five Buck Friday consultation.

Dear John

The staff of this organization works directly with parents. Some things they struggle with are listed below:

  1. The staff struggles with self-regulation
  2. The staff would like to be able to be curious (and not activated) when a parent is yelling at their kid, etc.

I’m glad you got this information. One key to a great presentation is to dovetail the process and content to meet the group’s specific goals.

Issues 1 and 2 are great topics to focus on in a staff training/presentation. Self-regulation is almost always adversely affected when there are surprise triggers. Although break-out groups would be good for discussing staff triggers, because the director said the staff doesn’t like break-out groups, you could do live polling on the staffs’ “buttons” or triggers. The goal would be for staff to become very familiar with personal triggers so they can develop a plan for their “best possible responses” to their triggers, and then practice their best possible responses with imagery and rehearsals or role plays. You can’t be curious (Item 2) unless you’re READY for the trigger and have a plan for what your curiosity will look like.

The other issue is that sometimes the staff will need to enforce behavioral limits. When presenting, you are the parent/role model; when working with parents, the staff members are the parent/role model figures. They need to be clear on inappropriate parental behaviors and have a plan for setting and enforcing limits will help them (and possibly the parents) with self-regulation. As I sometimes say about nightmares and tantrums, it helps when the adult “looks forward” to the dreaded incident/trigger. I know that sounds weird, but the incident is inevitable anyway and when it occurs, it provides an unparalleled opportunity to try out the new plan.

In the context of Family Based Services, the staff could use help with:

  1. How to engage when parents don’t want to be there.
  2. Going to be transitioning to going back into the homes of clients – this could be hard on clients and counselors.

Using a positive or meaningful frame for parents who are “involuntary” or un-enthused about therapy is essential. Below I’ve listed and described some positive framing ideas and a couple strategies that might help.

  • Thank the parent for being there.
  • If the parent appears negative or reluctant, thank them even more sincerely and with empathy by acknowledging the reality in the room (e.g., “I REALLY appreciate you being here especially because I can see you don’t feel like being here.” – Obviously tweak that wording and all other wordings to fit your own style.)
  • Identify at least one positive reason why the parent showed up (e.g., “You must really love your son/daughter to get yourself here to work with me even when you don’t feel like it.” Or, “Lots of parents don’t follow through on the commitment to show up for these sessions. I really appreciate you showing up. It tells me how committed you are to doing the right thing and being here to do the work.”)
  • Bring gifts. Find out the parents’ favorite non-alcoholic drinks and bring them along. Find out their favorite salty snack and bring it along. Hardly anything calms irritability better than sincere positive gestures that include food😊.
  • Listen, listen, and listen to the parent’s perspective and complaints and paraphrase the heck out of them before moving on to issues of substance.
  • Before, during, and after you share these ideas in your presentation, be sure to be prompting the group to add to the list, while acknowledging how much insight there is in the room.
  • Consider helping the staff to establish a positive family-based therapy dynamics checklist to think about before doing family sessions.

I hope this info is helpful!

JSF

To Complain or Not to Complain: Reflections on Publishing in Academic Journals

This is one wide-ranging perspective

I like to THINK of myself as not being a complainer, but in reality, I do my share of complaining. One of my personal goals is to complain less and thereby avoid becoming a whining old curmudgeon. That’s a tall order because for me, there are always a few particular moments and experiences when it just feels VERY GRATIFYING to let the complaints fly.

Today, I’m offering some small complaints about the process of publishing in academic journals. I’m limiting my complaining and keeping a positive tone because too much complaining would be inconsistent with my anti-curmudgeon goal AND inconsistent with my topic: publishing happiness research.

Over the past year, I’ve started working on three different happiness manuscripts. We (my research team and I) submitted the first one (Manuscript 1) to a good journal, waited 3+ months and got a rejection. The rejection was understandable, but the reviews were IMHO uninspiring and uninformed. The reviewers critiqued parts of the manuscript that were absolutely solid, raised questions about non-issues, and completely missed the biggest flaw (of which I am very familiar, because I analyzed the data). In response, because reviews should nearly always be two-way, I provided a bit of congenial feedback to Editor 1. Editor 1 responded quickly and we had a cordial and constructive email discussion.

