Initiating Conversations about Suicide . . .

Street Sunrise

The following content is adapted from:Conversations about suicide: Strategies for detecting and assessing suicide risk.” It’s from an article I published in the Journal of Health Service Psychology earlier this year.

I’m posting it because I always think it helps to talk and write about suicide assessment and intervention issues, but also because this content addresses some unique nuances in approaching suicidal clients.

Here we go . . . please share your comments and questions . . . or just share this so others can have access.

Showing Empathy, Building Rapport, and Staying Balanced

Working with suicidal clients may involve unique empathic responses. For example, clients with depressive symptoms may have long response latencies and may focus exclusively on negative emotions. Showing patience while waiting for clients to respond is part of the empathic rapport-building process. You might say, “Take your time” or “I can see you’re thinking about how you want to answer my question” or “Right now everything is feeling sluggish.”

Speech content for suicidal clients can be or can become singularly and profoundly negative. This profound negativity can naturally affect you, causing you to react in ways that are positive and encouraging, but not empathic. Examples include:

  •     This too shall pass.
  •     Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
  •     Let’s focus on what’s been going well in your life.

The problem with these responses is that if they are used to counter client negativity, clients may conclude that you “don’t get them,” and then will cling even more strongly to their negative perceptions, while feeling greater isolation. Consequently, instead of shifting to positive content, you should use empathic reflections, at least briefly, to clearly connect with your clients’ unbearable distress and depressive symptoms (“I hear you saying that, right now, you feel completely miserable and hopeless”).

Empathic Reflections

Using a “completely miserable and hopeless” reflection can be useful in two ways. First, it demonstrates your willingness to be with your client right in the midst of despair. Second, as motivational interviewing practitioners have discussed, your “completely miserable and hopeless reflection” might function as an amplified reflection (Miller & Rollnick, 2013). If so, your client might respond with positive change talk (e.g., “I’m not completely miserable and hopeless”).

Along with expressing empathy directly in ways that connect with clients in their despair, it is also important to use emotional and behavioral reflections in ways that leave open the possibility of positive change. This could involve saying “Right now you’re feeling . . . “ instead of just saying “You’re feeling . . .” The difference is that saying “Right now” leaves open the possibility that the sad and bad feelings may change in the next moment, next hour, or next day.

Using the Client’s Language

When possible, using the client’s language is recommended. If, for example, a client says something like, “I feel like shit” or “I am completely stuck in this pit of despair,” you might want to use the words “shit” or “shitty” or “despair.” Additionally, offering an “invitation for collaboration” is important. This could involve statements like, “I’d like to know more about what it’s like in your pit of despair” or “Do you mind telling me more about what’s feeling shitty right now?” Expressing your interest in working with and hearing from clients and intermittently asking permission to explore different problems or emotions can contribute significantly to collaborative mental health professional-client work.

Using Validation

Validation or reassurance also can facilitate rapport. Validation includes statements like, “Given the very difficult things going on in your life right now, it’s natural that you would feel down and depressed.” As long as your response is authentic, using immediacy or brief self-disclosure is another validation strategy that deepens the working alliance: “As you talk about the great sadness you have around the loss of your daughter, I find myself feeling sadness along with you” (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2017).

Dealing with Irritability

Suicidal clients are sometimes extremely irritable. In such cases it may be difficult to develop rapport. Client irritability also can provoke negative emotional reactions in you. Consequently, when clients express irritability, using a three-part response is recommended: (a) reflective listening, (b) gentle interpretation, and (c) a statement of commitment to keep working with and through the irritability.

  •     As you talk, I hear annoyance and irritability in your voice (reflective listening).
  •     When I hear that, to me it seems like it’s partly just an expression of how tired you are of feeling bad and sad. Irritability is really just a part of being very depressed (gentle interpretation).
  •     I want you to know, that my plan is to keep on working with you and to try not to let any of the annoyance or irritability you’re feeling get in the way of our work together (statement of commitment).

Dealing with Ruptures

Clients’ expressions of irritability can also signal a mental health professional-client relationship rupture. You may have said something that your client didn’t like and, in response, your client may show irritability and anger, or withdraw. If you think your client’s irritability is about a relational rupture (instead of irritability associated with depression), several options can be useful (Safran, Muran, & Eubanks-Carter, 2011; Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2017).

  •     Acknowledge you empathic or interpretive “miss” or error: “I missed the importance you’re feeling about your physical symptoms”
  •     Apologize directly to the client: “I’m sorry for not getting how strongly you feel about your relationship break up.”
  •     Concede to the client’s perspective: “I think I need to see this from your shoes.”
  •     Change the task or goals: “What I’m sensing is that you’d rather not talk about your past. How about we shift to talking about right now or about the future?”

