Category Archives: Clinical Interviewing

Love, Sex, Racism, Suicide, Goal-Setting, Awards, Stories, Burnout, Flexibility, and the Whole Genome at the Psychotherapy Networker Symposium Conference

The View from the Corner

As I type, Steven Hayes, the creator of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), is talking in a variety of voices about mindful acceptance. Earlier, he mentioned something about the whole human genome. In case you don’t already know, Steve is an older white guy. His writing about psychotherapy is fantastic. I really like his Ted talk. I’ve found his question, “What shall we do with our difficult thoughts?” an excellent prompt to reflect on.

Steve and I have a history. I’m glad to say that I’ve mindfully accepted that he missed his supervision appointment with me at AABT (now ABCT) back in 1987 in Los Angeles. Really. I’ve let go Steve standing me up, not because I’m all that good at forgiveness, but because him skipping out on our chance to meet makes for a better story. In fact, in this mindful moment, I’ve accepted him missing our meeting so completely that I have no urge to try to meet him today.

This is my first Networker “Symposium.” I hadn’t realized it was quite the distinctive thing. They’ve got numbers you can put on your badges to represent how many times you’ve attended the Symposium. Although it’s just a conference, it does have a particular flair and feel. From the beginning, there was movement, talk about love and sex-tech, dancing, singing, and learning. The breadth of content and diversity of attendees has been marvelous.

I started the first day with a workshop on Love and the Therapeutic relationship with Sabrina N’Diaye. Later, I took in a workshop on Tech-Sex with Tammy Nelson, author of Getting the Sex you Want. Nelson basically blew my mind. Did you know there are “devices” you can use to remotely vibrate your romantic partner’s genitalia? I didn’t . . . and maybe I didn’t want to. Did you know someone commented in the session that “Dominants” use that vibrating device to issue “commands?” I was sitting next to a professional cuddler and sexual surrogate. She was delightful. Steve Hayes (and Ram Dass) would be proud of the fact that I managed my difficult thoughts by staying in the here and now instead of trying to imagine her work or think about what the dominatrix had shared. Just saying. My mind remained as pure as the water of the Stillwater River.

There’s been lots of talk about racism at the Symposium. That’s a good thing. I’m better for it. The more we can all be less racist or anti-racist and aware of our biases, the better. Of course, while I’m typing this, my almost erstwhile buddy Steve continues to talk (and sometimes mumble). I’m aware (somewhat painfully) that I’m more “like” him in age and gender and ethnicity and can’t help but lament that (sorry Steve). Being an old white guy brings privilege (or advantage, as our first keynote speaker preferred). At the same time, looking in the mirror and seeing myself as just another old white guy also brings along gut-level unpleasantness.

Yesterday’s highlights were listening to Ester Perel (very smart, very articulate, very impressive) and learning more about Susan Johnson and her personal history of growing up in a Pub. We also listened to three young women talk about the couple therapy experiences that changed them. Fabulous.

One of my (many) take-aways from the past two days is for me to NOT be THAT old WHITE guy. I want to be a different white guy. How does that work? Among other things, I will try not to think too much of myself . . . or mumble.

Steve is now trying to get us all to love ourselves. That’s a nice idea. Someday, Steve, I hope to get there. But, to channel our Saturday morning Symposium keynote speaker, Emily Nagoski, most of the time, things just don’t fucking work.

Wait. I know that sounds negative. Among many of her excellent points about coping with burnout, Emily played a cool song (of her twin sister’s), a song liberally infused with the F-word. If you’ve ever experienced technology frustration (which I suppose even happens with sex-tech), you should listen. Here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eottd9Lw8l4 If you listen, don’t think about sex-tech at the same time. There’s no need to thank me for this great advice.

I’ve now abandoned Steve, in favor of one of the darling presenters of the Symposium and PESI. Sorry Steve . . . but I know you’ll mindfully accept your experience of me abandoning you. . . partly because you’ve never acknowledged my existence anyway (see, I’m totally over that 1987 incident).

