Here’s the handout for today’s workshop!
Anybody wondering what’s new in suicide assessment and treatment?
If so, come listen to any or all of a very nice suicide prevention/intervention line-up on November 7 and 8 on the campus of Montana State University in Billings. Here’s a news link with detailed info: https://billingsgazette.com/news/local/let-s-talk-montana-suicide-prevention-workshops-coming-to-msub/article_9a6f04ff-376f-56b8-a6a8-9a0160ba1cbb.html
For my part, I’m presenting the latest iteration of the suicide assessment and treatment model Rita and I have been working on for the past couple years. To help make suicide assessment and treatment planning easier, we’ve started using six common sense life domains to organize, understand, and apply specific assessment and intervention tools.
Another unique component of our model is an emphasis on client strengths and wellness. Obviously, in the context of suicide, it’s impossible (and wrong) to ignore clients’ emotional pain and suffering. However, we also think it’s possible (and right) to intermittently recognize, nurture, and focus on clients’ strengths, well-being, and goals.
What follows is a sneak peek at what I’ll be covering on Friday, November 8.
Suicide Interventions and Treatment Planning: Foundational Principles
Two essential principles that cut across all modern evidence-based protocols and evidence-based interventions form the foundation of all contemporary suicide assessment and treatment models:
- Collaboration – Working in partnership with clients
- Compassion – Emotional attunement without judgment
Collaborative practitioners work with clients, not on clients. Clients experiencing suicidal thoughts and impulses typically know their struggles from the inside out. Their self-knowledge makes them an invaluable resource. Carl Rogers (1961) put it this way,
It is the client who knows what hurts, what directions to go, what problems are crucial, what experiences have been deeply buried. It began to occur to me that unless I had a need to demonstrate my own cleverness and learning, I would do better to rely upon the client for the direction of movement in the process. (p. 11)
Compassionate practitioners resonate with client emotions and engage in respectful and gentle emotional exploration. Although compassion involves an empathic emotional response, it also includes tuning into and respecting client cognitions, beliefs, and experiences. For example, some clients who are suicidal feel spiritually or culturally bereft or disconnected. Regardless of their own beliefs and cultural values, compassionate counselors show empathy for their clients’ particular spiritual or cultural distress.
Clients who are or who become suicidal are often observant, sensitive, and intelligent. If they feel you’re judging them, they’re likely to experience a relationship rupture (Safran, Muran, & Eubanks-Carter, 2011). When ruptures occur, clients typically become less open, less engaged, and less honest about their suicidal thoughts and impulses. They also may become angry, aggressive, and critical of your efforts to be of help. In both cases, relational ruptures signal a need to work on mending the therapeutic relationship.
[For a helpful meta-analysis with recommendations on repairing ruptures, check out this article from the Safran lab: http://www.safranlab.net/uploads/7/6/4/6/7646935/repairing_alliance_ruptures._psychotherapy_2011.pdf%5D
The Six Life Domains
Working with clients who are suicidal can be overwhelming. To help organize and streamline the assessment and treatment planning process, it’s helpful to consider six distinct, but overlapping life domains. These domains provide a holistic description of human functioning. When clients experience suicidal thoughts and impulses, you can be sure the suicidal state will manifest through one or more of these six domains (i.e., emotions, cognitions, interpersonal, physical, spiritual/cultural, and behavioral; see below for a brief description of the six domains). All case examples and content in the workshop use these six domains to focus and organize client problems, goals/strengths, and interventions.
