Category Archives: Clinical Interviewing

Eight Core Conditions that Often Contribute to Suicide

Rainbow 2017Many professionals and media sources have proclaimed that suicide is a 100% preventable problem. Although I completely disagree with that message—and find it terribly offensive—I also believe that we should do what we can to prevent suicide.

Recently I was asked to write a journal article summarizing the conditions or dimensions that commonly contribute to suicide. To give you a flavor of these dimensions, below I’ve included brief descriptions of each one. However, I also want to emphasize that suicidologists and suicide researchers agree that death by suicide is nearly always unpredictable. Suicide is unpredictable despite the fact that, afterwards, many people and professionals will feel as though they should have “seen the signs” and done something more to prevent the death.

Knowing the following eight dimensions is useful when they’re used to enhance your compassion and capacity to collaborate with individual clients and persons. They’re not designed to be used as suicide risk factors or predictors.

Here are the eight dimensions.

Unbearable Psychological/Emotional Distress (Shneidman’s Psychache)

Shneidman (1985) originally identified “psychache” as the central psychological force leading to suicide. He defined psychache as negative emotions and psychological pain, referring to it as “the dark heart of suicide; no psychache, no suicide” (p. 200). In more modern patient-oriented language, psychache is aptly described as unbearable emotional distress. Unbearable distress can involve many factors, or center around one main trauma, loss, or other psychologically activating experiences; it may be accompanied by distinct cognitive, emotional, or physical symptoms.

Problem-Solving Impairment (Shneidman’s Mental Constriction)

Depression or low mood is commonly associated with problem-solving impairments. Originally, Shneidman called these impairments mental constriction, and defined them as “a pathological narrowing of the mind’s focus . . . which takes the form of seeing only two choices: either something painfully unsatisfactory or cessation” (1984, pp. 320–321). Researchers have reported support for Shneidman’s original ideas about mental constriction (Ghahramanlou-Holloway et al., 2012; Lau, Haigh, Christensen, Segal, & Taube-Schiff, 2012).

Agitation or Arousal (Shneidman’s Perturbation)

Agitation or arousal is consistently associated with death by suicide (Ribeiro, Silva, & Joiner, 2014). Shneidman (1985) originally used the term perturbation to refer to internal agitation that moves patients toward suicidal acts. When combined with high psychological distress and impaired problem-solving, agitation or arousal seems to push patients toward acting on suicide as a solution to their distress. Trauma, insomnia, drug use (including starting on a trial of serotonin-reuptake inhibitors), and many other factors can elevate agitation (Healy, 2009).

Thwarted Belongingness and Perceived Burdensomeness

Joiner (2005) developed an interpersonal theory of suicide. Part of his theory includes thwarted belongingness and perceived burdensomeness as contextual interpersonal factors linked to suicide. Thwarted belongingness involves unmet wishes for social connection. Perceived burdensomeness occurs when patients see themselves as flawed in ways that make them a burden to others.

Hopelessness

Hopelessness is a broad cognitive variable related to problem-solving impairment and linked to elevated suicide risk (Hagan, Podlogar, Chu, & Joiner, 2015; Strosahl, Chiles, & Linehan, 1992). Hopelessness is the belief that whatever distressing life conditions might be present will never improve. In many cases, patients hold a hopeless view—even when a rational justification for hope exists.

Suicide Desensitization

Joiner (2005) and Klonsky and May (2015) have described how fear of death or aversion to physical pain is a natural suicide deterrent present in most individuals. However, at least two situations or patterns can desensitize patients to suicide and reduce natural suicide deterrence. First, some patients may be predisposed to high pain tolerance. This predisposition is likely biogenetic, as in blood-injury phobias (Klonsky & May, 2015). Second, patients may acquire, through desensitization, a numbness that reduces natural fears of pain and suicide. Chronic pain, self-mutilation, and other experiences can be desensitizing.

Suicide Plan or Intent

In and of itself, suicide ideation is a poor predictor of suicide. Nevertheless, ideation is an important marker to explore with patients; exploring ideation can lead to asking directly about whether patients have a suicide plan. Suicide plans may or may not be associated with suicide intent. Some patients will keep a potential suicide plan on reserve, just in case their psychological pain grows unbearable. These patients do not intend to die by suicide, but they want the option and sometimes they have thought through the method(s) they might employ.

Lethal Means

Access to a lethal means is a situational dimension that substantially contributes to suicide risk. Firearms are far and away the most lethal suicide method. Specifically, Swanson, Bonnie, and Appelbaum (2015) reported that firearms result in an 84% case fatality rate. Although firearms can quickly become a politicized issue in the U.S., researchers have repeatedly found that access to firearms greatly magnifies suicide risk (Anestis & Houtsma, 2017).

