Suicide Assessment and Intervention for the 21st Century


This past year, Alexander Street Press has been filming and producing a number of Ted-like talks focusing on counseling and psychotherapy. These are 15 minute talks, followed by a short Q & A on the topic. Below is a transcript from a talk I gave this summer in their studio at Governor’s State University in Chicago. I’m posting this talk in honor of National Suicide Prevention Day. This talk, and another couple dozen talks, should be available later this year or early next year from Alexander Street Press: http://search.alexanderstreet.com/counseling-therapy

Here’s the transcript:

Ironically I usually feel happy when I’m asked to do a talk on suicide and then I start with great confidence. I think it’s because suicide is such an extremely important and stressful issue for mental health professionals. But once I dive into the content, I remember how difficult this topic is. During one public presentation a therapist-friend of mine walked out because, as he told me later, the content was hitting too close to home. So please, as you listen, take care of yourself and talk to friends and colleagues for support.

To be perfectly honest, I DON’T REALLY LIKE to talk about suicide, but I think it’s VERY IMPORTANT that we do so directly . . . with each other and with our clients . . . and so here we go.

Death by suicide is pretty rare. Every year, only about 1 in 10,000 Americans commit suicide.

Despite its low frequency, suicide is still a major social problem that affects nearly everyone in one way or another. Over the years you’ve probably heard of many famous people who died by suicide. Marilyn Monroe and Kurt Cobain are two prime examples.

Perhaps even more important is the problem of suicide attempts. About 10% of the human population has attempted suicide and about 20% report struggling with suicidal thoughts and impulses. In surveys of high school students about 50% report “thinking about suicide.”

To summarize what we know about suicide base rates we can say:
I. Death by suicide is infrequent
II. Suicide attempts are NOT infrequent. In fact, many people attempt suicide and then go on to lead happy and meaningful lives
III. Suicide ideation (thoughts) are common
IV. And this is what makes suicide prediction very difficult, because it occurs so infrequently, but this is also what makes suicide prevention very necessary.

In 1991, I worked with a young man who ended up killing himself. This was a tragedy and I remember feeling that gut-wrenching guilt and regret that really stays with you a long time. Afterwards, my consultation group quizzed me and declared that I had done what I could, following all the standard and customary professional suicide assessment procedures. But in my mind and in my heart, then and now, I know I could have done better.

You see back in 1991, professionals (and the public) lived by a big suicide-related myth. We generally viewed suicidal thoughts as DEVIANCE. And so, when clients talked of suicide, it was our job to take action to assess and intervene to eliminate the suicidal thoughts.

This way of thinking about suicide is unhelpful. It creates distance between the professional therapist and his or her client; it also takes power away from clients. And so it’s NOW TIME FOR US TO BUST THE BIG SUICIDE MYTH.

NO LONGER should we consider suicidal thoughts and impulses simply as SIGNS OF DEVIANCE. Instead, we should view suicidal thoughts and impulses as normal signs of human distress. THIS IS THE NEW – and the more accurate – REALITY

Let’s take a minute now to contrast traditional and contemporary or post-modern suicide assessment and intervention approaches. The old Narrative is sort of a checklist approach where we emphasize risk factors, diagnostic interviewing, and no-suicide contracts. The New Narrative is different; it involves looking for protective factors, client strengths, normalizing suicide ideation, and initiating a collaborative safety plan.

This is what I wish I’d understood back in 1991. And so I’d like to be more specific about what I would have done differently and what all mental health professionals should be doing differently.
I wish I had asked more about his protective factors. Protective factors are things like reasons for living and so I wish I’d been more courageous in sitting with him and exploring the reasons why he wanted to live. I wish I’d asked him, over and over, what would or what could help him want to live.

I wish I had asked him more directly about what would help him control his suicide impulses. I would have asked him who he wanted around to help him. I would have lingered on this and asked, who else, what if that person can’t be there, who else would be your next choice to turn to for help.

One of the big changes in the suicide intervention field is that we no longer ask clients to sign No-Suicide contracts. Instead, we work to collaboratively develop a safety plan. As a part of this different focus, I wish I had clearly and unequivocally said to him: “I WANT YOU TO LIVE.” This is different than arguing with clients about their right or need to commit suicide. We should never argue against suicide because that can activate client resistance and make the act even more likely. But the language, “I WANT YOU TO LIVE” is just a self-disclosure and is therefore unarguable. It clearly communicates the intent to help.