Suicidality as Manifest through Six Life Domains
|The Emotional Domain. A driving force in the suicidal state is excruciating emotional distress. Shneidman called this “psychache” and toward the end of his career concluded: “Suicide is caused by psychache” (1993, p. 53). Extreme distress is experienced subjectively. This is one reason there are so many different suicide risk factors. When a specific experience triggers excruciating distress for a given individual (e.g., unemployment, insomnia, etc.), it may increase suicide risk. Reducing emotional distress and facilitating positive emotional experiences is usually goal #1 in your treatment plan. Treatment plans often target general distress as well as specific and problematic emotions like (a) sadness, (b) shame, (c) fear/anxiety, and (d) guilt/regret.|
|The Cognitive Domain. Suicidal distress interferes with cognitive functioning. The resulting constricted thinking impairs problem-solving and creativity. The emotional distress and depressed mood associated with suicidality decreases the ability to think of or value alternatives to suicide. Several other cognitive variables are also linked to suicidality, including hopelessness and self-hatred. Most treatment plans will include collaborative problem-solving, and gentle challenging of maladaptive thoughts. Specific interventions may be employed to support client problem-solving, increase client hopefulness, and decrease client self-hatred.|
|The Interpersonal Domain. Hundreds of studies link social problems to suicidality, suicide attempts, and suicide deaths. Joiner (2005) identified two interpersonal problems that are deeply linked to suicide: thwarted belongingness and perceived burdensomeness. Many risk factors (e.g., recent romantic break-up, family rejection of sexuality, health conditions that cause people to feel like a burden) can exacerbate thwarted belongingness and cause people to perceive themselves as a social burden. Improving interpersonal relationships is often a key part of treatment planning.|
|The Physical/Biogenetic Domain. Physiological factors can contribute to suicide risk. In particular, researchers have recently focused on agitation or physiological arousal; these physical states tend to push individuals toward suicidal action. Additionally, chronic illness or pain, insomnia, and other disturbing health situations (including addictions) contribute to suicide, especially when accompanied by hopelessness. When present, physical conditions and biogenetic predispositions should be integrated into suicide prevention, treatment planning, and risk management.|
|The Spiritual/Cultural Domain. Meaningful life experiences can be a protective influence against suicide. No doubt, a wide range of cultural or religious pressures, spiritual/religious exile, or other factors can decrease an individual’s sense of meaning and can contribute to suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Including spiritual or meaning-focused components in a treatment plan can improve outcomes, especially among clients who hold deep spiritual and cultural values.|
|The Behavioral Domain. All of the preceding life domains can contribute to suicide, but suicide doesn’t occur unless individuals act on suicidal thoughts and impulses. The behavioral domain focuses on suicide intentions and active suicide planning. When clients actively plan or rehearse suicide, they may be doing so to overcome natural fears and aversions to physical pain and death; natural fears and aversions stop many people from suicide. Joiner (2005) and Klonsky and May (2015) have written about how desensitization to physical pain and to ideas of death move people toward suicidal action. Several factors increase risk in this domain and may be relevant to treatment planning, (a) availability of lethal means (especially firearms), (b) using substances for emotional/physical numbing, and (c) repeated suicide rehearsal (e.g., increased cutting behaviors).|
*Note: These domains will always overlap, but they can prove helpful as you collaboratively identify problem areas and goals with your client.
If you’re interested in learning more about this suicide assessment and treatment planning model, I hope to see you in Billings on November 8!
Today I’m in Bozeman on my way to present to the Montana School Counselors in Belgrade, MT. As my friends at the Big Sky Youth Empowerment Program like to say, “I’m stoked!” I’m stoked because there’s hardly anything much better than spending a day with Montana School Counselors. Woohoo!
My topic tomorrow is “Strategies for Supporting Students with Common Mental Health Conditions.” That means I’ll be reviewing some DSM/ICD diagnostic criteria and that brings me to reflect on the following. . . .
Not long ago (July, 2019), Allsopp, Read, Corcoran, & Kinderman published an article in Psychiatry Research, not so boldly titled, “Heterogeneity in psychiatric diagnostic classification.” Hmm, sounds fascinating (not!).
A few days later, a summary of the article appeared in the less academically and more media oriented, ScienceDaily. The ScienceDaily’s contrasting and much bolder title was, “Psychiatric diagnosis ‘scientifically meaningless.” Wow!
The ScienceDaily summary took the issue even further. They wrote: “A new study, published in Psychiatry Research, has concluded that psychiatric diagnoses are scientifically worthless as tools to identify discrete mental health disorders.”
Did you catch that? Scientifically worthless!
In an interview with ScienceDaily, Allsopp, Read, and Kinderman stoked the passion, and avoided any word-mincing.
Dr. Kate Allsopp said, “Although diagnostic labels create the illusion of an explanation they are scientifically meaningless and can create stigma and prejudice. I hope these findings will encourage mental health professionals to think beyond diagnoses and consider other explanations of mental distress, such as trauma and other adverse life experiences.”