 

Advertisements

The Mental Status Examination: Key Terms and Resources

At first, conducting a mental status examination (MSE) can feel “different” and daunting to non-medical mental health professionals. However, even though the MSE is a modernist medical-psychiatric assessment tool, it’s also possible to conduct MSEs more collaboratively.

To help address a recent listserv request, below, I’ve pasted some Tables from the MSE chapter in Clinical Interviewing. These Tables are not comprehensive, but along with other resources provide relatively good coverage of how and when to administer an MSE and some useful vocabulary words.

In addition to the Tables below, Dr. Thom Field from City University of Seattle has a set of training videos. You can find them here: http://www.thomfield.com/mental-status-exam-training.html

Also, there are several other resources posted on this blog. In fact, the most viewed of all posts on this blog is titled “Two Sample Mental Status Examination Reports” https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2012/08/10/two-sample-mental-status-examination-reports/

In addition, there is a nifty (IMHO) MSE protocol here: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/mental%20status/

And another sample MSE report: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2012/11/23/another-sample-mental-status-examination-report/

And an interesting post on “Psychic Communications . . . and Cultural Differences in Mental Status” https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2013/01/02/psychic-communications-and-cultural-differences-in-mental-status/

And a short MSE video clip: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2013/02/28/mental-status-examination-video-clip/

Okay. Enough tangential speech from me. The Tables are below:

Table 8.1. Descriptors of Client Attitude Toward the Examiner
Aggressive: The client attacks the examiner physically or verbally or through grimaces and gestures. The client may “flip off” the examiner or simply say to an examiner something like, “That’s a stupid question” or “Of course I’m feeling angry, can’t you do anything but mimic back to me what I’ve already said?”
Cooperative: The client responds directly to interviewer comments or questions. There is a clear effort to work with the interviewer to gather data or solve problems. Frequent head nods and receptive body posture are common.
Guarded: The client is reluctant to share information about himself. When clients are mildly suspicious they may appear guarded in terms of personal disclosure or affective expression.
Hostile: The client is indirectly nasty or biting. Sarcasm, rolling of the eyes in response to an interviewer comment or question, or staring off into space may represent subtle, or not so subtle, hostility. This behavior pattern can be more common among young clients.
Impatient: The client is on the edge of his seat. The client is not very tolerant of pauses or of times when interviewer speech becomes deliberate. She may make statements about wanting an answer to concerns immediately. There may be associated hostility and competitiveness.
Indifferent: The client’s appearance and movements suggest lack of concern or interest in the interview. The client may yawn, drum fingers, or become distracted by irrelevant details. The client could also be described as apathetic.
Ingratiating: The client is overly solicitous of approval and interviewer reinforcement. He may try to present in an overly positive manner, or may agree with everything the interviewer says. There may be excessive head nodding, eye contact, and smiles.
Intense: The client’s eye contact is constant, or nearly so; the client’s body leans forward and listens closely to the interviewer’s every word. Client voice volume may be loud and voice tone forceful. The client is the opposite of indifferent.
Manipulative: The client tries to use the examiner for his or her own purpose. Examiner statements may be twisted to represent the client’s best interests. Statements such as “His behavior isn’t fair, is it Doctor?” are efforts to solicit agreement and may represent manipulation.
Negativistic: The client opposes virtually everything the examiner says. The client may disagree with reflections, paraphrases, or summaries that appear accurate. The client may refuse to answer questions or be completely silent. This behavior is also called oppositional.
Open: The client openly discusses problems and concerns. The client may also have a positive response to examiner ideas or interpretations.
Passive: The client offers little or no active opposition or participation in the interview. The client may say things like, “Whatever you think.” He may simply sit passively until told what to do or say.
Seductive: The client may move in seductive or suggestive ways. He or she may expose skin or make efforts to be “too close” to or to touch the examiner. The client may make flirtatious and suggestive verbal comments.
Suspicious: The client may repeatedly look around the room (e.g., checking for hidden microphones). Squinting or looking out of the corner of one’s eyes also may be interpreted as suspiciousness. Questions about the examiner’s notes or about why such information is needed may signal suspiciousness.
Table 8.2. Thought Process Descriptors
Blocking: Sudden cessation of speech in the midst of a stream of talk. There is no clear reason for the client to stop talking and little explanation. Blocking may indicate that the client was about to associate to an uncomfortable topic. It also can indicate intrusion of delusional thoughts or hallucinations.
Circumstantiality: Excessive and unnecessary detail provided by the client. Very intellectual people (e.g., college professors) can become circumstantial; they eventually make their point, but don’t do so directly and efficiently. Circumstantiality or overelaboration may be a sign of defensiveness and can be associated with paranoid thinking styles. (It can also simply be a sign the professor was not well-prepared for the lecture.)
Clang Associations: Combining unrelated words or phrases because they have similar sounds. Usually, this is manifest through rhyming or alliteration; for example: “I’m slime, dime, do some mime” or “When I think of my dad, rad, mad, pad, lad, sad.” Some clients who clang are also perseverating (see below). Clanging usually occurs among very disturbed clients (e.g., schizophrenics). As with all psychiatric symptoms, cultural norms may prompt the behavior (e.g., clang associations among rappers is normal).
Flight of Ideas: Speech in which the client’s ideas are fragmented. Usually, an idea is stimulated by either a previous idea or an external event, but the relationship among ideas or ideas and events is weak. In contrast to loose associations (see below), there are logical connections in the client’s thinking. However, unlike circumstantiality (see above), the client never gets to the point. Clients who exhibit flight of ideas often appear over-active or overstimulated (e.g., mania or hypomania). Many normal people exhibit flight of ideas after excessive caffeine intake—including one of the authors.
Loose Associations: Minimal logical connections between thoughts. The thinking process is nearly, but not completely random; for example: “I love you. Bread is the staff of life. Haven’t I seen you in church? I think incest is horrible.” In this example, the client thinks of attraction and love, then of God’s love as expressed through communion, then of church, and then of an incest presentation he heard in church. It may take effort to track the links. Loose associations may indicate schizotypal personality disorder, schizophrenia, or other psychotic or pre-psychotic disorders. Extremely creative people also regularly exhibit loosening of associations, but are able to find a socially acceptable vehicle through which to express their ideas.
Mutism: Virtually total unexpressiveness. There may be signs the client is in contact with others, but these are usually limited. Mutism can indicate autism or schizophrenia, catatonic subtype. Mutism may also be selective in that young clients will be able to speak freely at home, but become mute and apparently unable to speak at school or with professionals (see DSM-5, **).
Neologisms: Client-invented words. They’re often spontaneously and unintentionally created and associated with psychotic disorders; they’re products of the moment rather than of a thoughtful creative process. We’ve heard words such as “slibber” and “temperaturific.” It’s important to check with the client with regard to word meaning and origin. Unusual words may be taken from popular songs, television shows, or a product of combining languages.
Perseveration: Involuntary repetition of a single response or idea. The concept of perseveration applies to speech and/or movement. Perseveration is often associated with brain damage and psychotic disorders. After being told no, teenagers often engage in this behavior, although normal teenagers are being persistent rather than perseverative; that is, if properly motivated, they’re able to stop themselves voluntarily.
Tangential speech: Tangential speech is similar to loose associations, but connections between ideas are even less clear. Tangential speech is different from flight of ideas because flight of ideas involves pressured speech.
Word Salad: A series of unrelated words. Word salad indicates extremely disorganized thinking. Clients who exhibit word salad are incoherent. (See the second half of the preceding “Dear Bill” letter for an example of word salad.)
  Table 8.3. Characteristics of Different Perceptual Disturbances
  Hallucinations Illusions Flashbacks
Definition False sensory experiences Perceptual distortions Sudden and vivid sensory-laden recollections of previous experiences
Diagnostic Relevance Auditory hallucinations are most common and usually associated with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or a severe depressive episode Illusions are more common among clients who have vivid imaginations, who believe in the occult, or have other schizotypal personality disorder symptoms Flashbacks are most common among clients with post-traumatic stress disorder
Useful Questions Do you ever hear or see things that other people can’t see or hear?

