All posts by johnsommersflanagan

Initiating Conversations about Suicide . . .

Street Sunrise

The following content is adapted from:Conversations about suicide: Strategies for detecting and assessing suicide risk.” It’s from an article I published in the Journal of Health Service Psychology earlier this year.

I’m posting it because I always think it helps to talk and write about suicide assessment and intervention issues, but also because this content addresses some unique nuances in approaching suicidal clients.

Here we go . . . please share your comments and questions . . . or just share this so others can have access.

Showing Empathy, Building Rapport, and Staying Balanced

Working with suicidal clients may involve unique empathic responses. For example, clients with depressive symptoms may have long response latencies and may focus exclusively on negative emotions. Showing patience while waiting for clients to respond is part of the empathic rapport-building process. You might say, “Take your time” or “I can see you’re thinking about how you want to answer my question” or “Right now everything is feeling sluggish.”

Speech content for suicidal clients can be or can become singularly and profoundly negative. This profound negativity can naturally affect you, causing you to react in ways that are positive and encouraging, but not empathic. Examples include:

  •     This too shall pass.
  •     Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
  •     Let’s focus on what’s been going well in your life.

The problem with these responses is that if they are used to counter client negativity, clients may conclude that you “don’t get them,” and then will cling even more strongly to their negative perceptions, while feeling greater isolation. Consequently, instead of shifting to positive content, you should use empathic reflections, at least briefly, to clearly connect with your clients’ unbearable distress and depressive symptoms (“I hear you saying that, right now, you feel completely miserable and hopeless”).

Empathic Reflections

Using a “completely miserable and hopeless” reflection can be useful in two ways. First, it demonstrates your willingness to be with your client right in the midst of despair. Second, as motivational interviewing practitioners have discussed, your “completely miserable and hopeless reflection” might function as an amplified reflection (Miller & Rollnick, 2013). If so, your client might respond with positive change talk (e.g., “I’m not completely miserable and hopeless”).

Along with expressing empathy directly in ways that connect with clients in their despair, it is also important to use emotional and behavioral reflections in ways that leave open the possibility of positive change. This could involve saying “Right now you’re feeling . . . “ instead of just saying “You’re feeling . . .” The difference is that saying “Right now” leaves open the possibility that the sad and bad feelings may change in the next moment, next hour, or next day.

Using the Client’s Language

When possible, using the client’s language is recommended. If, for example, a client says something like, “I feel like shit” or “I am completely stuck in this pit of despair,” you might want to use the words “shit” or “shitty” or “despair.” Additionally, offering an “invitation for collaboration” is important. This could involve statements like, “I’d like to know more about what it’s like in your pit of despair” or “Do you mind telling me more about what’s feeling shitty right now?” Expressing your interest in working with and hearing from clients and intermittently asking permission to explore different problems or emotions can contribute significantly to collaborative mental health professional-client work.

Using Validation

Validation or reassurance also can facilitate rapport. Validation includes statements like, “Given the very difficult things going on in your life right now, it’s natural that you would feel down and depressed.” As long as your response is authentic, using immediacy or brief self-disclosure is another validation strategy that deepens the working alliance: “As you talk about the great sadness you have around the loss of your daughter, I find myself feeling sadness along with you” (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2017).

Dealing with Irritability

Suicidal clients are sometimes extremely irritable. In such cases it may be difficult to develop rapport. Client irritability also can provoke negative emotional reactions in you. Consequently, when clients express irritability, using a three-part response is recommended: (a) reflective listening, (b) gentle interpretation, and (c) a statement of commitment to keep working with and through the irritability.

  •     As you talk, I hear annoyance and irritability in your voice (reflective listening).
  •     When I hear that, to me it seems like it’s partly just an expression of how tired you are of feeling bad and sad. Irritability is really just a part of being very depressed (gentle interpretation).
  •     I want you to know, that my plan is to keep on working with you and to try not to let any of the annoyance or irritability you’re feeling get in the way of our work together (statement of commitment).

Dealing with Ruptures

Clients’ expressions of irritability can also signal a mental health professional-client relationship rupture. You may have said something that your client didn’t like and, in response, your client may show irritability and anger, or withdraw. If you think your client’s irritability is about a relational rupture (instead of irritability associated with depression), several options can be useful (Safran, Muran, & Eubanks-Carter, 2011; Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2017).