Using Balanced Questioning

Before or after asking directly about suicide, you may find yourself using traditional diagnostic questions about depression and/or other suicide risk factors. In general, diagnostic and risk factor questions are good questions because they help deepen your understanding of the client’s unique psychological-emotional-behavioral state. However, using a balance of positive and negative questioning is recommended. Specifically, if you ask about sadness, it is also important to ask about happiness (e.g., “What are the things in your life right now that lift your mood just a bit?”). Although it is possible that clients who are depressed and suicidal will answer all your questions (even the positive ones) in the negative (e.g., “Nothing lifts my mood, ever.”), when that happens you gain valuable information about the depth of your clients’ depression and whether they have a reactive mood. As needed, you can use Linehan’s Reasons for Living Scale (Linehan, Goodstein, Nielsen, & Chiles, 1983) and solution-focused resources to identify questions with positive phrasing that balance traditional diagnostic assessment protocols (de Shazer, Dolan, Korman, McCollum, Trepper, & Berg, 2007).

Asking Directly about Suicide Ideation

The standard for all helping professionals is to ask clients directly about suicide ideation. Despite this universal guidance, asking directly can trigger clinician anxiety; it can also be difficult to find the right words to elicit an honest and open client response. Many questionnaires and suicide prevention protocols encourage asking directly with a question like, “Have you been having any thoughts about suicide?”

Using the “Have you been having . . .” question is a reasonable default, but it lacks clinical sophistication. Various writers in the suicide assessment and intervention area recommend using alternative wording and framing when asking clients directly about suicide (Jobes, 2016; Shea and Barney, 2015; Sommers-Flanagan & Shaw, 2017). Three distinct approaches are described here.

Using a Normative Frame

Wollersheim (1974) advocated for using a normalizing frame when interviewing suicidal clients. She wrote,

Well, I asked this question since almost all people at one time or another during their lives have thought about suicide. There is nothing abnormal about the thought. In fact it is very normal when one feels so down in the dumps. The thought itself is not harmful. (Wollersheim, 1974, p. 223)

Although Wollersheim is offering reassurance to her client after asking about suicide, her recommendation captures the essence of using a normative frame. The question flows from the client’s descriptions of depressive symptoms or personal distress and then frames suicide ideation as normative, given the client’s distressing condition. Depending on the specific client population and symptoms, normative framing could include:

  •     You’re saying you’ve been very down and depressed. It’s normal for people who are feeling depressed to sometimes think about suicide. Has that been the case for you? Have you had thoughts about dying or ending your life?
  •     It’s not unusual for teenagers to sometimes have thoughts about suicide. I’m wondering if you’ve had thoughts about suicide.

Some clinicians resist using the normative frame. They complain that a normative frame increases their worry about putting the idea in the client’s mind. Although there is research indicating that most clients appreciate being asked directly about suicide, it can still be difficult to embrace the normative frame. If so, there are several alternatives, including the “I ask all my clients about suicide” frame. Here’s an example:

I’m a mental health professional and so part of my job is to ask all of my clients about suicide.  And so I’m wondering, have you had any suicidal thoughts now, recently, or farther back in the past?

A normative frame lowers the bar and makes it easier for clients to admit to suicide ideation. Although suicide ideation is not a good predictor of suicide attempts, it is obvious that clients do not make attempts or die by suicide without first having thoughts about suicide. Additionally, it is important to note that whether you use a normative frame that focuses on reducing clients’ feelings of being deviant, or the frame where you emphasize that it is normal for you to ask all your clients about suicide, it is important that you practice, in advance and aloud, so that using normalizing statements becomes comfortable for you.


One thought on “Initiating Conversations about Suicide . . .”

  1. Hi John,

    Good post and hope you’ve had a good summer. I’ve also read Rita’s posts. Please do give her my best. I never did meet her but the two of you game me $650 bucks a couple years ago!

    I’ll be starting my last class in a week. Yes, the online stuff scares the shit out of me but I won’t cry like a baby as I did last winter. I did get a B plus on that deal so I survived.

    Any chance you can send me Kirsten’s phone number so I can begin to plan a prospective graduation, etc? If you’re going to be my advisor that’s good as well but I might want to meet you or Kirsten sometime this fall to get the ball rolling. Did that make any sense?

    Once again, hope all is well. You can retire after you get rid of me!

    All my best,


    Bill Beck

    Bear Creek Ranch

    P.O. Box 452

    East Glacier Park, MT 59434



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