When and where do you usually see or hear these things (checking for hypnogogic or hypnopompic experiences)?

Does the radio or television ever speak directly to you?

Has anyone been trying to steal your thoughts or read your mind?

What was happening in your surroundings when you saw (or experienced) what you saw (or experienced)?

Did the vision (or image or sounds) come out of nowhere, or was there something happening?

Have you had any similar experiences before in your life?

Sometimes when people have had very hard or bad things happen to them, they keep having those memories come back to them. Does that happen to you?

Was there anything happening that triggered this memory or flashback to the past?

Table 8.4. Mental Status Examination Checklist
Category Observation Hypothesis
Appearance    
Behavior/Psychomotor Activity    
Attitude Toward Examiner    
Affect and Mood    
Speech and Thought    
Perceptual Disturbances    
Orientation and Consciousness    
Memory and Intelligence    
Judgment, Reliability and Insight    

 

Straight Talk About Suicide Prevention

Gorge Chairs

From 13 Reasons Why, to Chris Cornell’s recent death, issues pertaining to suicide have been in our face this month. This is no surprise. May (late spring in the Northern hemisphere) is nearly always the month with the highest suicide rates.

That’s why right now is an excellent time for some straight talk about suicide.

Suicide is an emotionally triggering topic that’s notoriously difficult to talk or write about. Most of us know people who have been suicidal. Some of us know people who have died by suicide. Still others who read this may be having suicidal thoughts in this moment, or may have made suicide attempts in the past. Talking and writing about suicide is unpleasant, but necessary.