  •     Acknowledge you empathic or interpretive “miss” or error: “I missed the importance you’re feeling about your physical symptoms”
  •     Apologize directly to the client: “I’m sorry for not getting how strongly you feel about your relationship break up.”
  •     Concede to the client’s perspective: “I think I need to see this from your shoes.”
  •     Change the task or goals: “What I’m sensing is that you’d rather not talk about your past. How about we shift to talking about right now or about the future?”

Using Balanced Questioning

Before or after asking directly about suicide, you may find yourself using traditional diagnostic questions about depression and/or other suicide risk factors. In general, diagnostic and risk factor questions are good questions because they help deepen your understanding of the client’s unique psychological-emotional-behavioral state. However, using a balance of positive and negative questioning is recommended. Specifically, if you ask about sadness, it is also important to ask about happiness (e.g., “What are the things in your life right now that lift your mood just a bit?”). Although it is possible that clients who are depressed and suicidal will answer all your questions (even the positive ones) in the negative (e.g., “Nothing lifts my mood, ever.”), when that happens you gain valuable information about the depth of your clients’ depression and whether they have a reactive mood. As needed, you can use Linehan’s Reasons for Living Scale (Linehan, Goodstein, Nielsen, & Chiles, 1983) and solution-focused resources to identify questions with positive phrasing that balance traditional diagnostic assessment protocols (de Shazer, Dolan, Korman, McCollum, Trepper, & Berg, 2007).

Asking Directly about Suicide Ideation

The standard for all helping professionals is to ask clients directly about suicide ideation. Despite this universal guidance, asking directly can trigger clinician anxiety; it can also be difficult to find the right words to elicit an honest and open client response. Many questionnaires and suicide prevention protocols encourage asking directly with a question like, “Have you been having any thoughts about suicide?”

Using the “Have you been having . . .” question is a reasonable default, but it lacks clinical sophistication. Various writers in the suicide assessment and intervention area recommend using alternative wording and framing when asking clients directly about suicide (Jobes, 2016; Shea and Barney, 2015; Sommers-Flanagan & Shaw, 2017). Three distinct approaches are described here.

Using a Normative Frame

Wollersheim (1974) advocated for using a normalizing frame when interviewing suicidal clients. She wrote,

Well, I asked this question since almost all people at one time or another during their lives have thought about suicide. There is nothing abnormal about the thought. In fact it is very normal when one feels so down in the dumps. The thought itself is not harmful. (Wollersheim, 1974, p. 223)

Although Wollersheim is offering reassurance to her client after asking about suicide, her recommendation captures the essence of using a normative frame. The question flows from the client’s descriptions of depressive symptoms or personal distress and then frames suicide ideation as normative, given the client’s distressing condition. Depending on the specific client population and symptoms, normative framing could include:

  •     You’re saying you’ve been very down and depressed. It’s normal for people who are feeling depressed to sometimes think about suicide. Has that been the case for you? Have you had thoughts about dying or ending your life?
  •     It’s not unusual for teenagers to sometimes have thoughts about suicide. I’m wondering if you’ve had thoughts about suicide.

Some clinicians resist using the normative frame. They complain that a normative frame increases their worry about putting the idea in the client’s mind. Although there is research indicating that most clients appreciate being asked directly about suicide, it can still be difficult to embrace the normative frame. If so, there are several alternatives, including the “I ask all my clients about suicide” frame. Here’s an example:

I’m a mental health professional and so part of my job is to ask all of my clients about suicide.  And so I’m wondering, have you had any suicidal thoughts now, recently, or farther back in the past?

A normative frame lowers the bar and makes it easier for clients to admit to suicide ideation. Although suicide ideation is not a good predictor of suicide attempts, it is obvious that clients do not make attempts or die by suicide without first having thoughts about suicide. Additionally, it is important to note that whether you use a normative frame that focuses on reducing clients’ feelings of being deviant, or the frame where you emphasize that it is normal for you to ask all your clients about suicide, it is important that you practice, in advance and aloud, so that using normalizing statements becomes comfortable for you.

