Talking with Clients about Previous Suicide Attempts from a Strengths-Based Perspective

Working with suicidal clients often involves working two sides at the same time. . . as in a dialectic or paradox. For example, it’s crucial to be able to move back and forth between empathic acceptance and active-collaborative problem-solving.

When working from a strengths-based model, clinicians shouldn’t shy away from focusing on pain, sadness, anger, or other aversive emotions and experiences. At the same time, we need to also focus on potential strengths. The following excerpt from our new suicide book illustrates how to explore previous attempts, while also looking for strengths.

Previous Attempts

Previous attempts are often considered the most significant suicide predictor (Brown et al., 2020; Fowler, 2012). You can gather information about previous attempts through your client’s medical or mental health records, from an intake form, or during the clinical interview. During clinical interviews, clients may spontaneously tell you about previous attempts; other times you’ll need to ask directly. Again, using a normalizing frame can be facilitative:

It’s not unusual for people who are feeling very down to have made a suicide attempt. I’m wondering if there have been times when you were so down that you tried to kill yourself?

Once you have knowledge about a client’s previous suicide attempt, you can explore several dimensions of the attempt:

  • What was happening that made you want to end your life?
  • When you discovered that your suicide attempt failed, what thoughts and feelings did you experience?
  • Some people report learning something important from attempting suicide. Did you learn anything important? If so, what did you learn?

Although the preceding questions are important for assessment, once you’re ready to move beyond exploration of a previous attempt, you should ask a therapeutic solution-focused question, similar to the following:

You’ve tried suicide before, but you’re here with me now . . . what has helped? (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2017, p. 373).

Asking “What helped?” is central to a strength-based or solution-focused model and sometimes illuminates a path forward toward living. However, if your client is depressed, you may hear,

Nothing helped. Nothing ever helps (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2017, p. 373).

In the context of an assessment protocol, the “What helped?” question and its side-kick, “What have you tried?” are important because they assess for two core cognitive problems associated with suicidality: hopelessness and problem-solving impairment. Clients who respond with “nothing ever helps” are communicating hopelessness. Clients who claim, “I’ve tried everything” or “There’s nothing left to do” are communicating hopelessness, plus the narrowing of cognitive problem-solving that Shneidman (1996) called mental constriction. Hopelessness and problem-solving impairments should be integrated into your suicide treatment plan.

You can read more excerpts of our book in other posts on this blog, via Amazon or Google. You can also purchase it as an eBook through Wiley, Amazon, or as a paperback through the American Counseling Association: https://imis.counseling.org/store/detail.aspx?id=78174

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