Manuscript 1 is now out to a second unnamed journal. We’re closing in on four months and so after recovering from my CACREP virtual site visit hangover (more minor complaining here in the midst of my major complaint) and using my congenial colleague voice, I emailed Editor 2. Again, I got a speedy and pleasant response. As it turns out, academic journal editors are generally lonely people who field so many hostile emails, that they’re very chatty when they get something nice. The editor of journal 2 shared a few frustrations. I responded with commiseration, and Editor 2 let me know we should hear about our manuscript’s status by the end of the week. Just in case you’re a lonely and frustrated academic journal editor and want to steal away this manuscript and publish it before Friday, I’ve pasted the abstract below. My Email is john.sf@mso.umt.edu.   

Effects of a Brief Workshop on Counseling Student Wellness in the Age of COVID-19

Abstract

Counselors-in-training (CITs) often experience stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. Teaching counseling students wellness and positive psychology skills, particularly in the age of COVID-19, may help CITs cultivate greater well-being. The purpose of this study was to investigate the effects of a brief happiness-oriented workshop on CIT well-being. Forty-five CITs participated in either a 2.5 hour online experiential evidence-based happiness workshop or control condition. Eight wellness-oriented self-report questionnaires were administered pre-and post-intervention. Compared with the control group, CITs who attended the online workshop reported significant reductions in depressive symptoms. At six-month follow-up, workshop participants were reported using several of the interventions (i.e., gratitude, savoring, and three good things) with themselves and in their work. Despite methodological limitations, this study provides initial evidence that a brief, online happiness workshop has promise for helping CITs cope with the emotional burdens of graduate school and COVID-19.

Manuscript 2 is based on one of my recent doctoral student’s dissertations. It’s a solid quantitative, quasi-experimental, pretest-posttest design with interesting and positive outcomes. We submitted it to a journal, waited 3 months, and then were informed that they liked the manuscript, but that it wasn’t a good fit for their journal. Being that I’ve become pretty chummy with various journal editors, I emailed the Editor using my happy voice, while also noting that it didn’t seem quite right that we waited 3 months to hear the manuscript wasn’t a good fit. We didn’t even get reviews. . . other than the editor’s mildly positive feedback. Editor 3 got right back to me and essentially agreed with my concerns and shared frustrations about journal editor and editorial board transitions. Just in case you’re tracking the pattern, it appears that academic journal editors are super into professional email exchanges. After getting Manuscript 2 rejected, I decided to start pre-emailing journal editors to check to see if the topic is a good fit for their journals. The responses have been fast and helpful. If by chance, you’re a fancy journal editor who’s feeling frustrated and wants a colleague like me for some email chats, you could increase your chances of hearing from me if you contact me and offer to publish Manuscript 2 . . . and so here’s the abstract.

Effects of a Multi-Component Positive Psychology Course on College Student Mental Health and Well-Being During COVID-19

Abstract

Even before COVID-19, college student mental health was an escalating problem. As a supplement to traditional counseling, positive psychology (aka happiness) courses have shown promise for improving college student well-being. We evaluated a unique, four-component positive psychology course on student mental health and wellness outcomes. Using a quantitative, quasi-experimental, pretest-posttest design, we compared the effects of the happiness course (n = 38) with an alternative class control condition (n = 41), on eight different mental health and well-being measures. Participants who completed the happiness course reported significantly higher positive affect, increased hope, better physical health, and greater perceived friendship support. In a post-hoc analysis of six happiness class participants who scored as severely depressed at pretest, all six had substantial reductions in self-reported depressive symptoms at posttest. Multicomponent positive psychology courses are a promising supplementary strategy for addressing college student mental health.