AS ALWAYS . . . FEEL FREE TO CONTINUE THE DISCUSSION BY SHARING YOUR THOUGHTS AND REACTIONS TO THIS POST.

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More Musings on Donald Trump’s Personality: Spoiler Alert, We’re Not Talking Narcissism Anymore . . . Because it’s Worse than That

Irrigation SunriseAs I mentioned in Part One, much of the focus on DJT has been on whether he meets the diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Allen Francis, who helped write the personality disorder criteria, has expressed many times that DJT is “bad, not mad.” His reasoning is that DJT’s narcissistic traits don’t cause Trump personal distress and haven’t adversely affected his functioning; in fact, DJT was elected president! In diagnostic terminology, Dr. Frances is saying that DJT doesn’t meet either the distress or impairment criteria, at least one of which is needed to make a formal diagnosis.

Despite the objections of Dr. Francis, if you look at the DSM-5 criteria for NPD, it’s easy to see that DJT’s public behaviors could have served as the prototype for the DSM’s authors as they developed the NPD diagnostic criteria. But it still doesn’t mean DJT has NPD. In addition to not meeting the distress or impairment criteria, individuals (even DJT) cannot be diagnosed without a clinical interview, principally because all behaviors occur in context (or within a subculture). What’s even more interesting is that given DJT’s context of being a reality television star, running for president, and being elected president, who are we to say whether his apparent NPD characteristics are diagnosable. In those contexts, having NPD behaviors might be adaptive (at least sometimes).

In particular, the context of U.S. President is of special intrigue. Generally, anyone who runs for president probably has some (or many) narcissistic traits. I’m not saying that all U.S. Presidential candidates are, by definition, narcissistic. I am saying that narcissistic traits in a U.S. President are not especially distinguishing features. It’s sort of like saying, “Hey, I found this fish and I also discovered that it can swim!!” Narcissistic traits in a U.S. President does not a news-flash make.

Besides . . . and here’s where I go down a more frightening path. My sense is that what’s unique and distinguishing about DJT isn’t his narcissism (although his narcissism is palpable, but not diagnosable); instead, I think he behaves in ways consistent with individuals who have antisocial personalities. Again, I’m not making the claim here that DJT should be diagnosed with Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD). Below, I’ll elaborate on my thinking about this.

As I explore how DJT manifests an antisocial personality style (not APD), I’ll be quoting liberally from the amazing work of the late Theodore Millon (see: Disorders of Personality, 3rd ed., 2011). Millon was a psychologist famous for his writings on personology in general, and personality disorders, in particular.

Just FYI: The following quotations and comments don’t refer to APD diagnostic criteria. Millon (2011) believed those criteria were too concrete and simple and therefore inconsistent with the concept of personality. Instead, my focus is on individuals who think and behave in ways consistent with Millon’s formulation of “Aggrandizing-Devious-Antisocial Personality.” These individuals, although not necessarily diagnosable in the DSM or ICD sense, exhibit a style consistent with antisocial psychological and interpersonal dynamics.

Before I dive into Millon’s descriptions, which are fantastic, by the way, let’s take a brief historical tour.

Way back in Aristotle’s time, his student, Theophrastus (371 – 287 B.C.), wrote about specific personalities, one of which was “The Unscrupulous Man.” Here’s one of Theophrastus’s descriptions.

The Unscrupulous Man will go and borrow more money from a creditor he has never paid . . . . When marketing he reminds the butcher of some service he has rendered him and, standing near the scales, throws in some meat, if he can, and a soup-bone. If he succeeds, so much the better; if not, he will snatch a piece of tripe and go off laughing (from Widiger, Corbitt, & Millon, p. 63).

If you recall Aristotelian philosophy, Aristotle was big into virtues or virtuous behaviors. Here we have his student describing someone who isn’t especially virtuous. Theophrastus’s description involves a pattern of taking from others; The Unscrupulous Man apparently thinks that theft of others’ goods and property is acceptable, and perhaps laudable. Serendipitously, I’m reminded of a few examples of this attitude and unscrupulous behaviors in DJT. Specifically, there are well-publicized bankruptcies, reports of non-payment to contracted employees, and a statement in one of his debates with Hillary Clinton that not paying any federal income taxes “makes me smart.” Hardly anyone (other than Sarah Huckabee Sanders) would step up and contend that DJT is neglecting himself because of his interest and focus on the welfare of others. That DJT frequently works systems and people to his advantage is relatively unarguable.

