Because I’ve been getting plenty of questions about the Strengths-Based Approach as applied to suicide assessment and treatment, I’m re-posting a revised version of this blog from June, 2020. My apologies for the redundancy. On the other hand, as a friend and mental health professional has repeatedly told me, “Redundancy works.” So . . . I guess his redundancy worked on me.
Below is a short excerpt from chapter 1 of our upcoming book. This excerpt gives you a glimpse at the strengths-based model. You can also check out this link for an alternative description: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2020/12/11/coming-in-january-the-strengths-based-approach-to-suicide-assessment-and-treatment-planning/
If you’re interested, the book is now available through the publisher, as well as through other booksellers: https://imis.counseling.org/store/detail.aspx?id=78174
You can get it in eBook format via Amazon.
Seven Dimensions of Being Human: Where Does It Hurt and How Can I Help?
We began this chapter describing the case of Alina. Mostly likely, what you remember about Alina is that she displayed several frightening suicide risk factors and openly shared her suicidal thoughts. However, Alina is not just a suicidal person—she’s a unique individual who also exhibited a delightful array of idiosyncratic quirks, problems, and strengths. Even her reasons for considering suicide are unique to her.
When working with suicidal clients or students, it’s easy to over-focus on suicidality. Suicide is such a huge issue that it overshadows nearly everything else and consumes your attention. Nevertheless, all clients—suicidal or not—are richly complex and have a fascinating mix of strengths and weaknesses that deserve attention. To help keep practitioners focused on the whole person—and not just on weaknesses or pathology—we’ve developed a seven-dimension model for understanding suicidal clients.
Suicide Treatment Models
In the book, Brief cognitive-behavioral therapy for suicide prevention, Bryan and Rudd (2018) describe three distinct models for working with suicidal clients. The risk factor model emphasizes correlates and predictors of suicidal ideation and behavior. Practitioners following the risk factor model aim their treatments toward reducing known risk factors and increasing protective factors. Unfortunately, a dizzying array of risk factors exist, some are relatively unchangeable, and in a large, 50-year, meta-analytic study, the authors concluded that risk factors, protective factors, and warning signs are largely inaccurate and not useful (Franklin et al., 2017). Consequently, treatments based on the risk factor model are not in favor.
The psychiatric model focuses on treating psychiatric illnesses to reduce or prevent suicidality. The presumption is that clients experiencing suicidality should be treated for the symptoms linked to their diagnosis. Clients with depression should be treated for depression; clients diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder should be treated for trauma; and so on. Bryan and Rudd (2018) note that “accumulating evidence has failed to support the effectiveness of this conceptual framework” (p. 4).
The third model is the functional model. Bryan and Rudd (2018) wrote: “According to this model, suicidal thoughts and behaviors are conceptualized as the outcome of underlying psychopathological processes that specifically precipitate and maintain suicidal thoughts and behaviors over time” (p. 4). The functional model targets suicidal thoughts and behaviors within the context of the individual’s history and present circumstances. Bryan and Rudd (2018) emphasize that the superiority of the functional model is “well established” (p. 5-6).
Our approach differs from the functional model in several ways. Due to our wellness and strength-based orientation, we studiously avoid presuming that suicidality is a “psychopathological process.” Consistent with social constructionist philosophy, we believe that locating psychopathological processes within clients, risks exacerbation and perpetuation of the psychopathology as an internalized phenomenon (Hansen, 2015; Lyddon, 1995). In addition to our wellness, strength-based, social constructionist foundation, we rely on an integration of robust suicide theory (we rely on works from Shneidman, Joiner, Klonsky & May, Linehan, and O’Connor). We also embrace parts of the functional model, especially the emphasis on individualized contextual factors. Overall, our goal is to provide counseling practitioners with a practical and strength-based model for working effectively with suicidal clients and students.
The Seven Dimensions
Thinking about clients using the seven life dimensions can organize and guide your assessment and treatment planning. Many authorities in many disciplines have articulated life dimensions. Some argue for three, others for five, seven, or even nine dimensions. We settled on seven that we believe reflect common sense, science, philosophy, and convenience. Each dimension is multifaceted, overlapping, dynamic, and interactive. Each dimension includes at least three underlying factors that have theoretical and empirical support as drivers of suicide ideation or behavior. The dimensions and their underlying factors are in Table 1.1.
Insert Table 1.1 About Here
Table 1.1: Brief Descriptions of the Seven Dimensions
- The Emotional Dimension consists of all human emotions ranging from sadness to joy. Empirically supported suicide-related problems in the emotional dimension include:
- Excruciating emotional distress
- Specific disturbing emotions (i.e., guilt, shame, anger, or sadness)
- Emotional dysregulation
- The Cognitive Dimension consists of all forms of human thought. Empirically supported suicide-related problems in the cognitive dimension include:
- Problem-solving impairments
- Maladaptive thoughts
- Negative core beliefs and self-hatred
- The Interpersonal Dimension consists of all human relationships. Empirically supported suicide-related problems in the interpersonal dimension include:
- Social disconnection, alienation, and perceived burdensomeness
- Interpersonal loss and grief
- Social skill deficits
- Repeating dysfunctional relationship patterns
- The Physical Dimension consists of all human biogenetics and physiology. Empirically supported suicide-related problems in the physical dimension include:
- Biogenetic predispositions and illness
- Sedentary lifestyle (lack of movement)
- Agitation, arousal, anxiety
- Trauma, nightmares, insomnia
- The Spiritual-Cultural Dimension consists of all religious, spiritual, or cultural values that provide meaning and purpose in life. Empirically supported suicide-related problems in the spiritual-cultural dimension include:
- Religious or spiritual disconnection
- Cultural disconnection or dislocation
- The Behavioral Dimension consists of human action and activity. Empirically supported suicide-related problems in the behavioral dimension include:
- Using substances or cutting for desensitization
- Suicide planning, intent, and preparation
- The Contextual Dimension consists of all factors outside of the individual that influence human behavior. Empirically supported suicide-related problems in the contextual dimension include:
- No connection to place or nature
- Chronic exposure to unhealthy environmental conditions
- Socioeconomic oppression or resource scarcity (e.g., Poverty)
End of Table 1.1
This past week Rita and I submitted the final draft manuscript to the publisher. The next step is a peer review process. While the manuscript is out for review, there’s still time to make changes and so, as usual, please email me with feedback or post your thoughts here.
Thanks for reading!
4 thoughts on “A Strengths-Based Suicide Assessment and Treatment Model”
Thank you for sharing this again. I am not a licensed counselor (yet), but from interpersonal experiences with several people suffering from suicidality, I can see each of these dimensions playing a role in their distress. You and Rita have done your homework and it shows!
I wonder, will you be teaching this as an elective course in the graduate program at UMT in the future? I don’t see any courses specific to suicidality in the current catalog.
Thank you both for your continued contributions to counseling services.
Thanks for saying thanks! It looks like I’ll likely do a one-credit workshop on suicide assessment and treatment this coming fall semester.
I hope to see you (via Zoom) on Friday!
You will definitely be seeing my mug! I am very excited.
Thank u, John and Rita for thinkingvaboutvhowxto help people who are expressing suicidsl ideas. I ² friends in this situation. I am curious about what strengths I have to be a helpful friend to someone with this mindset. And I also wonder what character strengths the suicidal friend might be able to access that would help them reframe their sad and negative thinking. In the final analysis only they can make the choice to live