Category Archives: Clinical Interviewing

Advances in Suicide Assessment and Treatment . . . just published in the Jubilee Edition of Psychology Aotearoa

Ocean View

Here’s the view from New Zealand.

The professional journal, Psychology Aotearoa is the flagship publication of the New Zealand Psychological Society. Just yesterday I received a copy of the Jubilee Edition of the journal. I’ve got a brief article on pp. 76-80, but the whole journal is an interesting glimpse of psychology, psychotherapy, and counseling at an international level. Here’s the pdf: 2018 November JSF New Zealand Pub

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A Bonus Counseling LAB Activity: Person-Centered Problem-Solving

Riverbed and John

After having learned a bit about person-centered theory and therapy and then being exposed to behavior therapy, it makes sense to consider how you can combine the two. For me, the best first step is to integrate your person-centered attitude and skills into a behavioral problem-solving process.

 Person A: As usual, your job is to pretend that you’re a client who’s coming for counseling. You have a minor, but frustrating problem. It helps if the problem is concrete and best if you have a recent experience with it so you can describe it well.

When you sit down with your counselor, take about 5 minutes to describe your problem. Explain how bad it is, how difficult it is to change this problem, and share some of the strategies you’ve tried on your own. As the counselor listens and responds, do your best to respond genuinely back to the counselor and then go with the counseling flow.

Your counselor will engage you in a problem-solving process. Be yourself and participate as you would if you were with a “real” counselor.

Person B: You will be combining your person-centered attitudes and skills with a problem-solving approach. The basic steps to problem-solving [which you should always remember] are as follows:

  1. In collaboration with the client, identify the problem. When you do this, use your listening skills to try to operationalize it in a behaviorally specific way. Remember, you can ask questions, but if/when a person-centered counselor asks questions, the questions are centered on your client’s experiences and emotions. Remember also to avoid asking two questions in a row, because you need to paraphrase before moving to another question.
  2. Brainstorm (generate) a list of possible strategies that your client could use to solve or manage the problem that you’ve collaboratively identified. Remember to: (a) ask your client permission to start making the list, (b) tell your client that you’re only “making a list” to so that both of you can see all of what might be possible, and (c) therefore neither of you can criticize the alternatives/strategies on the list. In fact, you should let your client know that you’d also like to hear some bad ideas or strategies that have been tried, but that didn’t work perfectly.
  3. After you’ve generated 5-10 alternatives, share/show the list to your client and then ask if it would be okay to discuss the pros and cons and likely outcomes linked to each strategy. The purpose here is to collaboratively engage in a reflective process. You’ll want to know about obstacles that might make using some strategies more difficult and potential positive or negative outcomes/side-effects of each strategy. Explore your client’s thoughts, emotions, and reactions to each of the options, using your best listening skills. Behaviorists call this process “means-ends” thinking or “consequential thinking.” Engaging in this process can be naturally behaviorally inhibiting (meaning that it can decrease the chances of an impulsive behavioral response).
  4. Hand the list to your client. Ask something like, “Based on our discussion and on your feelings and thoughts, would you please rank these ideas from 1 to 8, with 1 being your first choice and 8 being your last choice (assuming there were 8 options).
  5. After your client has ranked the ideas, collaboratively make an implementation and evaluation plan. Your client might choose to use 1 or 2 or 3 different strategies. That’s fine. Ask questions like, “How will you remember to try this out?” and “How will you know if your strategy is successful?” You might need to help your client understand that the goal or outcome needs to be within your client’s circle of control. You also might need to provide psychoeducation on solutions often don’t fix things quickly and that it might take weeks to see progress. Let your client know that you’ll be checking in on progress at your next meeting and that although it would be very nice if the strategy has been implemented, it’s also a success to just be thinking about implementing the plan.

Close the session by thanking your client for engaging in this process with you.

