Differential Activation Theory and Suicide Assessment


In anticipation of my upcoming suicide assessment interviewing webinar, I’m posting this and other suicide assessment interviewing material.

Differential Activation Theory

Differential activation theory suggests that when previously depressed and suicidal individuals experience a negative mood, they are likely to have their negative information processing biases reactivated. The original theory:

. . . stated that during a person’s learning history—and particularly during episodes of depression—low mood becomes associated with patterns of negative information processing (biases in memory, interpretations, and attitudes). Any return of the mood reactivates the pattern, and if the content of what is reactivated is global, negative, and self-referent (e.g., “I am a failure; worthless and unlovable.”), then relapse and recurrence of depression is highly likely. (Lau, Segal, & Williams, 2004, p. 422)

This theory and supporting empirical research indicates that during the course of a clinical interview, certain questioning procedures may move a previously depressed client toward a more negative mood state with an accompanying increase in negative information processing and suicide ideation. In fact, there are many studies indicating that both depressed and non-depressed clients and non-clients can be quickly and powerfully affected by mood inductions (Lau et al., 2004; Mosak, 2000; Teasdale & Dent, 1987).

For example, in a recent study, participants were divided into three groups: (a) those previously depressed with suicide ideation; (b) those previously depressed without suicide ideation; and (c) those with no history of previous depression (Lau et al., 2004). Following a mood challenge in which participants spent eight minutes listening to a depressive Russian opera at ½ speed while reading 40 negative statements such as, “There are things about me that I do not like,” participants generally experienced a worsening of mood and performed more poorly on a cognitive problem-solving test than prior to the mood challenge. Additionally, the participant group with a history of depression and suicide ideation exhibited significantly greater impairment in problem solving than the comparison groups. The authors concluded: “. . . when mood has returned to normal, cognitive variables may return to normal, but those who have been depressed and suicidal in the past are vulnerable to react differentially to changes in mood—with greater deterioration in problem-solving ability” (p. 428). This deterioration in problem solving is consistent with Edwin Shneidman’s concept of mental constriction, which we address later in this chapter.

Overall, the research clearly indicates that all individuals, depressed or not and suicidal or not, can have their mood quickly and adversely affected through rather simple experimental means. Additionally, it appears that previously depressed individuals may experience differential activation and therefore also have increases in negative cognitive biases about the self, others, and the future. Further, it appears that previously suicidal individuals may be particularly vulnerable to having their problem-solving abilities adversely affected when they experience a negative mood state.

Depressogenic Social, Cultural, and Interview Factors

In addition to the preceding research findings, there are a number of contemporary social and cultural factors that may predispose or orient individuals toward depressive and suicidal states. More than ever the United States media is involved in defining depressive states and promoting medical explanations for depression and suicidality. There are many books, magazine articles, and Internet sites encouraging individuals to examine themselves to determine if they might be suffering from depression, bipolar disorder, an anxiety disorder, AD/HD or other mental disorders. In particular, pharmaceutical advertisings encourage individuals to consult with their doctor to determine whether they might benefit from a medication designed to treat their emotional and behavioral symptoms. Unfortunately, as most of us know from personal experience and common sense, it is very easy to move into a negative mood in response to suggestions of personal defectiveness (which, over time, certainly may be as potent as eight minutes of a slow Russian opera). Consequently, it would not be surprising to find that continually rising depression rates and accompanying pharmaceutical treatments are, in part, related to increased awareness of depressive conditions.

Even more relevant to the suicide assessment interviewing process, it may be that interviewers who focus predominantly or exclusively on the presence or absence of negative mood states inadvertently increase such states. This possibility is consistent with constructive theory in that whatever we consciously focus on, be it relaxation or anxiety or depression or happiness, tends to grow. It is also consistent with anecdotal data from our students who report feeling surprisingly down and depressed after conducting and role-playing suicide assessment interviews.

Our concern is that traditional medically oriented depression and suicide assessment interviewing may sometimes inadvertently contribute to, rather than alleviate, underlying depressive cognitive and emotional processes. Consequently, in the following sections on suicide assessment interviewing, we guide you toward balancing negatively oriented depression and suicidality questions with an equal or greater number of questions and prompts designed to increase the focus on more positive client experiences and emotional states. This serves two functions. First, including positive questions and prompts may help clients focus on positive experiences and therefore improve their current mood state and problem-solving skills. Second, if clients are unable to focus on positive personal experiences or display positive affect, it may indicate a more chronic or severe depressive and suicidal condition. Overall, our primary message is that we should always pay close attention to the manner in which we use words, questions, and language when conducting depression and suicide assessment interviews.

Adopting a New Client and Suicide-Friendly Interviewer Attitude

Consistent with the CAMS approach as well as other more recent treatment perspectives (Action and Commitment Therapy (ACT); and Dialectal Behavior Therapy (DBT); we want to encourage you to adopt a fresh new attitude toward clients who may present with depressive and suicidal symptoms. Specifically, consider these attitudinal statements:

Depression and suicidality are natural conditions that arise, in part, from normal human suffering. Consequently, just because a client arrives in your office with depressive symptoms and suicidal features, this does not necessarily indicate deviance—or even a mental disorder.

Given that depressive and suicidal symptoms are natural and normal, it is acceptable for you, as an interviewer, to validate and normalize these feelings if they arise. This is especially important because many suicidal individuals feel socially disconnected, emotionally invalidated, and as if they are a burden to others (Joiner, 2005). There is no danger in accepting and validating client emotions—even self-destructive emotions.

In the spirit of the CAMS approach, we encourage you to listen to your clients’ suicidal thoughts and impulses nonjudgmentally; these thoughts and impulses represent your clients’ unique efforts to cope with their interpersonal and life problems.

Rather than continually drilling down into your clients’ depressive and suicidal symptoms, be sure to balance your clinical interview with questions that focus on the positive and your clients’ unique reasons for living. Forgetting to ask your client about positive experiences is like forgetting to go outside and breathe fresh air.

Fortunately, most people who experience depression recover, with or without treatment. Additionally, most people at least briefly consider suicide as an alternative to life, and of those who seriously contemplate—or even attempt—suicide, most end up choosing life instead of suicide.

A note of caution is in order. People often hesitate to ask directly about suicidal ideation out of a fear that they will somehow cause a sad person to suddenly think of suicide as an option. Asking about suicidal thoughts or impulses is not the same as dwelling on negative and depressing thoughts and feelings. Balancing the focus between negative and more positive, solution-focused material can be both wise and helpful. Failing to ask about suicide is neither.

Advertisements

5 thoughts on “Differential Activation Theory and Suicide Assessment”

  1. When I saw this blog’s title I wasn’t going to read it, because of “suicidal” in the title. I read your blog for insight and positive reflection in everyday life. This article is very practical and positive! Even if the person next to you in the grocery line opens their soul to you. I might have a positive word to say if they are very depressed. Also knowing a professional can help. {this is a subject that is not talked about in everyday conversation}

  2. I appreciate the information in this blog. I recently did suicide prevention in our health classes and we go over the myth stated in the last paragraph above. When I am working with what appears to be a depressed student and I need to ask the direct question about suicidal ideation I do sense a little personal resistance. But, there is nothing I enjoy more (not because I want anyone to be depressed of course) than the student responding with relief because the challenge has been named or even the student becoming a little irritated because I am “so far off.” These responses over time have helped me feel more comfortable asking the hard questions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s