I know you’re probably wondering now, about Manuscript 3, which is under construction. The bottom line for Manuscript 3 is that it’s fabulous. Of course, because I haven’t submitted it anywhere yet, I’m the only reviewer offering feedback at this time. Manuscript 3 is the sort of manuscript that, I’m sure, a number of journals and journal editors will get in a bidding war over.

In the end, complaining is mostly unhealthy. Complaining can be like noxious weeds, with the negativity taking root, and spreading into areas where we should be staying positive and grateful. Too much complaining contributes to a sour disposition and outlook. On the positive side, complaining offers an opportunity for emotional ventilation, and can recruit interpersonal commiseration, both of which feel good. But IMHO the biggest potential benefit from complaining comes from social feedback. When people hear you complain, they can provide perspective. And yes, we all need perspective.

Happy Wednesday to everyone! May your complaints be minor and your perspective be multidimensional.

JSF

Robb Elementary School, Highland Park, and Other Mass Shootings: Let’s Talk about Young Males and Semi-Automatic Weapons

Nearly every mass shooting in the U.S. includes three main factors, the first two of which no one seems to want to talk about.

  1. The shooter is male.
  2. The shooter is under 25-years-old
  3. The weapon is a semi-automatic.

Why don’t we talk about the fact that the Highland Park shooter, along with so many others before him, was a male under age 25?

Last week, in an article on The Good Men Project website, I proposed banning sales of semi-automatic weapons to males under 25-years-old. Obviously, this guidance still holds.

Below I’ve pasted a couple excerpts from The Good Men Project article. For the whole thing, go to: https://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/age-to-own-guns-should-be-25-not-21-heres-why-kpkn/

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Why target age 25? Because brain and developmental research indicates that male brains have greater variability in structure and development and may not be completely mature until age 25. After age 25, males become less impulsive and more capable of moral decision-making. Automobile insurance companies recognize this truth with hefty rate reductions after males turn 25. In addition, due to American socialization pressures around masculinity, older boys and young men are especially reactive to threats to their perceived manhood. These reactions often include acts of violence designed to restore a sense of masculine honor.

Anyone paying attention knows young American males are not doing well. They’re lost. They’re angry. They’re confused. They have few constructive rituals to help them become men. Manhood may be overrated and outdated, but boys need to strive for something. Becoming a man is a tried and true tradition that’s hard to escape—if only because the media pushes it so hard. Boys need to man-up, but what does that even mean? Join the military? Smoke cigars? Take stupid risks? Watch American football? Hunt? Fish? Play violent video games? Retreat to a “man cave,” Join the Proud Boys? Grow beards? Deny COVID? Fight? Have sex? Get revenge? Never apologize or show weakness? Demean women and gays? Buy an AR-15?

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We need to address the emotional and psychological well-being of boys and young men. We also need to stop allowing them access to semi-automatic weapons.

To access the full article, click here: https://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/age-to-own-guns-should-be-25-not-21-heres-why-kpkn/

Grumblebunny (the cat) Eats Up Counseling Theories (the textbook)

Grumblebunny — who goes by “Grumble”

We (Rita and I) recently received a very nice email from Amanda Cotten, a Master’s student at Palo Alto University. She wrote:

Dear Drs. Sommers-Flanagan,

I’m writing to express my gratitude for a textbook. One of the first classes (2019) in my MA Counseling Program used Counseling and Psychotherapy Techniques in Theory and Context, and I found it clearly and intelligently written (many things are only one, the other, or neither). Also, it’s stylistically engaging and approachable. Including the informed consent/introduction letters for the theories was particularly effective.

I even had fun with the study guide.

Certainly I’ve never been able to say THAT before.

I’m just beginning practicum and still don’t have a clear view of my theoretical orientation, but that’s not your fault.

Sincerely,

Amanda Cotten

P.S. You can tell how often I have the book out by the fact that the cat, who likes to chew paper, has gotten to it quite a bit. Attached is a photo of the text and one of the culprit, who seems unrepentant (see photo above).