Professor Peter Kinderman, University of Liverpool, said: “This study provides yet more evidence that the biomedical diagnostic approach in psychiatry is not fit for purpose. Diagnoses frequently and uncritically reported as ‘real illnesses’ are in fact made on the basis of internally inconsistent, confused and contradictory patterns of largely arbitrary criteria. The diagnostic system wrongly assumes that all distress results from disorder, and relies heavily on subjective judgments about what is normal.”
Professor John Read, University of East London, said: “Perhaps it is time we stopped pretending that medical-sounding labels contribute anything to our understanding of the complex causes of human distress or of what kind of help we need when distressed.”
In contrast to the authors’ conclusions, nearly every conventional psychiatrist believes the opposite–and emphasizes that psychiatric diagnosis is of great scientific and medical importance. For example, the Midtown Psychiatry and TMS Center website says, “A correct diagnosis helps the psychiatrist formulate the most effective treatment that will result in remission.”
No doubt there.
In addition, although I literally love that Allsopp, Read, and Kinderman are so outspoken about the potential deleterious effects of diagnosis, I think maybe they take it too far. For example, “Shall we pretend that we should provide the same intervention for panic attacks as we provide for conduct disorder, autism spectrum disorder, and gender dysphoria?”
That’s me talking now . . . and as I discussed this with Rita, she amplified that, of course, if you have a student who’s intentionally engaging in violent acts that harm others, we’re not treating them the same as a student who’s suffering panic attacks. Obviously.
Psychiatric diagnosis is a great example of a dialectic. Yes, in some ways it’s meaningless and overblown. And yes, in some ways it provides crucial information that informs our treatment approaches.
This leads me to my final point, and to my handouts.
What’s our School Counseling take-away message?
Let’s keep the baby and throw out with the bathwater.
Let’s de-emphasize labels – because labelling, whether accurate or inaccurate and whether self-inflicted or other inflicted, are possibly pathology-inducing.
Instead, let’s focus on specific behavior patterns, as well as abilities, impairments, stressors, and trauma experiences that interfere with academic achievement, personal and social functioning, and career potential.
In case you’re interested in more on this. My handouts for the workshop are below.
The Powerpoints: MFPE 2019 Belgrade Final
Managing fear and anxiety:Childhood Fears Rev
Student de-escalation tips: De-escalation Handout REV
Affect is how you look to me.
Affect involves me (an outsider) judging your internal emotional state (as it looks from the outside). Whew.
Mood is how you feel to you.
Mood is inherently subjective and limited by your vocabulary, previous experiences, and inclination or disinclination toward feeling your feelings.
Independently, neither affect nor mood makes for a perfect assessment. But let’s be honest, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and there’s no such thing as a perfect assessment. Even in elegant combination, affect and mood only provide us with limited information about a client’s emotional life.
Our information is limited and always falls short of truth because, not only is there always that pesky standard error of measurement, also, emotion is, by definition, phenomenologically subjective and elusive. Emotion, especially in the form of affect or mood, is a particularly fragile and quirky entrepreneur of physiology and cascading neurochemical caveats. Nothing and everything is or isn’t as it seems.
As an interviewer, even a simple emotional observation may be perceived as critical or inaccurate or offensive in ways we can only imagine. Saying, “You seem angry” might be experienced as critical or inaccurate and inspire the affect you’re watching and the mood your client is experiencing to hide, like Jonah, inside the belly of a whale.
Oddly, on another day with the same client, your emotional reflection—whether accurate or inaccurate—might facilitate emotional clarity; affect and mood may re-unite, and your client will experience insight and deepening emotional awareness.
As a clinician, despite your efforts to be a detached, objective observer, you might experience a parallel emotional process. Not only could your understanding of your client deepen, but ironically, because emotional lives resist isolation, you might experience your own emotional epiphany.
Rest assured, as with all emotional epiphanies—including our constitutionally guaranteed inevitable and unenviable pursuit of happiness—you’ll soon find yourself staring at your emotional epiphany through your rear view mirror.