There’s a woman talking . . . softly . . . without the changing voice routines of Steve Hayes. As she drones on, she mentions that therapy and therapists can be triggering. . . which is interesting given that I can’t find any affect in her voice. I’ve taken a seat on the floor in the back corner of the room and quickly recognized she’s right. She’s right because she instantly triggered me as I walked in the door with her monotone statement that talk therapy doesn’t work for trauma (what about CPT . . . or?). She continued to trigger me with her statement that PTSD was only identified in the 1970s (what about the diagnosis of war neurosis or battle fatigue or the many other earlier versions of PTSD?). And she finished triggering me with her laudatory comments on narrative therapy (does she NOT think of narrative therapy as “talk therapy?”).

I know my job here. Mindful acceptance. Learn what I can. Maybe the learning is about my own triggers or my own internal lament over being an increasingly irrelevant old white guy. Maybe the learning is about how to stay calm and embrace both ends of the constant dialectics and polarities of life.

On the whole, I’m so glad to be here at the Symposium, with Rita, and so grateful to continue learning. The fact that the conference has stimulated some of what Steve would call “difficult thoughts” is a blessing to be mindfully accepted. How else do we learn? How else do we grow? Should we expect to be constantly confronted with easy, comfortable, and affirming thoughts?

I think not. And I accept that . . . in my whole human genome.

The Foreword to The 15-Minute Case Conceptualization

Jon Sperry asked if I could write the foreword for a book he and his dad wrote with Oxford University Press.

Because the truth will set me free, I should admit, I’d never written a foreword before. More truth . . . I went ahead and said “Yes” to Jon because (a) I was honored and didn’t want the opportunity to write my first foreword slip away, (b) the book was (is) cool (it’s “The 15-Minute Case Conceptualization”), and (c) Jon Sperry is one of the nicest guys on the planet.

The book arrived in my mailbox yesterday. You too, can get a copy through your favorite bookseller. For more information, here’s the link to the book on the publisher’s website: https://global.oup.com/academic/product/the-15-minute-case-conceptualization-9780197517987?cc=us&lang=en&#

And for even more information about this excellent book, my first-ever foreword is below.

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I’ve needed this book for 30 years.

Just last month (before reading this book), I was standing in front of a Zoom camera, trying to teach the basics of case conceptualization to a group of 23 master’s and doctoral students. All of my fine-grained case conceptualization wisdom was being channeled into a single visual and verbal performance.

“My left hand,” I said, “is the client’s problem.” Pausing briefly for dramatic effect, I then continued, “and my right hand is the client’s goal.”

My new-found nonverbal gestures are mostly a function of seeing myself onscreen, and therefore wanting to avoid seeing myself (and being seen by the class) as boring. To add spice to my case conceptualization gesturing. “Case conceptualization is simple,” I said. “All it is, is the path we take to help clients move from their problem state . . . toward their goal state (I finished with a flourish, by wiggling the fingers on my raised right hand).”

But boiled down truths are always partly lies. Despite my fabulous mix of the verbal and nonverbal, I was lying to my students. At the time, I had thought of it as a little white lie, all for the higher purpose of simplification. And although I still like what I said and still believe in the rough truth of my visual case conceptualization description, after reading Len and Jon Sperry’s illuminating work on case conceptualization, I better understand what I should have said.

Case conceptualization is not simple. As the Sperry’s describe in this book, case conceptualization—even when summarized well—includes multiple dimensions of human behavior along with clinician perception, judgment, and decision-making. I needed much more than a few wiggly fingers to communicate the detailed nuances of case conceptualization.

What these authors have done in this book is the gracious service that great writers do so well: They have done our homework for us. They’ve read extensively, taken notes, and gifted us with elegant summaries of dense and complex concepts. They’ve made it easy for us to understand and apply the principles and practices of case conceptualization.