About 2000 years later, interest in The Unscrupulous Man re-emerged. The famous American physician, Benjamin Rush wrote about “perplexing cases characterized by lucidity of thought combined with socially deranged behavior. He spoke of these individuals as possessing an ‘innate, preternatural moral depravity’” (p. 425). Millon summarized Rush’s description: “He claimed that a lifelong pattern of irresponsibility was displayed by these individuals without a corresponding feeling of shame or hesitation over the . . . destructive consequences of their actions” (p. 425). Rush himself wrote: “Persons thus diseased cannot speak the truth upon any subject” (1812, p. 124).

Earlier this year, the Washington Post (May 31, 2018) reported, “President Trump has made 3,251 false or misleading claims in 497 days.” Of course, the Post limited their analysis to public statements, so their estimate is probably low. Rush’s description of someone who “cannot speak the truth on any subject,” has some surface validity in that it sometimes seems that DJT tells unnecessary lies. Given an opportunity to speak freely, it’s not unusual to hear DJT begin exaggerating about inaugural (or other) crowd sizes or to completely dissemble, “I never fired James Comey because of Russia!” or “I’m the only politician that produced more than I said I was going to produce, and we’re only 1 1/2 years in” or ________________. You can fill in the blank, I’m sure.

The history of APD as an entity is peppered with commentary of astonishment (an astonishment similar to the mainstream press) and their repeated surprise that DJT was behaving in ways that were unprecedented, over and over, and in a sense, normalizing combat between the  Office of the President and the Press Corps, who were quickly labeled as “the enemy of the people.” Historically, there was a similar repeated surprise over discovering (and rediscovering) that there was a “type” of mental patient who, in many ways seemed perfectly normal, but in the place where moral values existed for others, there was only emptiness. The usual signs of insanity were missing, but constructs of ethics and morals were viewed as quaint ideas existing only on other planets or in alternative universes. Given this moral lacunae, early on, the condition was referred to as “moral insanity.” This term emphasized the consistent observation that these people appeared sane in all other respects—and often charming. Henry Maudsley (1874), put it this way:

“As there are persons who cannot distinguish certain colours, having what is called colour blindness, so there are some who are congenitally deprived of moral sense” (p. 11).

In the early 1900s, Emil Kraepelin, upon whose work forms the foundation for modern diagnostic systems, described a personality type that he referred to as “morbid liars and swindlers.” These types “were glib and charming, but lacking in inner morality and as sense of responsibility to others; they made frequent use of aliases, were inclined to be fraudulent con men, and often accumulated heavy debts that were invariably unpaid” (Millon, 2011, p. 428). One of Kraepelin’s disciples, a German physician, later added, “. . . that many of these individuals were unusually successful in positions of either political or material power” (Millon, p. 429)

Obviously, DJT has been “unusually successful” both politically and materially. Of greater prescience is a quotation from Jimmy Kimmel Live (May 25, 2016) where DJT described his used of aliases. “Over the years I’ve used alias (sic), and when I’m in real estate and especially when I was out in Brooklyn with my father and I’d want to buy something . . . I would never want to use my name because you’d have to pay more money for the land. If you’re trying to buy land, you use different names.”

Also in 2016, but on a less grand stage, consistent with Kraepelin’s formulation of morbid liars and swindlers, my 90-year-old poker-playing father quickly identified DJT as “a con man” (https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2016/11/05/what-my-card-playing-genius-father-says-about-donald-trump/).

One final note before ending Part Two.

A Kraepelin disciple from Germany made an interesting point . . . and one that Millon repeatedly emphasizes. Not only is it that individuals with antisocial characteristics may not be disordered, in fact, they may be very successful: “Schneider observed that many of these individuals were unusually successful in positions of either political or material power.” (Millon, p. 429).

Part Three is coming . . . although I’m hoping that my Slate Magazine article is coming sooner.

On Psychiatric Diagnosis and Whether Donald J. Trump has a Personality Disorder

IMG_3063Note — This is a three or four part series focusing on complexities of psychiatric diagnosis; then I ramble into an exploration of what specific psychological and interpersonal dynamics might be driving Donald Trump’s behaviors. This piece and the next two or three are a lead-up to an essay I’m doing for Slate Magazine.