The Case Against Zero Suicide

SunsetI’ve been trying for the past year to find a way to say this nicely. Finally, I discovered a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) that says what I want to say—at least in part—in a more professional tone. The articles is “Implications of Zero Suicide for Suicide Prevention Research.” Spoiler alert, the authors, Dominic Sisti, Ph.D. and Stephen Joffe, M.D. end their article with the following sentence: “To demonstrate which interventions are effective for reducing the suicide epidemic, it is necessary to let go of the belief that every suicide is preventable.” For their whole article, go to: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2706416?utm_source=silverchair&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=article_alert-jama&utm_content=etoc&utm_term=102318

I have no doubt that my views are more extreme that Drs Sisti and Joffe. They’re medical researchers, publishing in JAMA. But I was heartened by their article; it helped me feel less alone in my dislike for Zero Suicide. They inspired me to share some of my thoughts and writing on the topic.

That said, now I’m sharing an unpublished rant about Zero Suicide. Keep in mind that I’m in favor of suicide intervention and suicide prevention. I’ve even started a trade book proposal on the subject. But I’m not in favor of Zero Suicide. Here’s why:

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Last month I entered into a Twitter debate about Zero Suicide. It started and ended like most Twitter debates. We disagreed in the beginning. Then, after several passionate exchanges, we disagreed even more in the end.

The issue was Zero Suicide. Zero Suicide is a national suicide prevention campaign, healthcare philosophy, and comfortable delusion. In case you haven’t yet heard of Zero Suicide, there’s a Zero Suicide Academy, Zero Suicide ToolKit, Zero Suicide Community, and several websites orienting people to the Zero Suicide Initiative. As a pragmatic mental health professional and sentient human being, I’m completely in favor of suicide prevention. I’m in favor of suicide prevention because many people who think about suicide are in great psychological pain, and if that pain can be addressed, then their suicide wishes often can abate. I also support much of what the various Zero Suicide Initiative involves. However, as a behavioral scientist and someone who has regular contact with other humans, I consider Zero Suicide to be a ridiculous philosophy and a DUMB goal.

Zero Suicide is a DUMB goal, principally because it’s the opposite of a SMART goal. You can find definitions of SMART goals all over the internet. SMART goals are commonly attributed to Peter Drucker—a renowned management consultant, Austrian immigrant, and author of 39 books. Drucker is commonly considered one of the most important thought leaders in business management. Using Drucker’s principles, back in 1981, George T. Doran published a paper in Management Review titled, There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives. Although many variations exist, SMART goals are typically defined as:

S =  Specific

M = Measurable

A = Achievable or Assignable

R = Relevant or Realistic

T = Time-bound

Drucker and Doran were writing from a business management perspective, but smart goals are also intrinsic to psychotherapy. I won’t be going into the details here, but William Glasser and Robert Wubbolding, two renowned reality therapists, describe important variations of smart goals in psychotherapy. Put simply, the philosophy of Glasser and Wubbolding is simply common sense: “A goal should be within your control.” Put differently, if individuals or agencies identify goals that are dependent on other people’s behavior, then frustration and other problems will inevitably ensue.

Online resources for Zero Suicide are impressive. The breadth and volume of information will provide healthcare professionals with an excellent foundation for working with suicidal patients. For the most part, I have few objections to the quality and quantity of their online suicide prevention resources. Having these resources for healthcare professionals and the general public is important and fantastic. With a foundation of knowledge and informed action, it’s possible to prevent some, but not all suicides.

Despite its impressive array of information, Zero Suicide also has several shortcomings. For example, nowhere on their 66 item Zero Suicide Workforce Survey do they ask a question about having or holding empathy or compassion for suicidal patients. Empathy and compassion needs continual re-emphasis in suicide prevention. Why? Because patients, clients, and citizens who are suicidal, are also often experiencing depressive symptoms. All helpers and healthcare professionals should understand that empathic responding is the foundation of suicide intervention and prevention. Even further, one common depressive symptom is irritability. If irritability is present (along with depression and suicidal thoughts, when healthcare workers or others try to intervene with suicidal people—or persuade them to get help—the following pattern might emerge.

Gloria: I’m concerned about you and how you’re doing. “Have you been thinking about suicide?”

