A Strengths-Based Approach to Suicide Prevention with Marginalized Communities

This morning I’m doing a one-hour webinar for Division 17 of the American Counseling Association. The focus is on how we can do suicide assessment, treatment, and prevention with people from historically and currently marginalized or oppressed communities. To deal with this immense issue, it would help if we had some superpowers.

Here are the ppts for this morning:

We know, from decades of sociological and psychological research that many different factors contribute to global and regional changes in suicide rates. We also know that, in general, suicide is at least in part driven by individual experiences and perceptions of high personal distress (Shneidman’s “psychache”). Researchers have also identified how poverty, racism, and factors like neighborhood safety/climate can contribute to suicidality. In our suicide book, we call these factors–factors that are typically outside of the self, but that can be internalized–as “contextual.” What follows is an excerpt on contextual factors from Suicide Assessment and Treatment Planning: A Strengths-Based Approach.

Externalizing the External          

At age 82, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times (Stein, 1986), B. F. Skinner said: “I have to tell people that they are not responsible for their behavior. They’re not creating it; they’re not initiating anything. It’s all found somewhere else.”

We find Skinner’s words reassuring. All humans are influenced—to some extent—by factors outside themselves. This is not to say people are helpless victims of their environments; there are methods for coping with external stressors. But the first step, even though the stressor is obviously external, is to re-externalize it, because all too often, it’s all too easy, to internalize the external.

Coping Strategies for Toxic or Malignant Stressors

When clients are exposed to larger sociological and uncontrollable stressors, they can experience frustration, helplessness, and hopelessness. As a counselor, mostly you’re unable to change the unchangeable for your clients. Within the counseling relationship, you can express both empathy for your client’s situation, and indignation that society can be so painful and difficult to change. Depending on the counseling goals, you can provide empathy, commiseration, assistance in discerning achievable goals, learning opportunities, and advocacy or support for activism.

Empathic Commiseration

News events pertaining to racism, climate change, global pandemics, and other topics activate and agitate some clients (and counselors). When this happens, empathic commiseration is a good first step. Empathy from you can universalize client emotional reactions and help clients feel more normal. Simple statements like, “I agree. It’s so hard to watch the news” can facilitate recognition that excessive media exposure heightens feelings of helplessness and depression.

Other scenarios where clients are exposed to environmental toxicity, but unable to extricate themselves from the situation, can be especially demoralizing. In such cases, brainstorming about how to mobilize community resources, how to gain access to safe spaces, and how to engage in self-advocacy can be important and empowering. As with goal-setting in other dimensions, helping clients evaluate their own behaviors and the factors over which they have control, may mitigate frustration. Having you to resonate with their frustration and show compassion is crucial.

Discernment and Goal-Setting

People associated with Alcoholics Anonymous are familiar with Richard Neibauer’s (1932) serenity prayer: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. Similar guidance comes from Shantideva, an 8th century Indian Buddhist Scholar, who put it this way: If there’s a remedy when trouble strikes, what reason is there for dejection? And if there is no help for it, what use is there in being glum? (Shantideva, The way of the Bodhisattva, p. 130). Clients who are religious or spiritually oriented may find particular comfort and insight in the words of Neibauer or Shantideva.

Yet another version of the Serenity Prayer comes from 20th century Philosopher W. W. Bartley. Bartley took a break from writing about philosophical rationalism, to put the message of the Serenity Prayer into a Mother Goose nursery rhyme format:

For every ailment under the sun

There is a remedy, or there is none;

If there be one, try to find it;

If there be none, never mind it.

When it comes to helping clients deal with complex contextual difficulties, these prayers or philosophies can be a good place to start, both for professionals, and for clients. Recognizing and accepting that some problems in life are unchangeable can bring solace. Trying to change that which is unchangeable generally fuels unhappiness.

The developers of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT; Segal, Williams, & Teasdale, 2013) put their own brain-based 21st century spin on the Serenity Prayer. To summarize, they say the brain has two basic modes of functioning. The first mode is problem-solving. The brain is quite good at problem-solving. But some problems are unsolvable. When faced with insoluble problems, rather than letting go of the problem-solving process, the brain naturally persists, relentlessly continuing to problem-solve, ruminate, and chew on old ideas and failures. Anxiety and fear escalates. If the brain gets hooked on unsolvable problems, it can take clients down into bottomless rabbit-holes and exacerbate emotional discomfort.

What about that second basic brain modality? Mindfulness practitioners say that engaging the second mode can unhitch our brains from the out-of-control problem-solving train. The second brain modality operates on a less natural principle: The principle of acceptance. MBCT practitioners emphasize shifting into noticing, or nonjudgmental acceptance. Although the brain is capable of intermittent nonjudgmental acceptance, shifting into that modality is tough. Most clients can’t make that switch in the moment. That’s okay. Accepting failure to switch into nonjudgmental mindfulness is part of mindful acceptance. Coaching clients to make efforts at mindfulness and then to accept their failings and inadequacies might facilitate client self-acceptance and grow mindful parts of the brain, like the insula (Haase et al., 2016). Nonjudgmental acceptance requires regular practice. No one ever gets it right all the time.

Opportunity Ameliorates

James Garbarino (2001) wrote: “Stress accumulates; opportunity ameliorates” (p. 361). Within the trauma literature, it’s clear that toxic stress increases illness (Shern et al., 2016); it’s also clear that providing traumatized youth and adults with physical, social, and academic opportunities mitigates trauma and increases health. In part, your role with clients who have experienced trauma and who are chronically reactivated by socio-political events, is to assist them in finding and participating in local resources and opportunities.

Clients who are suicidal and in the midst of toxic and uncontrollable contextual factors, may feel they don’t have the time or energy for new opportunities. Like Katie from chapter 5, they may need support, assistance, and resources to step outside of their survival mode. Practical problems like childcare, transportation, and inaccessible community organizations can loom large. In such situations, you may need to engage in advocacy or activism to help your clients get connected to the resources and opportunities they need.

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