Why You Should Open with a Focus on the Negative When Using a Strength-Based Suicide Treatment Model


Keno Horse

I’m working on a book manuscript tentatively titled something like: Strength-Based Suicide Assessment and Treatment. As I do more work and professional training in this area, I’m struck by the natural dialectic involved in the whole area of suicide (I’m sure Marsha Linehan discovered this long ago).

One dialectic on my mind today involves the fact that although I’m calling the approach that I’m writing about “Strength-Based,” I often (but not always) advise clinicians to open their sessions with a focus on negative distress. The following excerpt takes a bit of content from my 7.5 hour (3-part) published video with Psychotherapy.net and explains my rationale for opening a session with a focus on negative or painful emotions. You can access the 3-part training video here: https://www.psychotherapy.net/video/suicidal-clients-series

Here’s the case example:

In the following excerpt, I’m working with Kennedy, a 15-year-old girl whose parents referred her to me for suicide ideation (see https://www.psychotherapy.net/video/suicidal-clients-series, Sommers-Flanagan, 2018). Although I might meet with her parents first, or with the whole family, in this case I chose to start therapy with her as an individual. My opening exchange with Kennedy is important because, in contrast to what you might expect from a “strength-based” approach, my focus with her is distinctly negative. Pay close attention to the italicized words and [bracketed explanation].

John:  Kennedy, thank you for meeting with me. Let me just tell you what I know, okay, because I know that you’re not exactly excited to be here. But the thing is that I know that your parents have said you’ve been talking about suicide off and on for a little while, and so they wanted me to talk with you. [I already know that suicide ideation is an issue with Kennedy, so I share that immediately. If I pretend that I don’t already know about her and her situation, it will adversely affect our rapport. This is a basic principle for working with teens, but also true for adults: Lead with a statement of what you know . . . and be clear about what you don’t know.]

And I don’t know exactly what’s happening in your life. I don’t know how you’re feeling. And I would like to be of help. And so I guess if you’re even willing to talk to me, the first thing I’d love to hear would be what’s going on in your life, and what’s making you feel bad or sad or miserable or whatever it is that you’re feeling? [You’ll notice that my opening question has a negative focus. The reason I’m starting with a question that focuses on Kennedy’s negative affect and pulls for what makes her feel bad or sad or miserable is because (a) I want to start with Kennedy’s emotional distress, because that’s what brings her to therapy, and (b) I want to immediately begin linking her emotional distress to situations or experiences that trigger her distress. By doing this, I’m focusing on the presumptive primary treatment goal (according to Shneidman) for all clients who are suicidal, and that is to reduce the perceived intolerable or excruciating emotional distress. In Kennedy’s case, one of my very first treatment targets is to reduce the frequency and intensity of whatever it is that’s triggering Kennedy’s suicide ideation. We’ll get to the positive, strength-based stuff later.]

Kennedy: I think I’m just like really busy every day. I am in volleyball, and I got a lot of homework, and I don’t get a lot of sleep. So, it’s really stressful getting up early, and my parents are always fighting, and sometimes I miss the bus, and they don’t want to drive me. So, I have to call one of my older friends to drive me, and sometimes I’m late, and I just – it’s stressful, and the teachers get mad, but it’s not my fault.

John:   Yeah. So, you’ve got some stress piling up, volleyball, school, sometimes being late, and your parents arguing. Of those, which one adds the most misery into your life? [Again, my focus is purposefully on the negative. I want to know what adds the most misery to Kennedy’s life so that I can work with her and her family or her and her school to decrease the stimulus or trigger for her misery.]

Kennedy: I think being at home is the hardest. In volleyball at least I find some joy. Like I like enjoy being on the court and playing with my team. They’re there to lift me up. But like my parents, I don’t like being at home.

John:  Okay. What do you hate about it? [When Kennedy says, “I don’t like being at home” she’s not providing me with specific information about the trigger for her distress, so I continue with that focus and stay with the negative and use a word (hate) that I think is a good match for how a teenage girl might sometimes feel about being with her family.]

Kennedy: I just – they’re always fighting. Sometimes my dad will leave, and my mom cries, and I’ll cry. And he’s just mean, and she’s mean, and they’re both mean to each other. And I just lock myself in my room.

John:   Yeah. So, even as I listen to you talk, it feels like this is a – just being around them – I don’t know what the feeling is, maybe of just being alone. Like they’re fighting, and you retreat to your room. Any other feelings coming up when that happens? [Although I’m trying to tune into specific feeling words to link to what’s happening for Kennedy, I’m also being tentative and vague and wanting to collaboratively explore the right words to use with Kennedy.]

Kennedy: I don’t know. Just sometimes I don’t feel like – I don’t feel like I have a home, or my family is not there for me, and sometimes I just don’t feel like living anymore. [Kennedy uses the term “feel like” which often is a signal that she’s talking about a cognition and not an emotion. For example, “I don’t feel like I have a home” is likely more of a cognition that leaves her with an emotion like sadness. But it’s too soon to be that emotionally nuanced with Kennedy and the important part of what she’s saying is that there’s a pattern that’s something like this: her parents’ fighting triggers a cognition, that triggers an unspecified emotion, and that triggers the cognition of “I just don’t feel like living anymore.”]

John:   Yeah. So, there are times when the family stuff feels so bad, that’s when you start to think about suicide?

Kennedy: Yeah.

Using Shneidman’s (1980) model to guide my initial interactions with Kennedy leads me to focus on her immediate emotional distress and the triggers for her distress. Exploring her distress and the triggers takes me to an early treatment plan (that will likely be revised and refined).

  1. I will focus on Kennedy’s immediate distress and collaboratively work with her on a plan to reduce her distress and create more positive affect.
  2. I will focus on specific situational variables that trigger Kennedy’s suicide ideation. Part of the treatment plan is likely to involve her parents and to try to get them to stop their intense “fighting” in her presence.
  3. As I aim toward distress reduction and reducing or eliminating the distress trigger, I will keep in mind that—like most teenagers—it may be very difficult for me to get Kennedy to agree to let me work directly with her parents on their fighting. Getting Kennedy on board for an intervention with her parents will test my therapeutic and relational skills.

While I’m working on this next book, I’ll be posting excerpts like this. As always, I would love your feedback and input on this content. Please post comments here, or email me directly at: john.sf@mso.umt.edu.

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