Because suicide is difficult to talk about, myths and misconceptions flourish. Not talking (or writing) about suicide also makes it harder to keep tabs on the latest research. Sometimes, leading professional journals neglect publishing new articles on suicide for a decade or more. This brings me to my purpose. To bust a few stubborn suicide-related myths and provide a glimpse at recent research on suicide prevention.

Let’s begin with now.

It’s a beautiful green spring in Montana with brilliant white snow in the mountains. Despite this beauty and brilliance, suicide rates rise in the spring and early summer and drop in fall and winter. Most people think the opposite is true, but every year, late spring and early summer bring the highest rates. Why? There are theories, but unfortunately, “we don’t know” is the answer to this and many questions related to suicide. I’m starting with this misconception to illustrate how easy it is to get the even the simplest facts related to suicide completely wrong.

One of the most insidious and unhealthy myths about suicide is the promotion of the idea that suicidal thoughts and impulses represent deviance or indicate the presence of a mental disorder. Once again, although many think it so, this idea is also untrue. Suicidal thoughts are a normal and natural response to psychological distress and misery. Social disconnection (relationship break-ups, death of a loved one, or other relationship problems) also can trigger suicidal thoughts in so-called “normal” people.

Our entire culture needs to stop classifying suicidal thoughts as automatic deviance. At one point or another, most people contemplate suicide, at least briefly. That fact pretty much blows the whole idea of suicidal thoughts as deviance right out of the metaphorical water.

Suicidal thoughts can be associated with specific mental disorders, but they are not, in and of themselves, signs of a mental disorder. In a recent large scale study, it was reported that mental disorders and suicidal thoughts weren’t useful in determining which individuals would eventually make suicide attempts.

Believing that suicidal thoughts represent a mental disorder isn’t just untrue, it’s also unhelpful. People who are suicidal, don’t need the public or professionals to make them feel worse by implying that their suicidal thoughts represent some form of illness.

Another surprising research finding is that, in general, suicide warning signs and suicide risk factors are  unhelpful. This is true despite the fact that following a death by suicide, one of the first messages you’ll hear in the media is how important it is to watch for specific suicide warning signs. Unfortunately, like many things related to suicide, this is both good and bad advice. It’s good advice in that it’s always important to notice when friends, family, coworkers, and strangers are in distress and to do what we can to be comforting. But it’s also bad advice. Pointing the public or professionals toward warning signs implies that scientifically-based warning signs exist. They don’t.

There’s no science that supports the usefulness of warning signs or risk factors. This may seem discouraging, but it shouldn’t, because it leads to ONE BIG EXCELLENT CONCLUSION. That is, we should all try to offer support, empathy, and compassion to everyone. The take-home message is, don’t wait to encounter a suicidal person to unleash your kind and compassionate side. You should be leading with that. All. The. Time.

Chew on this idea for a moment. We’re stuck. If we’re interested in suicide prevention (or in having healthy relationships), our best default response is to treat everyone with kindness, respect, and empathy. I understand that’s impossible and I understand that you may think there are some exceptions to universal compassion. But we should try to lead with kindness, respect, and empathy anyway.

A good thing about having a general philosophy of kindness and compassion is that it helps suicidal people trust you. It will be harder for them to conclude, “This person is just being nice because I’m suicidal.” Instead, you’ll be treating everyone with kindness and empathy simply because that’s the sort of world you’re creating around you.

Another common suicide myth is that asking about suicide might somehow put the idea of suicide into someone’s head. Not true. Most people who are suicidal feel relieved and appreciative if you ask them about it in a nonjudgmental way. And, if you ask someone and they aren’t suicidal, well, the point is that people are highly resilient. They’re not so fragile that posing a short inquiry about suicide suddenly becomes life threatening. The other point is that you should ask with kindness and compassion. Even better, you should normalize the question by saying something like, “It’s not unusual for someone in your situation to have thoughts about suicide. I’m wondering if you’ve been having suicidal thoughts?” Making a statement that normalizes (rather than pathologizes) suicidal thoughts can make it easier to for people to talk more openly . . . and when people who are suicidal are talking openly, it will be easier for you to be helpful.

As if it weren’t already hard enough, another thing that’s especially complex is that when people are contemplating suicide, they often have strong negative reactions to infringements on their personal freedoms. This is partly why telling someone, you shouldn’t or can’t choose suicide, is a bad idea. Well-meaning helpers who push people too hard away from suicidal thoughts and toward embracing life can come across as “not understanding.” This could trigger an oppositional response. The person you want to help might either stop talking about it (but keep thinking about it) or feel an urge to oppose all suicide prevention or intervention efforts.