What I might like best is how they transformed a bulky and inconsistent literature into simple, therapist-friendly principles. They emphasize the explanatory, tailoring, and predictive powers of case conceptualization. I’ve never organized case conceptualizations using those “powers” but doing so was like switching on a light-bulb. Of course, case conceptualizations should explain the relationships between client problems and client goals and shine a bright light along the path, but rarely do theorists or writers make this linkage so efficiently. Their second principle, “tailoring” case conceptualizations to individual and diverse clients, is an essential, idiographic, Adlerian idea. The whole idea of tailoring counters the all-too-frequent cook-book approach to case conceptualization. Tailoring breathes life into creating client-specific case conceptualizations. And of course, case conceptualizations need predictive power; Len and Jon equip us with enough foundational predictive language to improve how we evaluate our own work.

Many other examples of how elegantly the authors have done our homework are sprinkled throughout this book. Here’s another of my favorite examples.

In chapter 2, they take us (in a few succinct paragraphs) from what Theodore Millon described as eight evolutionarily-driven personality disorders to eight crisply described behavioral patterns. What I love about this is that Len and Jon’s wisdom transforms what might otherwise be viewed as a pathologizing personality disorder system into language that can be used collaboratively with clients to identify contextually maladaptive interpersonal patterns. This is a beautiful transformation because it spins psychopathology into something clients not only understand but will feel compelled to embrace. The process goes something like this:

  1. Therapist and client engage in an assessment process that touches on the client’s repeating maladaptive behavior patterns. These behavior patterns are palpably troubling and far less than optimal for the client.
  2. As all clinicians inherently know, touching upon clients’ repetitive maladaptive behavior patterns can activate client vulnerability. This is a primary challenge of all counseling and psychotherapy: How can we nudge clients toward awareness without simultaneously activating resistance? For decades, psychoanalysts managed this through cautious trial interpretations. Solution-focused therapists dealt with this by never speaking of problems. Gently coaxing ambivalent clients toward awareness and change is the whole point of motivational interviewing.
  3. When addressed in a sensitive and non-pathologizing way, deep maladaptive behavior patterns can be discussed without activating resistance or excessive emotionality. This is a critical and not often discussed part of case conceptualization. Len and Jon illuminate a path for gentle, sensitive, and collaborative case conceptualization.
  4. When clients can feel, recognize, and embrace their maladaptive behavioral patterns in the context of an accepting therapeutic relationship, insight is possible. In the tradition of Adlerian therapy, when insight happens, client interest is piqued and motivation to change spikes. Good case conceptualizations articulate problem patterns in ways that compel clients to invest in change.

I’m not surprised that Len and Jon Sperry have produced such a magnificently helpful book. If you dig into their backgrounds and conduct a case conceptualization of their personality patterns, you’ll discover they wholeheartedly embrace Alfred Adler’s work and consequently, much of what they do is all about social interest or Gemeinschaftsgefühl. Len and Jon Sperry are in the business of helping others. Reading their book has already helped me become better at teaching case conceptualization. I appreciate their work, and, no doubt, the next time I begin waving my hands in front of my Zoom camera, my students will appreciate their work too.

John Sommers-Flanagan – Missoula, MT

Vid-Podding with Francesca on “Normalize the Conversation”

Apparently, video podcasts are the thing. Or maybe they’ve been a thing for a while. . . or at least since early 2020 and the onset of the Zoom age. I think we should call them vid-pods.

Two weeks ago, I promoted a vid-pod with Paula Fontenelle, Stacey Freedenthal, and me. It was Paula’s vid-pod, titled “Understand Suicide.” Paula is very experienced, very knowledgeable and produces great vid-pods. You can check out all her work, including her podcast (aka vid-pod) at: https://www.understandsuicide.com/

Late last year, Victor Yalom of Psychotherapy.net asked if he could connect me for a possible appearance on a vid-pod called “Normalize the Conversation.” Normalize the Conversation is the brain-child of Francesca Reicherter. Francesca is also the Founder and President of “Inspiring My Generation.” I think Victor wanted me to promote our 7.5-hour marathon Suicide Assessment and Treatment video training series with Psychotherapy.net. . . so here’s the link to that: https://www.psychotherapy.net/videos/expert/john-sommers-flanagan