Later, the student sent us a video of Grumblebunny, caught in the act!

This student also shared some details about “Grumble.”

She has quite the personality.

(Grumble chews thoughtfully) “hmm… Freud begins well but I rather don’t like the aftertaste. As a cat, clearly person-centered therapy is out of the question! Existentialism holds some appeal, for of course I am the only one who gives my own life meaning but… oh well, I suppose I’m not cut out to be a counselor.” (falls asleep)

We’ve never received an endorsement quite like this one, but it might be the best ever.

New Article on Firearms, Young Males, and Mass Shootings

Here’s a link to an article published today on the Good Men Project site. In the article, I make the case for (a) restricting semi-automatic weapon sales to males over 25, (b) focusing on healthier psychosocial-emotional development for boys and young males, and (c) how it’s reasonable to ask people to make sacrifices for their country.

If you have interest in this area, check it out.

The Trumpian Power Scramble

The Trumpian Power Scramble is a high-fat, low protein breakfast that leaves you feeling full of yourself. Consume at your own risk.

The precise origin and attribution of “. . . absolute power corrupts absolutely” is unclear. The quote may have originated with Lord Acton. However, the idea that power corrupts is a robust concept with long and old roots, including a fascinating poem from Muzahidul Reza of Bangladesh about a saint and a rat.

Knowledge is ever-evolving. The concept that “absolute power corrupts absolutely” needs updating. Instead of absolute power corrupting absolutely, I’m proposing: Fantasies of absolute power corrupt absolutely.

No one has absolute power—except perhaps for fleeting moments when megalomaniacs are actively squishing the perceived bugs beneath their shoes. But people can easily imagine absolute power—or at least increased power. When it comes to corruption, the biggest problem involves power fantasies, not reality.

The thought, image, fantasy, belief, or cognition of absolute power is what moves people toward corruption and solipsistic self-interest. For example, the power-based belief, “I’m the f-ing President” might even inspire someone to reach for the neck of a secret service agent. It’s possible.

With the January 6 hearings happening, we’re learning a lot about power, corruption, and fantasies of absolute power. Trump is our prototype. He didn’t have absolute power, but he imagined himself with absolute power. . . and we know what he would have let happen to Mike Pence had he owned such power.

Checks, balances, and honor in governance are beautiful things for countering corruption. As I write this, I think of Liz Cheney, her January 6 testimony, and her words, “there will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain.” Although I detest most of Ms. Cheney’s political positions, I am in awe of her steadfast conviction to calling out deeply corrupt power.  

What surprises me most is that so many media outlets are acting surprised at Trump’s pathological efforts to remain president. His behaviors were very predictable . . . and until enough republicans or judges or people on the street hold him accountable, he will continue to coerce—directly or indirectly—people into dancing to his absolute power fantasies.

The driving force behind Trump’s behavior is relatively straightforward. I wrote about it in Slate Magazine back on August 30, 2018. Trump is a particularly talented man who also happens to have a particularly disturbing personality. My article, titled, “Trump Will Never Give Up” describes behaviors linked to his personality. Below, I’ve included several excerpts from that 2018 article, because these statements still fit better than anything else I’ve seen.

Also, I apologize for this redundancy. But sometimes to understand what’s happening, we need to hear it again and again and again.

Trump’s personality is what the renowned psychologist, Theodore Millon, called “The Aggrandizing-Devious-Antisocial Personality.” This personality is commonly referred to as “Antisocial Personality” but when it occurs in a person with Trump’s talents and wealth, just calling it antisocial personality doesn’t suffice. So, let’s use the whole phrase: The Aggrandizing-Devious-Antisocial Personality.

Excerpts from the August 2018 article follow:

Millon summarized these personalities as “driven by a need to . . . achieve superiority.” They act “to counter expectation of derogation and disloyalty at the hands of others,” and do this by “actively engaging in clever, duplicitous, or illegal behaviors in which they seek to exploit others for self-gain.” Sound familiar?