Just for fun, below I’ve included a link to a brief clip of me doing a mental status examination with a young man named Carl. A longer version of my interview with Carl is available with the 6th edition of Clinical Interviewing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1lu50uciF5Y
I’m working on a Suicide Assessment and Treatment Planning manuscript and here’s a small piece of what I just wrote:
Rosenberg (1999; 2000) and others have described a helpful cognitive reframe intervention for use with clients who are suicidal. She wrote,
The therapist can help the client understand that what she or he really desires is to eradicate the feelings of intolerable pain rather than to eradicate the self (1999, p. 86).
Shneidman’s (1996) guidance on this was similar, but perhaps even more emphatic. He recommended that therapists partner with clients and with members of the client’s support system (e.g., family) to do whatever possible to reduce the psychological pain.
Reduce the pain; remove the blinders; lighten the pressure—all three, even just a little bit (p. 139).
Suicidal clients need empathy for their emotional pain, but they also need to partner with therapists to fight against their pain. Framing the pain as separate from the self can help because therapists can be empathic, but simultaneously illuminate the possibility that the wish isn’t to eliminate the self, but instead, to eliminate the pain.
Rosenberg (1999) also recommended that therapists help clients reframe what’s usually meant by the phrase feeling suicidal. She noted that clients benefit from seeing their suicidal thoughts and impulses as a communication about their depth of feeling, rather than an “actual intent to take action” (p. 86). Once again, this approach to intervening with suicidal clients can decrease clients’ needs to act, partly because of the elegant cognitive reframe and partly because of the therapist’s empathic message.
Here’s a case vignette to illustrate how therapists can work with clients to separate the emotional pain from the self and then partner with clients to reduce the pain. As always, this case vignette is a composite compiled from clinical work and simulations with various individuals.
Case Vignette. Kate is a 44-year-old cisgender married female with two children. She arrived for counseling in extreme emotional distress. She was also agitated, stating, “It just hurts so badly to be alive. It hurts so badly.”
Much of Kate’s emotional pain was centered around the recent death of her mother, whom Kate had cared for over the past seven years. Kate had an ambivalent relationship with her; her mother had been diagnosed as having schizophrenia and caring for her was extremely challenging. Kate’s acute emotional distress was accompanied by fears of turning out like her mother and thoughts of reunifying with her mother. She said, “I just need to be with her.”
To help Kate separate her intense emotional pain from the self, I began by noticing that there were two different parts of Kate, and that these two different parts had different ideas about how to move forward. Noticing and articulating different perspectives of the self is a common approach from a person-centered theoretical perspective. Because of Kate’s family history of schizophrenia, I wouldn’t use an expressive Gestalt technique to separate her different ego states, but it felt like reflecting her obvious ambivalence was a safe approach. Specifically, I said, “Sounds like a part of yourself thinks the solution is to die, and that your kids will be better off. But there’s another part of you that says, maybe the solution isn’t to die. Maybe I can come in here and talk. Maybe my kids actually would suffer if I died.”
Kate accepted that she was “of two minds” about how to go forward. Next, I tried to further clarify these parts of herself, emphasizing that I wanted to align with the “second” part of herself, so that we could work together on her emotional pain.
The one part of yourself thinks your only hope of dealing with the pain is to kill yourself. The other part thinks, maybe I can stay alive, work in counseling to get rid of the pain, and then my children wouldn’t suffer from my death. How about, for now, we work from that second perspective. We can be a team that works hard to decrease the emotional pain you’re feeling. It might not go away immediately, but if you stay alive and we work together, we can chip away at the pain and make it shrink.
You may notice the words I used were somewhat redundant. Using redundancy with clients who are feeling suicidal may be needed because the agitated, depressed state of mind makes cognitive focusing difficult. Sometimes, if you don’t repeat the therapeutic perspective and keep focused on it, the therapeutic perspective can slip away from your clients’ cognitive grasp.
Linehan often uses a more provocative way of talking about partnering with clients to diminish their pain. For example, she might say, “Getting through this is like going through Hell. But I know therapy can help and I want to work with you on this. But I have to tell you this, therapy will only work if you stay alive. Therapy doesn’t work on dead people. So I want you to stay alive and work with me at attacking your pain. Will you give me six months for us to go through hell together so we can get control of your pain?”