Psychiatric diagnosis looks easy.

All you need is a diagnostic manual. In the U.S., you can use the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5; published by the American Psychiatric Association) or the 10th edition of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10; published by the World Health Organization). Even easier, you can search for and find online diagnostic criteria for virtually every mental disorder. The power to diagnose is at your fingertips.

If you think your friend has panic disorder, you can type “panic disorder” into your favorite search engine, find the criteria, and confirm your suspicions. The same goes for diagnosing children. Finding the criteria for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is simple. Of special convenience is the fact that if you look at the ADHD criteria, you’ll discover that nearly every child on the planet has ADHD. Odds are, if you look closely at the ADHD criteria, you’ll end up diagnosing yourself. I mean, who really likes waiting in lines?

Technically, you should study the different diagnostic categories and the various checklists of symptoms for each disorder, do a formal observation or interview with the person you want to diagnose, match their behaviors to the checklist, and come to your diagnostic conclusion. But we’re living in a fast-paced world where, like our president, whatever you think must be true because you thought it; never mind that you should recuse yourself from diagnosing your friends, your family, and yourself. Who has time to fact check? Besides, you can just ask, “Siri, do I have obsessive-compulsive disorder?”

Contrary to popular solipsistic fantasies and what you’ll learn from Siri, psychiatric diagnosis may look easy, but in the real world, it’s complex and sticky.

Not only are there 300 different diagnoses (and 947 pages in the DSM-5), many psychiatric conditions overlap, meaning one symptom could be associated with several different diagnoses. For example, having a depressed or irritable mood could qualify your or your romantic partner for bipolar disorder or various depressive disorders, but because bad moods are also associated with ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder, substance use disorders, and many different physical/medical conditions, you’ll need to assess for and rule out these other possible disorders. Then again, there’s the likely chance that you and your romantic partner are bugging the hell out of each other and so your depressed and irritable moods are simply a natural product of your poor judgment, incompatibility, or desperate need for couple counseling.

Sorting out diagnostic signs and symptoms is especially difficult because people will often intentionally or unintentionally minimize or exaggerate their symptoms, depending on the setting and their motivation. Think about your son. He’s a hellion at home, but when you take him to the pediatrician, you come unglued trying to tell the doctor about your hyperactive child. All the while, he sits there, hands folded like a little cherub. You leave the office with a new prescription for valium for yourself.

If you make an effort to go beyond using the diagnosis-is-easy approach, in the end, or in the middle, or somewhere in the diagnostic process you may find the symptoms have changed. You mother may have seemed bipolar and you were closing in on a diagnosis of intermittent explosive disorder for your father, but suddenly, right after you move out, their symptoms vanish. Or maybe they just aged and became more mature or maybe they got out of their miserable jobs, and consequently became less emotionally volatile? This is the nature of working with humans; as much as you’d like them to hold still for a clear snapshot, they move, their relationships change, their employment situation shifts, and you end up with what the venerable psychologist Paul Meehl might have called, a fuzzy notion, rather than diagnostic certainty. Looking back, Meehl might have added that diagnosis is also a sticky notion because, once applied, psychiatric diagnoses are difficult to remove. This is why psychiatric diagnosis is best left to trained professionals. This is also why professionals often get it wrong, and someone ends up labeled with a sticky diagnosis that follows them into the future despite new and contradictory diagnostic information.

As an example, many people and some professionals have concluded that Donald J. Trump has a mental disorder called narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). As satisfying as it might feel to diagnose Donald Trump with NPD, the NPD conclusion is erroneous on two counts. First, no one can or should diagnose Trump without conducting a diagnostic interview. Even then, diagnosing him would be difficult. As Allen Francis, Chair of the DSM-IV Task Force wrote, diagnosticians should “be patient,” because accurate psychiatric diagnosis may take five minutes, five hours, five months, or five years. In the real world of psychiatric diagnosis, accurate and useful diagnoses take much longer and are much more involved than a 5 minute armchair social media diagnosis. Competent and ethical mental health professionals always go beyond diagnostic checklists.