It’s not unusual for suicidal people to feel interpersonally isolated, disconnected, or as if they’re a burden to family, friends, and society. This makes connecting with them all the more important. It’s unfortunate, but people experiencing depression can be rather irritable or unappreciative of your efforts to listen and help. When you express concern, they might say something nasty in response. If so, let go of your needs for feeling appreciated; listen and be supportive anyway.

People who are suicidal can have difficulty problem-solving in a way that reflects hopefulness. Who wouldn’t have trouble being optimistic after experiencing repeated misery? This is why it’s important to problem-solve WITH people who are suicidal. Don’t usurp their control; lend another perspective. Part of this perspective might be the simple message that suicide is always an alternative, but that it’s important to wait and try as many other alternatives as possible.

Often, the response to your problem-solving efforts will be something like, “I’ve tried everything and nothing helps.” Again, we need to understand that when someone is suicidal, this is how it feels! At this point, acknowledge that right now it feels like nothing could possibly help. But at the same time, it’s okay to say things like, “I want you to live.”

If you’re problem-solving with someone who is suicidal, it’s also important to be persistent. Try saying something like, “Let’s make a list of everything you’ve tried, starting with whatever was the worst and most unhelpful idea ever.” Starting with what was unhelpful can resonate with the person’s pessimistic mood and help you identify something that’s at least not the worst option on the planet.

Chris Cornell’s recent death by suicide is a reminder of how specific medications can sometimes increase an individual’s agitation and/or suicidal thoughts. He was taking Ativan (Lorazepam). Ativan is a benzodiazepine (like Xanax and Valium). IMHO (and the science supports this), benzos are very bad medications to use for anything other than very short-term treatment. The bottom line is that sometimes (not always) psychiatric medications are not a part of the suicide solution and can become part of the suicide problem.

Among other things, Thirteen Reasons Why is a reminder of how easy it is for people to feel tremendously guilty when someone dies by suicide. Twenty-six years later, I still feel guilt over the death of a boy with whom I was working. Was it my fault? Absolutely not. Do I still feel bad? Absolutely yes.

Death by suicide is a tragedy. I’m tempted to say that it’s always a tragedy, but I recognize that when it comes to humans and humanity, using the terms always and never is dicey.

Some individuals are living with what they experience as intolerable physical, psychological, or emotional suffering. For their loved ones it’s likely still a tragedy when they die by suicide, but is it a tragedy for them? It’s hard to rule out the possibility that death by suicide may represent solace for them.

Suicide is a very personal option on the palette of human choice. For example, I want people to live. I want to help them reduce their psychological pain, make positive relationship connections, and re-engage in activities they find meaningful. But even so, sometimes suicide happens anyway. This is deeply painful and the guilt can be enormous. If someone close to you dies by suicide or you’re feeling affected by any suicide-related event, please find someone to talk with. One of my former clients once said, “The mind is a terrible place . . . to go alone.” Find someone you can trust and share any dark thoughts you might be having. Deal with it. Don’t let your guilt and angst simmer.

To summarize, suicide rates are highest right now. Does that mean we can relax later? Of course not. Suicide risk factors and warning signs are mostly useless and so we should treat people with respect and compassion all the time. When needed, we should ask the suicide question directly and with a spirit of non-judgmental normality. When possible, we should help people with suicidal thoughts identify options that might move them toward feeling better, while acknowledging that suicide is an option. We need to remember that sometimes medications can make suicidality worse. Perfect prevention is impossible. Suicide may happen despite our best efforts. Dealing with guilt over a suicide takes time and requires support.

No one will be completely happy with the ideas I’ve written here. That’s good. Individual reactions to suicide issues are unique. If you want to argue with or improve on these ideas, feel free to engage in the conversation. Using an attitude of kindness and respect, let’s keep talking about suicide. Right now, that’s the best solution we have to our suicide problem. In fact, it may be the best solution we’ll ever have.

To check out my recent professional journal article in Professional Psychology, click here: SF and Shaw Suicide 2017

More Methods for Discussing Suicide with Mental Health Clients

nick-nacksNearly everyone agrees that asking clients directly about suicide is the right thing. However, because every client situation is unique, there are also many different strategies for asking about suicide. In this short excerpt from Clinical Interviewing, we discuss how to bring up suicide using information from outside of the counseling or assessment session.

Using Outside Information to initiate Risk and Protective Factor Assessment

Outside of the formal suicide assessment interview, three main sources of information can be used to initiate a discussion with clients about suicide risk and protective factors:

  1. Client Records
  2. Assessment Instruments
  3. Collateral Informants

Client Records

If available, your client’s previous medical or mental health (med-psych) records are a quick and efficient source for client risk and protective factor information. Many risk factors listed in this chapter won’t be in your client’s records, but you should look closely for factors, such as: (a) previous suicide ideation and attempts; (b) a history of a depression diagnosis; and (c) familial suicide. After your standard intake interviewing opening and rapport building, you can use the records to broach these issues.