Overall, I should have been MORE BALANCED and asked about what my client was doing when his depressive symptoms were gone. I should have asked about what he hoped for today and tomorrow and into the future. I should have asked him more about what brought a little light into his darkness. We should have brainstormed how to bring the light in when he was feeling down.
One problem with the old No-Suicide contracts is that clients sometimes viewed them as designed more to protect the counselor than the client. Obviously this is backward and not the sort of message we want to give clients who are suicidal. And so no-suicide contracts are out . . . and collaborative safety plans are in. What this requires is for counselors to dig in deeper and explore together specifically what the client is willing to do if the suicidal impulses come.

And now, because this talk is all about balancing negative and positive and I want to give an example of two suicide interventions, I’m going to share a positive story about suicide. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that, because now you already know there’s a happy ending. Oh well. Having a happy ending story is a good thing when you’re doing a suicide presentation.

About 5pm one evening I was about to head home and got a call from an alcohol and drug prevention organization across the street from where I was working. A suicidal 16-year-old had suddenly walked into their agency and they had no professional therapists on staff. They asked me to come over and help. I went right over and sat down with the girl in their lobby. We talked a while and she said she had left the local psychiatric unit and was planning to kill herself by jumping off a bridge about a quarter mile away. I listened and then began a specific suicide intervention developed by Edwin Shneidman, well-known as the father of suicidology. I said something like, “So you want to kill yourself. That’s one option, but let’s look at some others.” She said she wasn’t interested in any other options, but I got out a sheet of paper and wrote down “Kill myself” in the left hand column and asked her for other options. She said, “I don’t have any other options.” I said, how about going back to the hospital?” She said, “No way.” I said, that’s okay, we’re just making a list. Got any ideas? She said nothing. I said, “How about some family therapy?” She said, “No way.” I said, “Okay. I’ll write it down anyway because we’re just making a list. You don’t have to do any of these things.” Over time, I came up with about eight ideas of what she might do instead of kill herself, but she hadn’t come up with any. But the purpose of the intervention I was using was to address what Shneidman calls mental constriction. Mental constriction occurs when suicidal individuals are feeling so stressed and miserable that all they can consider is continued misery or death by suicide. With this intervention, I was working on opening up her mental blinders so she could see and consider alternatives to suicide. And so despite the fact that she didn’t generate or endorse any of the alternatives, I handed her the sheet of paper and asked her to rank order her preferences. And somewhat to my surprise, she ranked “Kill myself” as number three. There were two other options she preferred over suicide. I went for that and asked how I could help her get family therapy, which was her first choice. She re-escalated and headed out the door and down the street toward the bridge. I followed and walked with her and talked on and on about how “I want you to live.” She eventually got to the corner where we would cross the street to get on the bridge and I said I was stopping there. She stopped too and I reached out and grabbed her hand. She pulled back and yelled at me for touching her. Then I tried another specific suicide intervention, called Neodissociation. I said, “I know somewhere inside there’s a part of you that wants to live a happy and healthy life. Please, I want that part of you to just reach out and take my hand and walk with me back to the office so we can get you the help you deserve. She stared at me, reached out, took my hand, and then walked back to the office where I called the police and they took her back to the hospital.

[Insert big sigh here].

About two months later, I got a card from her that read, “The only bridges in my life now are bridges to health and happiness.” Now that’s a pretty good ending, but there’s more.

About six months later I asked her therapist if he thought it would be okay for me to interview her about what she thought was most helpful to her in choosing life over suicide. He asked her and then she came to my office for a short video interview. I remember asking her what was most helpful and she said she had a great student nurse at the hospital who was “Fresh” and genuine and that had helped a lot. Then I asked her what had helped her come with me on that first night we’d met. She said, “I’m not sure.” Eager for affirmation, I asked if it was when I used the neodissociation technique and she responded, “No way. That was really stupid.” Then she spontaneously said that she thought it was the look on my face, when I stopped and said I would go no further. She said that—in that moment—I looked like I really cared.

And so that’s the suicide story I prefer to remember.

Speaking of remembering, let’s review the main points.