Now, don’t get me wrong, labeling Trump with NPD feels good and feels right. Check it out. There are many, many obvious examples of how Trump fits the NPD criteria. However, other than being fun, entertaining, and gratifying (not to mention offensive), the process and outcome of armchair social media diagnosis is neither fair nor honest.

Beyond simply matching DJT’s behaviors with the NPD diagnostic criteria, over the past two years, many articles and books have been written about Donald J. Trump’s mental health. For some odd reason, I’ve been preoccupied with reading many of these articles and books lately. Although not “fun” content, reading about DJT’s mental state was a welcome shift away from my first impulse after his election—which was to start reading about the death instinct in Freud’s Civilization and It’s Discontents. I’m having way more fun now.

For another odd reason, after reading about DJT’s mental health, I found myself fantasizing that I might have something to add to the conversation.

To be continued . . .

Feeling Anxious? Learn the One and Only Method for Self-Regulation

Back in 1980, one of my supervisors at Woodside Hospital in Vancouver, WA, gave me a big compliment. At the time, I was a recreational therapist in a 22-bed psychiatric hospital. In a letter of recommendation, the supervisor described me as having a special knack for translating complex psychological phenomena into concrete activities from which patients could learn. To be honest, I really had no idea what I was doing.

But I think he was onto something about me and my personality. I like to integrate, summarize, and boil down information into digestible bits. Sometimes I have to get the facts to play Twister to get otherwise incompatible perspectives to fit together. This tendency is probably why I’ve written textbooks on clinical interviewing and counseling theories.

Today, I’m tackling anxiety, anxiety reduction, and self-regulation. This feels more personal than usual, mostly because I’ve been dysregulated, more or less, since November 9, 2016.

After reading and thinking about anxiety and anxiety reduction for 30+ years, I’m strongly leaning toward the position that there’s only one, single, universal method to achieve self-regulation. The method is Mary Cover Jones’s counterconditioning. You probably already know that I think Mary Cover Jones is fabulous.

As a means of exploring this unifying method, I recently did a podcast on it with Sara Polanchek. I’ll write more later, but for now, if you’re interested, check out the podcast. It’s the latest episode (7/19/18 release date). You can listen on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/practically-perfect-parenting-podcast/id1170841304?mt=2

Or Libsyn: http://practicallyperfectparenting.libsyn.com/

If you do listen, please let me know what you think. That way I can continue with integration and synthesis by incorporating your thoughts into my thoughts. I’ll bet you can find many different ways to communicate with me.

If you don’t listen, no worries, I’ll just keep hanging out here in my personal echo chamber.

Mental Health or Mental Illness: Defining Mental Disorders

East Rosebud

For a while, I’ve been engaged in a debate (sometimes just with myself) about the use of the term “mental illness.” [More on this at a later date]. Civil debates are good for the brain. There doesn’t have to be a winner or loser. Recently I remembered that we addressed this issue briefly in our 2017 revision (6th edition) of Clinical Interviewing. Here’s an excerpt, beginning on page 396:

Defining Mental Disorders

The concept of mental disorder, like many other concepts in medicine and science, lacks a consistent operational definition that covers all situations. From the DSM-IV-TR (American Psychiatric Association, 2000, p. xxx)

It’s often difficult to draw a clear line between mental problems and physical illness. When you become physically ill, it’s obvious that stress, lack of sleep, or mental state may be contributing factors. Other times, when experiencing psychological distress, your physical state can be making things worse (Witvliet et al., 2008).

Why Mental Disorder and not Mental Illness?

Many professionals, organizations, and media sources routinely use “mental illness” to describe diagnostic entities included in the ICD and DSM classification systems. This practice, although popular, is inconsistent with the ICD and DSM. Both manuals explicitly and intentionally use and plan to continue using the term mental disorder. From the ICD-10:

The term “disorder” is used throughout the classification, so as to avoid even greater problems inherent in the use of terms such as “disease” and “illness”. “Disorder” is not an exact term, but it is used here to imply the existence of a clinically recognizable set of symptoms or behaviour associated in most cases with distress and with interference with personal functions. (1992, p. 11)

The ICD and DSM systems are descriptive, atheoretical classification systems. They rely on the presence or absence of specific signs (observable indicators) and symptoms (subjective indicators) to establish diagnoses. Other than disorders in the F00-F09 ICD-10 block (e.g., F00: Dementia in Alzheimer’s disease, F01: Vascular Dementia, etc.), there is no assumption of any physical, organic, or genetic etiology among ICD mental disorders.