I saw in your records that you attempted suicide back in 2012. Could you tell me what was going on in your life back then to trigger that attempt? 

When exploring previous suicide attempts, it’s important to do so in a constructive manner that can contribute to treatment (see Case Example 10.2). Using psychoeducation to explain to clients why you’re asking about the past helps frame and facilitate the process.

The reason I’m asking about your previous suicide attempt is because the latest research indicates that the more we know about the specific stresses that triggered a past attempt, the better we can work together to help you cope with that stress now and in the future. 

Don’t forget to balance your questioning about previous suicide attempts with a focus on the positive.

Often, after a suicide attempt, people say they discovered some new strengths or resources or specific people who were especially helpful. How about for you? Did you have anything positive you discovered in the time after your suicide attempt.

It may be difficult to identify protective factors in your client’s med-psych records. However, if you find evidence of protective factors or personal strengths, you should bring them up in the appropriate context during a suicide assessment interview. For example, when interviewing a client who’s talking about despair associated with a current depressive episode, you might say something like:

I noticed in your records that you had a similar time a couple years ago when you were feeling very down and discouraged. And, according to your therapist back then, you worked very hard and managed to climb back up out of that depressing place. What worked for you back then?

Strive to use information from your clients’ records collaboratively. As illustrated, you can use the information to broach delicate issues (both positive and negative).

Traditionally, previous suicide attempts are considered one of the strongest predictors of future suicidal behaviors. However, as with all risk factors, previous attempts should be considered within the idiosyncratic context of each individual client. Case example 10.2 provides a glimpse of a case where a previous attempt ends up serving as a protective factor, rather than a risk factor.

Case Example 10.2

Exploring Previous Attempts as a Method for Understanding Client Stressors and Coping Strategies

Exploring previous suicide attempts is an assessment process. It can illuminate past stressors, but it’s equally useful for helping clients articulate past, present, and future coping responses.

Therapist: You wrote on your intake form that you attempted suicide about a year and a half ago. Can you tell me a bit about that?

Client: Right. I shot myself in the head. It’s obvious. You can see the scar right here.

Therapist: What was happening in your life that brought you to that point?

Client: I was getting bullied in school. I hated my step-father. Life was shit, so one day after school I took the pistol out of my mom’s room, aimed at my head and shot.

Therapist: What happened then?

Client: I woke up in the hospital with a bad fucking headache. And then there was rehab. It was a long road, but here I am.

Therapist: Right. Here you are. What do you make of that?

Client: I’m lucky. I’m bad at suicide. I don’t know. I suppose I took it to mean that I’m supposed to be alive.

Therapist: Have you had any thoughts about suicide recently?

Client: Nope. Nada. Not one.

Therapist: I guess from what you said that getting bullied or having family issues could still be hard for you. How do you cope with that now?

Client: I’ve got some friends. I’ve got my sister. I talk to them. You know, after you do what I did, you find out who really cares about you. Now I know.

 

Talking with Clients about Suicidal Thoughts and Feelings

fortunes

Spring is coming to the Northern Hemisphere. Along with spring, there will also be a bump in death by suicide. To help prepare counselors and clinicians to talk directly with clients about suicide, I’m posting an excerpt from the Clinical Interviewing text. The purpose is to help everyone be more comfortable talking about suicidal thoughts and feelings because the more comfortable we are, the more likely clients are to openly share their suicidal thoughts and feelings and that gives us a chance to engage them as a collaborative helper.

Here’s a link to the text https://www.amazon.com/Clinical-Interviewing-Video-Resource-Center/dp/1119084237/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

And here’s the excerpt:

Exploring Suicide Ideation

Unlike many other risk factors (e.g., demographic factors), suicide ideation is directly linked to potential suicide behavior. It’s difficult to imagine anyone ever dying by suicide without having first experienced suicide ideation.

Because of this, you may decide to systematically ask every client about suicide ideation during initial clinical interviews. This is a conservative approach and guarantees you won’t face a situation where you should have asked about suicide, but didn’t. Alternatively, you may decide to weave questions about suicide ideation into clinical interviews as appropriate. At least initially, for developing professionals, we recommend using the systematic approach. However, we recognize that this can se0em rote. From our perspective, it is better to learn to ask artfully by doing it over and over than to fail to ask and regret it.

The nonverbal nature of communication has direct implications for how and when you ask about suicide ideation, depressive symptoms, previous attempts, and other emotionally laden issues. For example, it’s possible to ask: “Have you ever thought about suicide?” while nonverbally communicating to the client: “Please, please say no!” Therefore, before you decide how you’ll ask about suicide ideation, you need the right attitude about asking the question.