In contrast to Paula, Stacey, Victor, and me, Francesca is very young. . . and she’s a powerhouse. I’m not sure where she finds the time to do all that she’s doing. She’s 23, but started her mental health advocacy work at age 12. She has published a workbook, founded her own organization, and has over 60 vid-pod episodes online. She’s also a graduate student. You can read more about Francesca here: https://inspiringmygeneration.org/2021/05/28/francesca-reicherter-starting-the-conversation-on-mental-health-conditions/

You can also check out all her vid-pods at: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/normalize-the-conversation/id1587903841 – The vid-pod with me is from February 2, 2022 and here: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/what-you-should-know-about-the-clinical-interview/id1587903841?i=1000549745008

Francesca and I did a recording together and she did a bunch of editing and promoting and this past week she sent me some video clips of our time together. What you’ll immediately notice in the video clips is that Francesca is an artist at getting people to talk. Throughout the clips, I’m talking and she’s not. Somehow, she got me to talk for about 47 minutes (although she did some nice summaries and commentary here and there). If my experience is at all representative, I suspect Francesca will be a talented therapist and fabulous listener.

You can check out the vid-pod clips below, but more importantly, check out all the amazing work of Paula, Stacey, Victor, and Francesca . . . all of whom are making the world a place where supportive and quality mental health services are more accessible.

How on Earth Could Suicide Rates Go Down Along with the Onset of the Pandemic in 2020?

Last week I got to be part of an amazing conversation with Paula Fontenelle and Stacey Freedenthal. Paula and Stacey are experts in suicide prevention, postvention, and treatment. You can easily find them and some of their great work online using your favorite search engine. They both have books out. Paula’s is: Understanding Suicide and Stacey’s is: Helping the Suicidal Person.

Paula invited Stacey and I onto her podcast (which is also a video production). We all sat in separate rooms in three different states (Oregon, Colorado, and Montana) and talked about, “How on earth” it could be that pandemic-related mental health stress and distress is up (the research says so), and yet suicide rates in 2020 dipped, for the first time in two decades? What a great question!

Between the three of us, we had many answers. That’s good, because death by suicide is always influenced by many factors (in the scientific world, we like to say that suicide is multi-determined). Our answers are speculative, but I think it’s good to be speculative, as long as you admit to the fact that you’re being speculative.

The most fascinating of many fascinating explanations for the recent reduction in suicide rates was our “in real time” discovery that the pandemic relief checks went out in April of 2020. That was important because, year-after-year, the CDC reports that April is nearly ALWAYS the month with the highest suicide rates and in 2020, it was the LOWEST. Why is April always linked to high suicide rates? No one knows for sure, but Paula, Stacey, and I talk about potential explanations for that too. As T. S. Eliot wrote:

“April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.”

If you’re interested in suicide-related phenomena—not everyone is—you should listen or watch Paula’s “Understand Suicide” podcast. You can watch any of the episodes for great info, but for our episode, here are the links.

To watch: https://youtu.be/fPrDdQg7G_E

To listen: https://bit.ly/3KrJILO

Have a great weekend.

Paradoxical Intention: Don’t Try This at Home (or maybe don’t try it anywhere)

People want change.

People don’t want change.

As W. R. Miller noted in his treatise on motivational interviewing (MI), ambivalence is nearly always the order of the day. Most people, most of the time, would like to be better and healthier versions of themselves. And, most people, most of the time, resist becoming better and healthier versions of themselves.  Who knew?

Alfred Adler may have been the first modern psychotherapist to write from a non-psychoanalytic perspective about how to work with individuals not interested in changing. What follows is a complex quote from Adler. He’s writing about how to work with a patient who is depressed, but not motivated or willing to change. You may need to read this excerpt several times to track it and appreciate Adler’s method. You may see all those words below and not want to put in the effort. That’s okay. You can stop reading now if you don’t want to gather in the nuance sprinkled into Adler’s indirect suggestion.

