Individualizing Suicide Risk Factors in the Context of a Clinical Interview


Spring 2020

In response to my recent post on “The Myth of Suicide Risk and Protective Factors” Mark, a clinical supervisor from Edmonton, wrote me and asked about how to make individualizing suicide risk factors with clients more concrete/practical and less abstract. I thought, “What a great question” and will try to answer it here.

Let’s start with two foundational prerequisites. First, clinical providers need to be able to ask about suicide in ways that don’t pathologize the patient/client. Specifically, if clients fear that disclosing suicide ideation will result in them being judged as “crazy” or in involuntary hospitalization, then they’re more likely to keep their suicidal thoughts to themselves. This fear dynamic is one reason why we emphasize using a normalizing frame when asking about suicide.

Second, both before and after suicide ideation disclosures, providers need to explicitly emphasize collaboration. Essentially, the message is: “All we’re doing is working together to better understand and address the distress or pain that underlies your suicidal thoughts.” In other words, the focus isn’t on getting rid of suicidal thoughts; the focus is on reduction of psychological pain or distress.

With these two foundational principles in place, then the provider can collaboratively explore the primary and secondary sources of the client’s psychological pain. In our seven-dimensional model, we recommend exploring emotional, cognitive, interpersonal, physical, cultural-spiritual, behavioral, and contextual sources of pain. Collaborative exploration is fundamental to individualizing risk factors. The general statistics showing that previous attempts, social isolation, physical illness, being male, and other factors predict suicide are mostly useless at that point. Instead, your job as a mental health provider is to pursue the distress. By pursuing the distress, you discover individualized risk factors. The following excerpt from our upcoming book illustrates how asking about “What’s bad” and “What feels worst?” results in individualized risk factors.

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     The opening exchange with Sophia is important because it shows how clinicians—even when operating from a strength-based foundation—address emotional distress. In the beginning the counselor drills down into the negative (e.g., “What’s making you feel bad?”), even though the plan is to develop client strengths and resilience. By drilling down into the client’s distress and emotional pain, and then later identifying what helps the client cope, the counselor is individualizing risk and protective factor assessment, rather than using a ubiquitous checklist.

Counselor: Sophia, thanks for meeting. I know you’re not super-excited to be here. I also know your parents said you’ve been talking about suicide off and on for a while, so they wanted me to talk with you. But 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 if you’re 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 you’re feeling?

The counselor began with an acknowledgement and quick summary of what he knew. This is a basic strategy for working with teens (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2007), but also can be true when working with adults. If counselors withhold what they know about clients, rapport and relationship development suffers.

The opening phrase “I don’t know. . .” acknowledges the limits of the counselor’s knowledge and offers an invitation for collaboration. Effective clinicians initially and intermittently offer invitations for collaboration to build the working alliance (Parrow, Sommers-Flanagan, Sky Cova, & Lungu, 2019). The underlying message is, “I want to help, but I can’t be helpful all on my own. I need your input so we can work together to address the distress you’re feeling.”

The opening question for Sophia is negative (i.e., What’s making you feel bad or sad or miserable or whatever it is you’re feeling?). This opening shows empathy for the emotional distress that triggers her suicidality and clarifies the link between her emotional distress and the triggering situations. By tuning into negative emotions, the counselor hones in on the presumptive primary treatment goal for all clients who are suicidal—to reduce the perceived intolerable or excruciating emotional distress (Shneidman, 1993).

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Collaborative exploration is the method through which risk and protective factors are individualized. If Sophia had a previous attempt, the reason to explore the previous attempt would be to discover what created the emotional distress that provoked the attempt, and how counseling or psychotherapy might address that particular factor. For example, if bullying and lack of social connection triggered Sophia’s attempt, then we would view bullying and social disconnection as Sophia’s particular individualized risk factors. We would then build treatments—in collaboration with Sophia and her family—that directly address the unique factors contributing to her pain, and provide her with palpable therapeutic support.

I hope this post has clarified how to individualize suicide risk factors and use them in treatment. Thanks for the question Mark!

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