Individuals who have suicidal thoughts can be extremely sensitive to social judgment. They may have avoided sharing suicidal thoughts out of fear of being judged as “insane” or some other stigma. They’re likely monitoring you closely and gauging whether you’re someone to trust with this deeply intimate information. To pass this unspoken test of trust, it’s important to endorse, and directly or indirectly communicate the following beliefs:

  • Suicide ideation is normal and natural and counseling is a good place for clients to share those thoughts.
  • I can be of better help to clients if they tell me their emotional pain, distress, and suicidal thoughts.
  • I want my clients to share their suicidal thoughts.
  • If my clients share their suicidal thoughts and plans, I can handle it!

If you don’t embrace these beliefs, clients experiencing suicide ideation may choose to be less open.

Asking Directly about Suicide Ideation

Asking about suicide ideation may feel awkward. Learning to ask difficult questions in a deliberate, compassionate, professional, and calm manner requires practice. It also may help to know that, in a study by Hahn and Marks (1996), 97% of previously suicidal clients were either receptive or neutral about discussing suicide with their therapists during intake sessions. It also may help to know that you’re about to learn the three most effective approaches to asking about suicide that exist on this planet.

Use a normalizing frame. Most modern prevention and intervention programs recommend directly asking clients something like, “Have you been thinking about suicide recently?” This is an adequate approach if you’re in a situation with someone you know well and from whom you can expect an honest response.

A more nuanced approach is to ask about suicide along with a normalizing or universalizing statement about suicide ideation. Here’s the classic example:

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)

Three more examples of using a normalizing frame follow:

  • I’ve read that up to 50% of teenagers have thought about suicide. Is that true for you?
  • Sometimes when people are down or feeling miserable, they think about suicide and reject the idea or they think about suicide as a solution. Have you had either of these thoughts about suicide?
  • I have a practice of asking everyone I meet with about suicide and so I’m going to ask you: Have you had thoughts about death or suicide?

A common fear is that asking about suicide will put suicidal ideas in clients’ heads. There’s no evidence to support this  (Jobes, 2006). More likely, your invitation to share suicidal thoughts will reassure clients that you’re comfortable with the subject, in control of the situation, and capable of dealing with the problem.

Use gentle assumption. Based on over two decades of clinical experience with suicide assessment Shawn Shea (2002/ 2004/2015) recommends using a framing strategy referred to as gentle assumption. To use gentle assumption, the interviewer presumes that certain illegal or embarrassing behaviors are already occurring in the client’s life, and gently structures questions accordingly. For example, instead of asking “Have you been thinking about suicide?” you would ask:

When was the last time when you had thoughts about suicide?

Gentle assumption can make it easier for clients to disclose suicide ideation.

Use mood ratings with a suicidal floor. It can be helpful to ask about suicide in the context of a mood assessment (as in a mental status examination). Scaling questions such as those that follow can be used to empathically assess mood levels.

  1. Is it okay if I ask some questions about your mood? (This is an invitation for collaboration; clients can say “no,” but rarely do.)
  2. Please rate your mood right now, using a zero to 10 scale. Zero is the worst mood possible. In fact, zero would mean you’re totally depressed and so you’re just going to kill yourself. At the top, 10 is your best possible mood. A 10 would mean you’re as happy as you could possibly be. Maybe you would be dancing or singing or doing whatever you do when you’re extremely happy. Using that zero to 10 scale, what rating would you give your mood right now? (Each end of the scale must be anchored for mutual understanding.)
  3. What’s happening now that makes you give your mood that rating? (This links the mood rating to the external situation.)
  4. What’s the worst or lowest mood rating you’ve ever had? (This informs the interviewer about the lowest lows.)
  5. What was happening back then to make you feel so down? (This links the lowest rating to the external situation and may lead to discussing previous attempts.)
  6. For you, what would be a normal mood rating on a normal day? (Clients define their normal.)
  7. Now tell me, what’s the best mood rating you think you’ve ever had? (The process ends with a positive mood rating.)
  8. What was happening that helped you have such a high mood rating? (The positive rating is linked to an external situation.)

The preceding protocol assumes clients are minimally cooperative. More advanced interviewing procedures can be added when clients are resistant (see Chapter 12). The process facilitates a deeper understanding of life events linked to negative moods and suicide ideation. This can lead to formal counseling or psychotherapy, as well as safety planning.

Responding to Suicide Ideation

Let’s say you broach the question and your client openly discloses the presence of suicide ideation. What next?

First, remember that hearing about your client’s suicide ideation is good news. It reflects trust. Also remember that depressive and suicidal symptoms are part of a normal response to distress. Validate and normalize:

Given the stress you’re experiencing, it’s not unusual for you to sometimes think about suicide. It sounds like things have been really hard lately.

This validation is important because many suicidal individuals feel socially disconnected, emotionally invalidated, and as if they’re a social burden (Joiner, 2005). Your empathic reflection may be more or less specific, depending on how much detailed information your client has given you.