Either way, the goal is to partner with clients to work on decreasing emotional or psychological pain. This approach combines empathic listening, with an emphasis on the therapeutic alliance. As therapist and client partner together, then cognitive-behavioral problem-solving can commence.
This is part two of my “Four Suicide Myths” blog post. If you read part one, you probably noticed that it ended abruptly. Apparently, that’s how I do two-part blog posts. Thinking back, I should have added something like, “end of part one.”
And so, as an introduction, here’s the beginning of part two . . .
Myth #2: Suicide and suicidal thinking are signs of mental illness.
Philosophers and research scientists agree: nearly everyone on the planet thinks about suicide at one time or another—even if briefly. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche referred to suicidal thoughts as a coping strategy, writing, “The thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets through many a dark night.” Additionally, the rates of suicidal thinking among high school and college students is so high (estimates of 20-40% annual incidence) that it’s more appropriate to label suicidal thoughts as common, rather than a sign of deviance or illness.
Edwin Shneidman—the American “Father” of suicidology—denied a relationship between suicide and so-called mental illness in the 1973 Encyclopedia Britannica, stating succinctly:
“Suicide is not a disease (although there are those who think so); it is not, in the view of the most detached observers, an immorality (although . . . it has often been so treated in Western and other cultures).”
A recent report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) supported Shneidman’s perspective. The CDC noted that 54% of individuals who died by suicide did not have a documented mental disorder. Keep in mind that the CDC wasn’t focusing on people who think about or attempt suicide; their study focused only on individuals who died by suicide. If most individuals who die by suicide don’t have a mental disorder, it’s even more unlikely that people who think about suicide (but don’t act on their thoughts), meet diagnostic criteria for a mental disorder. As one of my mentors used to say, “Having the thought of suicide is not dangerous and is not the problem.”
Truth #2: Suicidal thoughts are not—in and of themselves—a sign of illness. Instead, suicidal thoughts arise naturally, especially during times of excruciating distress.
Myth #3: Scientific knowledge about suicide risk factors and warning signs allows for the prediction and prevention of suicide.
In 1995, renowned suicidologist, Robert Litman wrote:
At present it is impossible to predict accurately any person’s suicide. Sophisticated statistical models . . . and experienced clinical judgments are equally unsuccessful. When I am asked why one depressed and suicidal patient commits suicide while nine other equally depressed and equally suicidal patients do not, I answer, “I don’t know.” (p. 135)
Litman’s comments remain true today. Part of the problem stems from the fact that suicide is what is referred to as a low base rate event. When something occurs at a low base rate, it becomes mathematically very difficult to predict. Suicide is a prime example of a low base rate event. According to the CDC, in 2017, only about 14 of every 100,000 citizens died by suicide.
Imagine you’re at the Neyland football stadium at the University of Tennessee. The stadium is filled with 100,000 fans. Your job is to figure out which 14 of the 100,000 fans will die by suicide over the next 365 days.
A good first step would be to ask everyone in the stadium the question that many suicide prevention specialists ask, “Have you been thinking about suicide?” Assuming the usual base rates and assuming that every one of the 100,000 fans answer you honestly, you might rule out 85,000 people (because they say they haven’t been thinking about suicide) and ask them to leave the stadium. Now you’re down to identifying which 14 of 15,000 will die by suicide.
For your next step you decide to do a quick screen for the diagnosis of clinical depression. Let’s say you’re highly efficient, taking only 20 minutes to screen and diagnose each of the 15,000 remaining fans. Only 50% of the 15,000 fans meet the diagnostic criteria for clinical depression.
At this point, you’ve reduced your population to 7,500 University of Tennessee fans, all of whom are depressed and thinking about suicide. How will you accurately identify the 14 fans who will die by suicide? Mostly, based on mathematics and statistics, you won’t. Every effort to do this in the past has failed. Your best bet might be to provide aggressive psychological treatment for the remaining 7,500 people. However, many of the fans will refuse treatment, including some of whom will later die by suicide. Further, as the year goes by, you’ll discover that several of the 85,000 fans who denied having suicidal thoughts, and whom you immediately ruled out as low risk, will confound your efforts at prediction and die by suicide.