Blaming Others for Shirked Obligations. Antisocial personalities “frequently fail to meet or intentionally negate obligations of a marital, parental, employment, or financial nature.” When negative outcomes arise, Trump will be inclined to blame external forces or subordinates. This is the equivalent of a personal philosophy in direct opposition to President Harry Truman’s, “The buck stops here.” Holding Trump responsible for his behaviors has been, is, and will be extremely challenging.

Pathological Lying. Millon wrote, “Untroubled by guilt and loyalty, they develop a talent for pathological lying. Unconstrained by honesty and truth, they weave impressive talks of competency and reliability. Many . . . become skillful swindlers and imposters.”

Declarations of Innocence. During times of trouble, antisocial personality types employ an innocence strategy. “When . . . caught in obvious and repeated lies and dishonesties, many will affect an air of total innocence, claiming without a trace of shame that they have been unfairly accused.”

Empathy Deficits. Antisocial personalities are devoid of empathy and compassion. Millon called this “A wide-ranging deficit in social charitability, in human compassion, and in personal remorse and sensitivity.” He added that “many have a seeming disdain for human compassion.” Going forward, Trump’s efforts to display empathy or sustain charitable behaviors will sound and feel much less genuine than his glowing statements about himself or his aggressive attacks on his detractors.

Counterattacks. Millon noted that antisocial personalities are hyper-alert to criticism. He “sees himself as the victim, an indignant bystander subjected to unjust persecution and hostility” feeling “free to counterattack and gain restitution and vindication.” For Trump, the urge to counterattack appears irresistible. He often uses a favorite attack or counterattack strategy among antisocials—projecting their own malicious ideas and behaviors onto others through name-calling and accusations of illegal (or crooked) behavior. Trump’s pattern of lashing out at others will only continue to escalate.

Moral Emptiness. Antisocial personalities have no ethical or moral compass. As Millon described, they “are contemptuous of conventional ethics and values” and “right and wrong are irrelevant abstractions.” Antisocials may feign religiosity—when it suits their purpose. But the moral litmus test will always involve whether they stand to gain from a particular behavior, policy, or government action.

Clinicians have observed that some individuals with antisocial personalities burn out. Over time, negative family and legal consequences take a toll, prompting antisocials to conform to social and legal expectations. However, as in Trump’s case, when antisocial personalities wield power, burning out is unlikely. Power provides leverage to evade personal responsibility for financial maleficence and sexual indiscretions. Antisocial personalities who have the upper hand will increase their reckless, impulsive, and self-aggrandizing behaviors in an effort to extend their ever-expanding need for power and control. 

Because antisocial personalities don’t change on their own and don’t respond well to interventions, containment is the default management strategy. Without firm, unwavering limits, deception, law-breaking, greed, manipulation, and malevolent behaviors will increase. An antisocial person in a position to self-pardon or self-regulate is a recipe for disaster. Containment must be forceful and uncompromising, because if an antisocial personality locates a crack or loophole, he will exploit it. Staff interventions, comprehensive law enforcement, and judicial systems that mandate accountability must be in place.

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The January 6 hearings are only one piece in the puzzle of pressure needed to keep Trump and his Aggrandizing-Devious-Antisocial Personality at bay. Now is the time when many of his followers are scrambling to gain power or safety. We need wide-ranging consequences for Trump, as well as his power scrambling minions and wannabes. Trump’s existence and success have emboldened many, arousing power fantasies around the world—especially among others who resonate with his vengeful victim identity.

Remember, it’s not just that real power corrupts, it’s also the power fantasies, because they fester up from underlying insecurity and push otherwise relatively powerless people to engage in power grabs and horrific acts.  

This is why the rule of law and consequences for breaking the rule of law are essential. We need to push back megalomania fantasies with reality. Trump, others with antisocial personality tendencies, and his followers need firm consequences for their illegal behaviors. Let’s hope the January 6th committee hearings inspire the Department of Justice toward action, consequences, and justice. If not, insurrection behaviors in Trump and others will only escalate.