As you continue the assessment, collaboratively explore the frequency, triggers, duration, and intensity of your client’s suicidal thoughts.

  • Frequency: How often do you find yourself thinking about suicide?
  • Triggers: What seems to trigger your suicidal thoughts? What gets them started?
  • Duration: How long do these thoughts stay with you once they start?
  • Intensity: How intense are your thoughts about suicide? Do they gently pop into your head or do they have lots of power and sort of smack you down?

As you explore the suicide ideation, strive to emanate calmness, and curiosity, rather than judgment. Instead of thinking, “We need to get rid of these thoughts,” engage in collaborative and empathic exploration.

Some clients will deny suicidal thoughts. If this happens, and it feels genuine, acknowledge and accept the denial, while noting that you were just using your standard practice.

Okay. Thanks. Asking about suicidal thoughts is just something I think is important to do with everyone.

On the other hand, if the denial seems forced, or is combined with depressive symptoms or other risk factors, you’ll still want to use acknowledgement and acceptance, but then find a way to return to the topic later in the session.

 

The 6th Edition of Clinical Interviewing is Now Available

Way back in 1990, a university book salesman came by my faculty office at the University of Portland. He was trying to sell me some textbooks. When I balked at what he was offering, he asked, “Do you have any textbook ideas of your own?” I said something like, “Sure” or “As a matter of fact, I do.” He handed me his card and a paper copy of Allyn & Bacon’s proposal guidelines.

Not having ever written a book, I never thought they’d accept my proposal.

They did. But after three years, A & B dropped our text.

Lucky for us.

Two  years later, Rita and I decided to try to resurrect our Clinical Interviewing text. We polished up a proposal, sent it out to three excellent publishers, and immediately got contract offers from W. W. Norton, Guilford, and John Wiley & Sons.

We went with Wiley.

Here we are 18 years later in the 6th edition. It’s been fun and a ton of work. Over the past five years we’ve started recording video clips and interviewing demonstrations to go along with the text. For the 6th edition, we got some pretty fantastic reviews from some pretty fancy (and fantastic) people. Here they are:

“I’m a huge admirer of the authors’ excellent work.  This book reflects their considerable clinical experience and provides great content, engaging writing, and enduring wisdom.”
John C. Norcross, Ph.D., ABPP, Distinguished Professor of Psychology, University of Scranton

“The most recent edition of Clinical Interviewing is simply outstanding.  It not only provides a complete skeletal outline of the interview process in sequential fashion, but fleshes out numerous suggestions, examples, and guidelines in conducting successful and therapeutic interviews.  Well-grounded in the theory, research and practice of clinical relationships, John and Rita Sommers-Flanagan bring to life for readers the real clinical challenges confronting beginning mental health trainees and professionals.  Not only do the authors provide a clear and conceptual description of the interview process from beginning to end, but they identify important areas of required mastery (suicide assessment, mental status exams, diagnosis and treatment electronic interviewing, and work with special populations).  Especially impressive is the authors’ ability to integrate cultural competence and cultural humility in the interview process.  Few texts on interview skills cover so thoroughly the need to attend to cultural dimensions of work with diverse clients.  This is an awesome book written in an engaging and interesting manner.  I plan to use this text in my own course on advanced professional issues.  Kudos to the authors for producing such a valuable text.”
—Derald Wing Sue, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology and Education, Teachers College, Columbia University

“This 6th edition of Clinical Interviewing is everything we’ve come to expect from the Sommers-Flanagan team, and more!  Readers will find all the essential information needed to conduct a clinical interview, presented in a clear, straightforward, and engaging style.  The infusion of multicultural sensitivity and humility prepares the budding clinician not only for contemporary practice, but well into the future.  Notable strengths of the book are its careful attention to ethical practice and counselor self-care. The case studies obviously are grounded in the authors’ extensive experience and bring to life the complexities of clinical interviewing.  This is a ‘must-have’ resource that belongs on the bookshelf of every mental health counselor trainee and practitioner.”
Barbara Herlihy, PhD. NCC, LPC-S, University Research Professor, Counselor Education Program, University of New Orleans

You can check out the text on Amazon https://www.amazon.com/Clinical-Interviewing-John-Sommers-Flanagan/dp/1119215587/ref=dp_ob_title_bk  or Wiley http://www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-1119215587.html  or other major (and minor) booksellers.

 

 

Suicide Prevention Article in the Missoulian

Hi All.

In case you haven’t seen it, I had an op-ed piece on suicide prevention published in the Missoulian yesterday. I think it has pretty good information, but would like feedback if you have some thoughts on the topic.

Here’s the link: http://missoulian.com/news/opinion/columnists/suicide-prevention-ignore-the-math/article_ce3c7f1e-ab86-587e-9505-310cc00b3355.html

Have a great rest of the week.

John SF