To gain a broader perspective, imagine there are 3,270 stadiums across the U.S., each with 100,000 people, and each with 14 individuals who will die by suicide over the next year. All this points to the magnitude of the problem. Most professionals who try to predict and prevent suicide realize that, at best, they will help some of the people some of the time.
Truth #4: Although there’s always the chance that future research will enable us to predict suicide, decades of scientific research doesn’t support suicide as a predictable event. Even if you know all the salient suicide predictors and warning signs, odds are, in the vast majority of cases, you won’t be able to efficiently predict or prevent suicide attempts or suicide deaths.
Myth #4: Suicide prevention and intervention should focus on eliminating suicidal thoughts.
Logical analysis implies that if suicidal thoughts within an individual are eliminated, then suicide will be prevented. Why then, do the most knowledgeable psychotherapists in the U.S. advise against directly targeting suicidal thoughts in psychotherapy? The first reason is because most people who think about suicide never make a suicide attempt. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
After his son died by suicide, Rick Warren, a famous pastor and author, created a Youtube video titled, “Rick Warren’s Message for Those Considering Suicide.” The video summary reads, “If you have ever struggled with depression or suicide, Pastor Rick has a message for you. The pain you are experiencing will not last forever. There is hope!”
Although over 1,000 viewers clicked on the “thumbs up” sign for the video, there were 535 comments; these comments mostly pushed back on Pastor Warren’s well-intended message. Examples included:
- Are you kidding me??? You’ve clearly never been suicidal or really depressed.
- To say “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem” is like saying: “You couldn’t possibly have suffered long enough, even if you’ve suffered your entire life from many, many issues.”
- This is extremely disheartening. With all due respect. Pastor, you just don’t get it.
Pastor Rick isn’t alone in not getting it. Most of us don’t really get the excruciating distress, deep self-hatred, and chronic shame linked to suicidal thoughts and impulses. And because we don’t get it, most of us try to use rational persuasion to encourage individuals with suicidal thoughts to regain hope and embrace life. Unfortunately, a nearly universal phenomenon called psychological reactance helps explain why rational persuasion—even when well-intended—rarely makes for an effective intervention.
While working with chronically suicidal patients for over two decades, Dr. Marsha Linehan of the University of Washington made an important discovery: when psychotherapists try to get their patients to stop thinking about suicide, the opposite usually happens—the patients become more suicidal.
Linehan’s discovery has played out in my clinical practice. Nearly every time I’ve actively pushed clients to stop thinking about suicide—using various psychological ploys and techniques—my efforts have backfired.
Truth #4: Most individuals who struggle with thoughts of suicide resist outside efforts to make them stop thinking about suicide. Using direct persuasion to convince people they should cheer up, have hope, and embrace life is rarely effective.
Individuals who are suicidal are complex, unique, and in deep distress. Judging them as ill is unhelpful. Believing that we can successfully predict and prevent suicide borders on delusional. Direct persuasion usually backfires. Letting go of the four common suicide myths might make you feel nervous. At least they provided guidance for action, right? But just like having the female on top to prevent pregnancy, clinging to unhelpful myths won’t, in the end, be effective. How do we start over? Where do we go from here?
All solutions—or at least most of them—begin with a clear understanding of the problem. As someone who has worked directly with suicidal individuals for decades, there’s no better person to start us on the journey toward a deeper understanding of suicide than Dr. Marsha Linehan.
Dr. Linehan is the developer of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT for short). DBT is widely hailed as the most effective evidence-based approach for working with chronically suicidal patients. To help her students at the University of Washington better understand the dynamics of suicide, Dr. Linehan begins her teaching with this story:
The suicidal person [is] 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.
Efforts to understand someone else’s reality are destined to fall short. You can’t always get it right, but that’s okay, because empathy is more about being with and feeling with others, than it is about perfectly understanding them. Trying to understand the inner world of others is an act of courage and compassion. Thus, our next step is to suspend judgment and begin our descent into that small, dark room with no windows.