Grief 201: Max and Paula’s Memorial in Vancouver

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Yesterday we held a memorial for my parents at the Spaghetti Factory in Vancouver, WA. If you didn’t make it, don’t feel bad, because I got COVID, gave it to Rita, and so we didn’t make it either. We did get to Zoom into part of the event that involved sharing thoughts and memories of my parents (Max and Paula Sommers).

A big thanks to my sisters, Gayle Klein and Peggy Lotz, for organizing. Additional big thanks to everyone who attended. From a Zoom distance, it looked like a pretty fabulous time. To the people who spoke . . . thank you! I loved listening to your memories.

At the memorial I got to speak for a few minutes via Zoom. Below I’ve pasted a script that I was generally working from.

Three Things We Learned from My Parents

One thing most of us share about loss and grief that’s especially hard, is all the triggering. Every day and sometimes several times an hour, things happen that remind me of my parents. When I cook, I often think of my mom. I didn’t realize how hard it is to do what she did every day. Each morning Gayle, Peggy, and I were greeted with breakfast. Every evening there was dinner. Every meal was an event. For special meals my mom got out the famous “lace tablecloth.” The only conflicts that arose in the Sommers’ family meal routine came if someone tried to sit in “Gayle’s spot.” We all quickly learned to NEVER do that😊.

After my dad died nearly everything triggered memories of him. One simple, painful, and joyful memory was triggered by eating cold cereal in a bowl. As I finished my first bowl of cereal after his death, and only milk was left in the bowl, I had a flashback of what my dad liked to do in that situation. Because my mom considered it “uncouth” to drink the remaining milk from the cereal bowl, my dad would look up, point out the window, and say, “What’s that?” By the time we looked back at him he was grinning; the milk in his bowl was not so mysteriously gone.

My mom loved sending and giving greeting cards. She signed them, “Love Always.” That, among many other fabulous qualities, was her signature gift. Together, my parents created a home where love, connection, and support were present. Everyone was welcome. One afternoon when I was home from college I saw her cleaning up from having coffee. I asked, “Who was over for coffee?”

She said, “Mario came over.” Mario was the Gay, Black teenager from up the street. Being insensitive and curious, I asked, “Why did Mario come over?” She said, “He had things to talk about.”

My mom never told me any details about her conversations with Mario. Being a Gay, Black teen in a predominately White, heterosexual suburb, I don’t know and can only imagine the pain and turmoil he needed to talk about. What I do know is he found the right person to talk with. My mother listened with her heart.

My dad was equally accepting. I can only recall him being mad at me once in my life. Once. He didn’t yell; he didn’t hit; he coached me in sport and in life and modeled integrity in all things. I will never recover from losing him and our unique shared memories. Never.

Our parents were different in many ways. My mom was Catholic. My dad was Jewish. My mom loved musicals. Just the other day while at a dinner party, I broke out with “Singing in the Rain” in her honor. My dad loved comedies. Barney Miller, Cheers, Seinfeld . . . and of course, Get Smart. His love for Get Smart inspired my sister Peggy to briefly imagine that she might be an undercover detective with a sixth finger.

Three big values I learned from my parents.

  1. Work hard
  2. Love always
  3. Have fun

I have a 45 second video clip of them to share. It’s from almost 19 years ago. They were 67 and 64 years-old. Two things as introduction. On birthdays, my parents always called and sang Happy Birthday. They liked to leave voice messages. Sometimes we’d have to hang up so they could call back and leave the message. They really weren’t very good at singing and would sometimes stop and start and be off-key. They also loved to watch movies together. In the video (linked below), they’re singing Happy Birthday to Rita (for a video I made for Rita’s 50th birthday) and then they began replicating a scene from the movie, Bandits, when Billy Bob Thornton “loses the beat.”

Thanks for coming to the memorial.

Be sure to work hard, love always, and have fun.

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.

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