Consistent with the ICD and DSM, we don’t use the term mental illness in this text. We also believe mental illness to be a more problematic term than mental disorder. In fact, often we step even further away from an illness perspective and use the phrase “mental health problems” instead. However, in the end, no matter what we call them, mental disorders are fairly robust, cross-cultural concepts that can be identified and often treated effectively.

General Criteria for Mental Disorders

The DSM-5 includes a general definition of mental disorder:

A mental disorder is a syndrome characterized by clinically significant disturbance in an individual’s cognition, emotion regulation, or behavior that reflects a dysfunction in the psychological, biological, or developmental processes underlying mental functioning. Mental disorders are usually associated with significant distress or disability in social, occupational, or other important activities. (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 20)

This definition is consistent with ICD-10-CM. Nevertheless, significant vagueness remains. If you go back and read through the DSM-5 definition of mental disorder several times, you’ll find substantial lack of clarity. There’s room for debate regarding what constitutes “a clinically significant disturbance.” Additionally, how can it be determined if human behavior “reflects a dysfunction in the psychological, biological, or developmental processes underlying mental functioning” (p. 20)? Perhaps the clearest components of mental disorder include one of two relatively observable phenomena:

  1. Subjective distress: Individuals themselves must feel distressed.
  2. Disability in social, occupational, or other important activities: The cognitive, emotional regulation, or behavioral disturbance must cause impairment.

Over the years the DSM system has received criticism for being socially and culturally oppressive (Eriksen & Kress, 2005; Horwitz & Wakefield, 2007). Beginning in the 1960s Thomas Szasz claimed that mental illness was a myth perpetuated by the psychiatric establishment. He wrote:

Which kinds of social deviance are regarded as mental illnesses? The answer is, those that entail personal conduct not conforming to psychiatrically defined and enforced rules of mental health. If narcotics-avoidance is a rule of mental health, narcotics ingestion will be a sign of mental illness; if even-temperedness is a rule of mental health, depression and elation will be signs of mental illness; and so forth. (1970, p. xxvi)

Szasz’s point is well taken. But what’s most fascinating is that the ICD and DSM systems basically agree with Szasz. The ICD includes this statement: “Social deviance or conflict alone, without personal dysfunction, should not be included in mental disorder as defined here” (p. 11). And the DSM-5 authors wrote:

Socially deviant behavior (e.g., political, religious, or sexual) and conflicts that are primarily between the individual and society are not mental disorders unless the deviance or conflict results from a dysfunction in the individual . . . . (p. 20)

The ICD’s and DSM’s general definitions of mental disorder and criteria for each individual mental disorder consist of carefully studied, meticulously outlined, and politically influenced subjective judgments. Science, logic, philosophy, and politics are involved. This is an important perspective to keep in mind as we continue down the road toward clinical interviewing as a method for diagnosis and treatment planning.

Why Diagnose?

Like Szasz (1961, 1970), many of our students want to reject diagnosis. They’re critical of and cynical about diagnostic systems and believe that applying diagnoses dehumanizes clients, ignoring their individual qualities. We empathize with our students’ complaints, commiserate about problems associated with diagnosing unique individuals, and criticize inappropriate diagnostic proliferation (e.g., bipolar disorder in young people). But, in the end, we continue to value and teach diagnostic assessment strategies and procedures, justifying ourselves with both philosophical and practical arguments.

Some of the benefits of education and training in diagnosis follow:

  • Clinicians are encouraged to closely observe and monitor specific client symptoms and diagnostic indicators
  • Accurate diagnosis improves prediction of client prognosis
  • Treatments can be developed for specific diagnoses
  • Communication with other professionals and third-party payers can be more efficient
  • Research on the detection, prevention, and treatment of mental disorders is facilitated

Although we advise maintaining skepticism regarding diagnostic labels, having knowledge about mental disorders is a professional requirement.