The following is another excerpt from a chapter I wrote with my colleagues Roni Johnson and Maegan Rides At The Door. This excerpt focuses on ways in which clinical interviews are used as assessment tools. The full chapter is forthcoming in the Cambridge Handbook of Clinical Assessment and Diagnosis. For more (much more) information on clinical interviewing, see our textbook, creatively titled, Clinical Interviewing, now in its 6th edition. If you’re a professor or college instructor, you can get a free evaluation copy here: https://www.wiley.com/en-us/Clinical+Interviewing%2C+6th+Edition-p-9781119215585
The clinical interview often involves more assessment and less intervention. Interviewing assessment protocols or procedures may not be limited to initial interviews; they can be woven into longer term assessment or therapy encounters. Allen Frances (2013), chair of the DSM-IV task force, recommended that clinicians “be patient,” because accurate psychiatric diagnosis may take “five minutes. . .” “five hours. . .” “five months, or even five years” (p. 10).
Four common assessment interviewing procedures are discussed next: (1) the intake interview, (2) the psychodiagnostic interview, (4) mental status examinations, and (4) suicide assessment interviewing.
The Intake Interview
The intake interview is perhaps the most ubiquitous clinical interview; it may be referred to as the initial interview, the first interview, or the psychiatric interview. What follows is an atheoretical intake interview model, along with examples of how theoretical models emphasize or ignore specific interview content.
Broadly speaking, intake interviews focus on three assessment areas: (1) presenting problem, (2) psychosocial history, and (3) current situation and functioning. The manner in which clinicians pursue these goals varies greatly. Exploring the client’s presenting problem could involve a structured diagnostic interview, generation and analysis of a problem list, or clients free associating to their presenting problem. Similarly, the psychosocial history can be a cursory glimpse at past relationships and medical history or a rich and extended examination of the client’s childhood. Gathering information about the client’s current situation and functioning can range from an informal query about the client’s typical day to a formal mental status examination (Yalom, 2002).
The psychodiagnostic interview is a variant of the intake interview. For mental health professionals who embrace the medical model, initial interviews are often diagnostic interviews. The purpose of a psychodiagnostic interview is to establish a psychiatric diagnosis. In turn, the purpose of psychiatric diagnosis is to describe the client’s current condition, prognosis, and guide treatment.
Psychodiagnostic interviewing is controversial. Some clinicians view it as essential to treatment planning and positive treatment outcomes (Frances, 2013). Others view it in ways similar to Carl Rogers (1957), who famously wrote, “I am forced to the conclusion that … diagnostic knowledge is not essential to psychotherapy. It may even be … a colossal waste of time” (pp. 102–103). As with many polarized issues, it can be useful to take a moderate position, recognizing the potential benefits and liabilities of diagnostic interviewing. Benefits include standardization, a clear diagnostic focus, and identification of psychiatric conditions to facilitate clinical research and treatment (Lilienfeld, Smith, & Watts, 2013). Liabilities include extensive training required, substantial time for administration, excess structure and rigidity that restrain experienced clinicians, and questionable reliability and validity, especially in real-world clinical settings (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2017).
Clinicians who are pursuing diagnostic information may integrate structured or semi-structured diagnostic interviews into an intake process. The research literature is replete with structured and semi-structured diagnostic interviews. Clinicians can choose from broad and comprehensive protocols (e.g., the Structured Clinical Interview for DSM-5 Disorders – Clinician Version; First et al., 2016) to questionnaires focusing on a single diagnosis (e.g., Autism Diagnostic Interview – Revised; Zander et al., 2017). Additionally, some diagnostic interviewing protocols are designed for research purposes, while others help clinicians attain greater diagnostic reliability and validity. Later in this chapter we focus on psychodiagnostic interviewing reliability and validity.
The Mental Status Examination
The MSE is a semi-structured interview protocol. MSEs are used to organize, assess, and communicate information about clients’ current mental state (Sommers-Flanagan, 2016; Strub & Black, 1977). To achieve this goal, some clinicians administer a highly structured Mini-Mental State Evaluation (MMSE; Folstein, Folstein, & McHugh, 1975), while others conduct a relatively unstructured assessment interview but then organize their observations into a short mental status report. There are also clinicians who, perhaps in the spirit of Piaget’s semi-clinical interviews, combine the best of both worlds by integrating a few structured MSE questions into a less structured interview process (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2017).