In summary, there are three main modifications to the traditional approach, which I sometimes call the NEW MANTRA.
• There’s NO MORE BIG MYTH and so we normalize suicidal thoughts and impulses to counter our client’s feelings of deviance; they already feel deviant enough, we don’t need to add to that.
• Collaborate with clients. . . and be sure to do so from a place of genuine caring. It’s okay to say: “I WANT YOU TO LIVE” while collaboratively developing a safety plan.
• Use strength-based questioning, focusing on hope instead of hopelessness; meaning instead of meaninglessness.
• And of course, as always, like all good professionals, consult and document.

I’d like to end with a comment on self-care. As you can see in the final photo, my two daughters are engaged in what appears to be rather bizarre human behavior. I like to think of this as the one daughter performing a helpful “Pit-Check” for the other. We all need that and we especially need that when we’re working with clients who are suicidal. We need to keep talking and asking, “How am I doing?” We need to check up and check in with our colleagues and take very good care of ourselves because although the work we’re doing is essential . . . it can also be terribly stressful to face alone.

This reminds me of what another client once said to me. He said: The mind is a terrible place to go . . . alone . . . which is why we should keep on talking—directly to each other and to our clients—about suicide and suicide prevention.

Thanks for listening.

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8 thoughts on “Suicide Assessment and Intervention for the 21st Century”

  1. After 6 hard years in rural Alaska and now in Montana suicide prevention and intervention continue to be a challenge. What to say that will make a difference during prevention? How to identify those struggling before action is taken? And of course the intervention that we want to be spot on! This was a super read. Thank you John!!

    1. I totally agree that suicide prevention and intervention are both incredibly complex and, of course, terribly important. It’s good to hear that you’re doing all you can to face this overwhelming challenge. Thanks Melissa and I hope you’re doing great.

      John

  2. Very good article on such a very serious topic. I am attaching two links that shed light on yet another heart rendering personal experience of Jennifer Stuber PhD, that appeared in UW Alum Magazine, “COLUMNS”. Jennifer is a University of Washington Social Work professor, who has since been instrumental in advocating for suicide prevention, (see forefront link) policy in Washington State that essentially requires mental health professionals and allied health professionals to undergo assessment/intervention training. This is a fine example of policy intervention that may be helpful in efforts ongoing for suicide prevention.

    http://www.washington.edu/alumni/columns-magazine/march-2014/features/stuber/

    http://www.intheforefront.org./policy

    Mike Pepion, MSW

  3. I really enjoyed this posting. I totally agree that having suicidal client to sign on No suicidal contract can be seen as self- serving for the counselor, having little impact on changing the client’s intent on suicide. Thank you for sharing your regrets and wishes. They are very insightful…

  4. Thank you for this post. My ethics class has a paper due on just this subject, and now I have at least a prospect of how to approach the answers. Once again, your words are going to be a salvation – thought at least, this salvation isn’t a life/death issue to fix!

  5. Hi John,

    This is a very transparent, informative and heartfelt post. I totally agree with the Existential direction for clients in crisis. It seems like a no-brainer…”What is worth living for? What matters to you? What gets you out of bed in the morning? Why do you smile? What are your tears saying to you?” I appreciate how you summarized it: (1) Normalizing SI, (2) Collaborating with clients and genuinely caring, and (3) Strength-based questioning.

    Yalom has an ego strength exercise that I like to use with clients. It helps a client subjectively define themselves, then objectively understand that none of their descriptions actually define their core being. In other words, their failures are not who they are and their job title is not who they are, etc. This exercise would not be good to use in a crisis situation, because the client’s ego strength is not good. However, it could be a follow on intervention with future therapy. In Yalom’s book, Existential Psychotherapy (1980), on page 163, Yalom refers to the exercise as “Disidentification”. He describes its usefulness so eloquently. “…Disidentification is an ancient mechanism of change. It is an awareness of death that promotes a shift in perspective and makes it possible to distinguish between core and accessory: to reinvest one and divest the other.” I have used this exercise in different client scenarios (not all SI related) for the last three years and it has been very impactful each time.

    Anyway, all that to say I believe suicide is an Existential issue, so it makes sense to work from an Existential framework.

    Thanks for sharing the post,
    Una Starr

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