Sean: Yes. I think about it all the time.

Gloria: I want to tell you that there are some excellent resources available for people who are feeling suicidal.

Sean: I know that.

Gloria: Can I get you connected with a counselor here in town?

Sean: Not interested.

Gloria: But I want to be of some help to you, in some way.

Sean: I don’t want your pitiful help. I’m depressed and I’ve been thinking about suicide. I’ve been to counselors. Nothing helps.

Gloria: How about friends? Do you have some friends who might help and support you?

Sean: None of my friends care anymore.

Gloria: How about family?

Sean: My family has disowned me and I’ve disowned them.

Gloria: How about a church or community center? Lots of people get support at those places.

Sean: I can’t hardly get myself out of the house, so those are stupid ideas.

Gloria: Have you tried medications?

Sean: Medications just make me feel worse.

Gloria: How about exercise?

Sean: Seriously?

At this point in the conversation Gloria probably feels frustrated. She’s trying to help, but she can feel Sean resisting her efforts. Gloria is problem-solving, but Sean is feeling hopeless and isn’t able to engage in the problem-solving process. Sean has been through all these ideas in his head and in his depressive state of mind, he’s already rejected all these ideas as completely ineffective.

Next up, Gloria might up the ante by trying to get Sean to engage in logical thinking. She might say something like, “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” Having heard this logical ploy several times, Sean will be ready, “I’ve been living in misery for years. You might see the world as all happy and shit with your fancy shoes and Polly-Anna glasses on, but what I’m experiencing doesn’t feel temporary. I hate my life and I want to die.”

Even if Gloria is more saint-like than most, it will be difficult for her to sustain a helpful attitude toward Sean. She might try encouraging him to go to the hospital, but many suicidal people abhor the idea of hospitalization. Eventually, as Sean continues to insist that he’s suicidal, she might call for a county mental health professional to conduct an evaluation. If so, Sean may lie to the evaluator and say that he’s not imminently suicidal or the evaluator may decide Sean isn’t suicidal. Or, in the best case scenario, Sean may be hospitalized, but he also is likely to become very pissed off at Gloria, because he views her as usurping his personal rights and freedoms. In nearly every case, people like Sean are not likely to pause and thank Gloria for her suicide prevention efforts.

I could go on, but I’d probably just head further down this dark road. Instead, I’ll try to end with a few hopeful comments.

Suicide prevention is important, but it’s part of a strange dialectic. Sometimes, if we try hard to connect with someone and save them, we are fabulously successful. However, other times we try to connect and the person rejects us and suicide becomes even more likely. What’s the difference? I don’t know the perfect answer, but I’m pretty sure it involves collaboration and not coercion. I wish I had thought this up myself, but it’s something that suicidologists, researchers, and philosophers have known for millennia. On top of being fantastically unrealistic, zero suicide also smacks of coercion.

One of the best and forward thinking suicide intervention researchers is Marsha Linehan. You may have heard of her because she’s a University of Washington professor and developer of Dialectical Behavior Therapy. I’ll end with a rather amazing piece that she wrote. Take some time to read it and try to absorb the message. I think her story is all about being empathic and collaborative. Let me know if you think so too. Here are Marsha Linehan’s words, from the Foreword of a book titled, “Building a Therapeutic Alliance with the Suicidal Patient.”

I always tell my students a story about what it is like to work with suicidal individuals. In the story, I describe the suicidal person as trapped in a small, dark room with no windows and high walls (in my mind always with stark white walls reaching very, very high). The room is excruciatingly painful. The person searches for a door out to a life worth living but, alas, cannot find it. Scratching and clawing on the walls does no good. Screaming and banging brings no help. Falling to the floor and trying to shut down and feel nothing gives no relief. Praying to God and all the saints one knows brings no salvation. The only door out the individual can find is the door to death. The task of the therapist in this situation, as I always tell my clients also, is to somehow find a way to get into the room with the person, to see the person’s world from his or her point of view; to get inside the person, so to speak, and then together search again for that door to life that the therapist knows must be there.