Although the MSE involves collecting data on diagnostic symptoms, it is not a psychodiagnostic interview. Instead, clinicians collect symptom-related data to communicate information to colleagues about client mental status. Sometimes MSEs are conducted daily or hourly. MSEs are commonly used within medical settings. Knowledge of diagnostic terminology and symptoms is a prerequisite to conducting and reporting on mental status.
Introducing the MSE. When administering an MSE, an explanation or role induction is needed. A clinician might state, “In a few minutes, I’ll start a more formal method of getting … to know you. This process involves me asking you a variety of interesting questions so that I can understand a little more about how your brain works” (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2017, pp. 580–581).
Common MSE domains. Depending on setting and clinician factors, the MSE may focus on neurological responses or psychiatric symptoms. Nine common domains included in a psychiatric-symptom oriented MSE are
- Behavior/psychomotor activity
- Attitude toward examiner (interviewer)
- Affect and mood
- Speech and thought
- Perceptual disturbances
- Orientation and consciousness
- Memory and intelligence
- Reliability, judgment, and insight.
Given that all assessment processes include error and bias, mental status examiners should base their reports on direct observations and minimize interpretive statements. Special care to cross-check conclusive statements is necessary, especially when writing about clients who are members of traditionally oppressed minority groups (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2017). Additionally, using multiple assessment data sources (aka triangulation; see Using multiple (collateral) data sources) is essential in situations where patients may have memory problems (e.g., confabulation) or be motivated to over- or underreport symptoms (Suhr, 2015).
MSE reports. MSE reports are typically limited to one paragraph or one page. The content of an MSE report focuses specifically on the previously listed nine domains. Each domain is addressed directly with at least one statement.
Suicide Assessment Interviewing
The clinical interview is the gold standard for suicide assessment and intervention (Sommers-Flanagan, 2018). This statement is true, despite the fact that suicide assessment interviewing is not a particularly reliable or valid method for predicting death by suicide (Large & Ryan, 2014). The problem is that, although standardized written assessments exist, they are not a stand-alone means for predicting or intervening with clients who present with suicide ideation. In every case, when clients endorse suicide ideation on a standardized questionnaire or scale, a clinical interview follow-up is essential. Although other assessment approaches exist, they are only supplementary to the clinical interview. Key principles for conducting suicide assessment interviews are summarized below.
Contemporary suicide assessment principles. Historically, suicide assessment interviewing involved a mental health professional conducting a systematic suicide risk assessment. Over the past two decades, this process has changed considerably. Now, rather than taking an authoritative stance, mental health professionals seek to establish an empathic and collaborative relationship with clients who are suicidal (Jobes, 2016). Also, rather than assuming that suicide ideation indicates psychopathology or suicide risk, clinicians frame suicide ideation as a communication of client distress. Finally, instead of focusing on risk factors and suicide prediction, mental health professionals gather information pertaining to eight superordinate suicide dimensions or drivers and then work with suicidal clients to address these dimensions through a collaborative and therapeutic safety planning process (Jobes, 2016). The eight superordinate suicide dimensions include:
- Unbearable emotional or psychological distress: Unbearable distress can involve one or many trauma, loss, or emotionally disturbing experiences.
- Problem-solving impairments: Suicide theory and empirical evidence both point to ways in which depressive states can reduce client problem-solving abilities.
- Interpersonal disconnection, isolation, or feelings of being a social burden: Joiner (2005) has posited that thwarted belongingness and perceiving oneself as a burden contributes to suicidal conditions.
- Arousal or agitation: Many different physiological states can increase arousal/agitation and push clients toward using suicide as a solution to their unbearable distress.
- Hopelessness: Hopelessness is a cognitive variable linked to suicide risk. It can also contribute to problem-solving impairments.
- Suicide intent and plan: Although suicide ideation is a poor predictor of suicide, when ideation is accompanied by an active suicide plan and suicide intent, the potential of death by suicide is magnified.
- Desensitization to physical pain and thoughts of death: Fear of death and aversion to physical pain are natural suicide deterrents; when clients lose their fear of death or become desensitized to pain, suicide behaviors can increase.
- Access to firearms: Availability of a lethal means, in general, and access to firearms, in particular, substantially increase suicide risk.
(For additional information on suicide assessment interviewing and the eight suicide dimensions, see other posts on this site).