It seems ironic, but sometimes labels are a great relief for clients. When clients experience confusing and frightening symptoms, they often feel alone and uniquely troubled. It can be a big relief to be diagnosed, to have their problems named, categorized, and defined. It can be comforting to realize that others—many others—have reacted to trauma in similar ways, experienced depression in similar ways, or developed similar irrational thoughts or problematic compulsions. Diagnosis can imply hope (Mulligan, MacCulloch, Good, & Nicholas, 2012).

 

Everything You Already Knew About Sex (But were afraid to talk about)

SistersI’ll never forget the night my sisters saved my life. I was 12-years-old. My sisters were babysitting me while my parents were out. They said, “Sit down, we’ve got something serious to talk about.”

I was a compliant little brother. But because my sisters enjoyed dressing me up like a girl, as I sat down, I was hoping I wouldn’t have to get all dressed up again. To my surprise, their serious topic had nothing to do with girls’ clothing and everything to do with what’s underneath girls’ clothing.

They pulled out a gigantic book. In our family, it was called the DOCTOR book; we only got it out when someone was sick. I started to worry, mostly because I wasn’t feeling sick.

They opened the book and showed me anatomically correct pictures of naked men and women. Then I started feeling sick. While looking at various body parts they explained the relationship between male and female sexual organs. I remember thinking “There’s no way this is true.” My sisters, one 17 and the other 14, suddenly looked much older and wiser. I quickly I was not the smartest person in the room (but I already knew that). They explained: “Mom says it’s Dad’s job to tell you about sex stuff. But Dad’s too shy to talk about it. So tonight, we’re telling you everything.” And they did.

At some point in their explanation that night they explained that a “rubber” was a condom and a condom was a method of birth control and that my penis could get big and send out little invisible tadpoles that could get girls pregnant. Suddenly, I understood several jokes that my fellow seventh graders had been laughing about the week before. My sisters were providing knowledge that was essential to the social life of adolescence. But maybe more than anything else, I remember them saying: “Sexual intercourse is very special. You only have sex with someone you really love.” That philosophy may not fit for everyone, but it’s worked out pretty well for me.

If you’ve got children, you should put your fears and shyness aside and directly discuss sex and sexuality with them on an ongoing basis. If you don’t, you can bet they’ll learn about sex anyway, indirectly and from other people, like their cousin Sal or a pornography website. Given this choice, most parents decide, despite their discomfort, to talk about sex with their children.

In contrast to what I got from my sisters, sex education in America is generally a crapshoot. With social media, the internet, and television’s preoccupation with sexual innuendo, it’s easy for children to absorb less-than-optimal sexual ideas. In a National Public Radio interview, the Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Andrew Hudgins spoke about his sex education from jokes:

“One of the things I talk about in the book [The Joker] is what I learned from the taboo subjects my parents never told me about: sex. So I learned about it from jokes and had to figure it out backwards. … It’s very much a hazard. And because you get a ton of misinformation, you get a ton of misogyny built into your brain at a very early age when your brain is still forming and it can cause long-term complications.” (from NPR interview, Weekend Edition, Saturday, June 8, 2013)

In contrast to Hudgins, I got lucky one evening 49 years ago. I didn’t get any misogyny built into my brain. Instead, I learned about sexuality and relationships from two people who deeply cared about me and whom I respected. I’d love to be able to clone my sisters into universal sex educators so they could magically educate all the boys in the world on how to respect women, which, in the end, is much more important than being able to accurately find a vagina in the big DOCTOR book of life.

Teaching children about sex should begin early. There are many natural opportunities for discussing sex with your children – including television, grocery store magazines, and, more often than we like, politicians who engage in questionable sexual behaviors. Other opportunities occur around ages four or five, when young children begin talking, sometimes excessively and inappropriately, about poop, pee, penises, and vaginas. Although addressing such topics with your children can be uncomfortable, you should begin this process while your children are still interested in listening to you. About 10 years later, when your children begin thinking about sex from a different perspective, they may be slightly less impressed with what you have to say.

Of course if you’d rather not deal with the issue, you can always use the approach my parents used. Just give me a call. I’ll put you in touch with my sisters.

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For more information on sex education and parenting, you can check out our Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast episode on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/practically-perfect-parenting-podcast/id1170841304?mt=2 or Libsyn: http://practicallyperfectparenting.libsyn.com/