Last Call for the Suicide Assessment and Intervention Psychotherapy.net Video Training

Hi All.

Below is the link for the $139 deal for the 7.5 hour Assessment and Intervention with Suicidal Clients training video with Psychotherapy.net.

Please share this information with other professionals who might want or need to sharpen their skills for working with clients who are or might become suicidal. This is a hard topic and I hope this resource can help clinicians feel more confident and competent in their suicide assessment and intervention skills.

https://academy.psychotherapy.net/p/suicide-promo?utm_source=ActiveCampaign&utm_medium=email&utm_content=LAST+CHANCE%3A+Suicide+Assessment+and+Intervention&utm_campaign=suicide+course+email%233

 

 

Assessment and Intervention with Suicidal Clients: A Brand New 7.5 Hour Video Training

Yellow Flowers

Suicide rates in the U.S. are at a 30 year high. Beginning in 2005, death by suicide in America began rising, and it hasn’t stopped, rising for 12 consecutive years.

Worldwide (and at the CDC) suicide rates are tracked using the number of deaths per 100,000 individuals. Although the raw numbers listed above are important (and startling), calculating deaths per 100,000 individuals provides a consistent per-capita measure that allows for systematic comparison of suicide rates across different populations, geographic regions, sexual identity, seasons of the year, and other important variables. For 2000, the CDC reported an unadjusted death by suicide rate of 10.4 persons per 100,000. For 2016, they reported 13.7 suicides per 100,000 Americans. This represents a 31.7% increase over 16 years.

As suicide rates have risen, federal, state, and local officials haven’t been idly standing by, wringing their hands, and wondering what to do. To the contrary, they’ve been actively engaged in suicide prevention. In 2001, the Surgeon General established the first National Suicide Prevention Strategy, revising it in 2012. All the while, there have been big pushes by federal and state governments, community organizations, schools, private businesses, and nonprofits to fund and promote suicide prevention programming. For the most part, the suicide specialists who run these programs are fantastic. They’re dedicated, knowledgeable, and passionate about saving lives. In addition to all the prevention programs available today, currently there are more evidence-based psychotherapies for suicidal people than ever before in the history of time.

But even in the face of these vigorous suicide prevention and intervention efforts, suicide rates continue to relentlessly rise . . . at an average rate of nearly 2% per year.

At this point it’s clear that prevention efforts may not have a direct influence on overall suicide rates. It’s tough to move the big needle that measures U.S. suicide rates. Some solutions may be more sociological and political. Of course, that doesn’t mean we should stop doing prevention. But, given the numbers, it’s important for us to try to find alternative methods for reducing and preventing suicide.

All this leads up to an announcement. Today, Psychotherapy.net published a three volume 7.5 hour video training titled, Assessment and Intervention with Suicidal Clients. This project was a collaboration between Rita, me, and Victor Yalom (along with his amazing staff at Psychotherapy.net). Although watching this video won’t automatically make suicide rates decrease, gaining awareness, knowledge, and skills on suicide assessment and intervention is one way counselors and psychotherapists can contribute to suicide prevention.

Psychotherapy.net is offering an introductory offer for the 7.5 hour video, with CEUs included. You can click here for details on the introductory offer and a sneak peek at the video.

I hope you find the video training helpful, and I look forward to hearing comments and feedback from you about how we can keep working together to help prevent suicide.

Internship Class Reflections

Evening in M 1

Due to my poor time management skills, I ran out of time for comments during my Tuesday internship class. This error provided a sudden inspiration to continue making comments to my students via email. I asked their permission and they seemed interested. It reminded me of a technique Rita used to use when running groups. Following every group, she would write her own insightful reflective comments and send them out to the group members.

Here’s what I shared with me students . . . with . . . of course . . . all identifying information removed.

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In class I mentioned that I wanted to email you some ideas I didn’t have time to share . . . so here we go.

Based on the small amount of recording we listened to together, it sounded like our rock star counselor-in-training (aka “Rocky”) has established an excellent “relationship” or working alliance with her client. That being the case, many things are possible.

The first thing is what I already mentioned at the very end of class. Using her relational connection as a foundation, Rocky can use any of a number of strategies to open up a discussion about her changing her approach to less listening and more engagement. This doesn’t mean I think Rocky “should” be more active, but because Rocky feels it to some degree and brought it up with us, it’s a signal to me that it might be an issue worth exploring. Here’s an example:

“I’ve been thinking about how I act during our counseling sessions. Sometimes I notice myself sitting back and listening as you tell me a story about your life. I think the stories are important, so I mostly just stay quiet and listen. But I’m also wondering if, because the stories are important parts of your life, if maybe I should be more active and engaged with you as you share your stories with me. It might be better for me to ask questions, make comments, or try to identify patterns. If it’s okay with you, I’d like to talk a bit more. Would you be okay with that? If I try it and you don’t like it, we can always switch back.”

This way of bringing up the issue places the focus on Rocky’s behavior and it models how part of counseling involves self-reflection/analysis. It also introduces the idea as an experiment that both Rocky and her client can comment on.

The second issue I wanted to discuss more is the client’s reluctance to “get into her emotions.” Of course, this is a very common reluctance. If we look at it through a motivational interviewing lens, it’s very possible for her to be ambivalent about getting emotional. Part of her can see the value and part of her is afraid or reluctant.

One possible strategy, among many, is for Rocky to affirm that it’s okay to avoid talking about emotions (at least for now), but that in the meantime, it might be helpful to explore what makes talking about emotions feel so challenging. The point is to focus on “what gets in the way” of talking about the emotions directly first, and only then, after greater understanding is obtained, possibly move forward and experience the emotions.

Using this strategy, the assumption is that there are negative expectations (cognitions) linked to directly feeling/experiencing emotion. One of the following could be possible: (a) “I’m afraid once I open the emotional box, I won’t be able to stop” (then you explore if this has happened and examples of how she has recovered after being emotional in the past); (b) “I’m worried that you’ll judge me” (then you explore the possibility of that happening; (c) “I feel weak when I get emotional” (this might inspire a discussion about whether facing emotions directly is an example of being weak or being strong, or something else).

These are just some examples of the thoughts/expectations that can interfere with emotional processing. Many other unique scenarios are possible. In my experience, if you use collaborative empiricism to explore negative expectations, sometimes the expectations can be managed . . . and sometimes clients will spontaneously start talking about the benefits of emotional expression.

My last idea is related to a component part of EMDR. When clients have an image or situation linked to a specific trauma, EMDR practitioners employ two questions that are IMHO quite powerful. Here they are, using a made up scenario:

  1. “When you imagine the scene at your mother’s funeral, what negative belief about yourself comes into your mind?”

You might have to repeat that question because it’s complicated. The assumption here is that the trauma memory is linked to a core negative belief about the self.

Then you move to the opposite question:

  1. “When you imagine the scene at your mother’s funeral, what positive belief about yourself would you rather have come into your mind?”

You don’t have to be using EMDR to find your client’s answers to these questions very useful. The first answer is the disturbing or dysregulating belief. It needs desensitizing or disputing or something. The second answer is a new belief about the self that may constitute a major therapeutic goal. It needs supporting; it needs to become a possibility.

So . . . how do you get there? Well, I’d go on, but we need to have something to talk about next week:).

Have a great evening.

John

 

Aotearoa New Zealand Conference Keynote

NZ Tree and John

Kia ora.

Today is the future in New Zealand where I have the distinguished and humbling honor to present the closing keynote speech at the New Zealand Psychological Society’s Jubilee Conference.

Attached here are two things:

  1. The Brainstormed powerpoint slides from my workshop last Wednesday. These include a list of resources that New Zealand professionals and students have found useful in their suicide assessment, intervention, and prevention work. NZ 2018 Workshop Brainstorming
  2. The powerpoint slides for today’s keynote:NZ 2018 Suicide Keynote Final