After establishing a sympathetic relation, I give suggestions for a change of conduct in two stages. In the first stage my suggestion is “Only do what is agreeable to you.” The patient usually answers, “Nothing is agreeable.” “Then at least,” I respond, “do not exert yourself to do what is disagreeable.” The patient, who has usually been exhorted to do various uncongenial things to remedy this condition, finds a rather flattering novelty in my advice, and may improve in behavior. Later I insinuate the second rule of conduct, saying that “It is much more difficult and I do not know if you can follow it.” After saying this I am silent, and look doubtfully at the patient. In this way I excite his [her/their] curiosity and ensure his attention, and then proceed, “If you could follow this second rule you would be cured in fourteen days. It is—to consider from time to time how you can give another person pleasure. It would very soon enable you to sleep and would chase away all your sad thoughts. You would feel yourself to be useful and worthwhile.”

I receive various replies to my suggestion, but every patient thinks it is too difficult to act upon. If the answer is, “How can I give pleasure to others when I have none myself?” I relieve the prospect by saying, “Then you will need four weeks.” The more transparent response, “Who gives me pleasure?” I counter with what is probably the strongest move in the game, by saying, “Perhaps you had better train yourself a little thus: do not actually do anything to please anyone else, but just think about how you could do it!” (Adler, 1964a, pp. 25–26)

Similar to Adler, Viktor Frankl also wrote about using “anti-suggestion” or paradox. Frankl was keen on this method as a means for treating anxiety, compulsions, and physical symptoms. An excerpt from our theories textbook describing Frankl’s paradoxical intention follows.

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Paradoxical Intention

. . . In a case example, Frankl discussed using paradox with a bookkeeper who was suffering from chronic writer’s cramp. The man had seen many physicians without improvement; he was in danger of losing his job. Frankl’s approach was to instruct the man to:

Do just the opposite from what he usually had done; namely, instead of trying to write as neatly and legibly as possible, to write with the worst possible scrawl. He was advised to say to himself, “now I will show people what a good scribbler I am!” And at that moment in which he deliberately tried to scribble, he was unable to do so. “I tried to scrawl but simply could not do it,” he said the next day. Within forty-eight hours the patient was in this way freed from his writer’s cramp, and remained free for the observation period after he had been treated. He is a happy man again and fully able to work. (Frankl, 1967, p. 4)

Frankl attributed the success of paradox, in part, to humor. He claimed that paradox allows individuals to place distance between themselves and their situation. New (humorous) perspectives allow clients to let go of symptoms. Frankl considered paradoxically facilitated attitude changes to represent deep and not superficial change.

Given that Frankl emphasized humor as the therapeutic mechanism underlying paradoxical intention, it fits that he would use a joke to explain how paradoxical intention works,

The basic mechanism underlying the technique…perhaps can best be illustrated by a joke which was told to me some years ago: A boy who came to school late excused himself to the teacher on the grounds that the icy streets were so slippery that whenever he moved one step forward he slipped two steps back again. Thereupon the teacher retorted, “Now I have caught you in a lie—if this were true, how did you ever get to school?” Whereupon the boy calmly replied, “I finally turned around and went home!” (Frankl, 1967, pp. 4–5)

Frankl believed paradoxical intention was especially effective for anxiety, compulsions, and physical symptoms. He reported on numerous cases, similar to the man with writer’s cramp, in which a nearly instantaneous cure resulted from the intervention. In addition to ascribing the cure to humor and distancing from the symptom, Frankl emphasized that paradox teaches clients to intentionally exaggerate, rather than avoid, their existential realities.

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I’m writing about paradoxical intention today because of an inspiration from Rita’s blog yesterday. There’s so much ostensible hate, judgment, and certainty in contemporary discourse. That got me thinking about whether a paradoxical approach might be timely and effective. Yesterday, I tried it on myself. Stay tuned, in my next post, I’ll write about how a little paradox worked out for me, and how it might help shift some of the lamentable, polarized arguments happening all around us.  

Who Wants a Two-Day Professional Workshop on Strengths-Based Suicide Assessment and Treatment?

I’ve got a friend who writes to me in acronyms. TBH is “To be honest.” LMK is “Let me know.” IMHO is “In my humble opinion.” FYI is “For your information.” YSKAT is “You should know about this.”

When I read my friend’s emails, there are always more letters than words, if YKWIM (you know what I mean).

This leads me to my PP (promotional point).

TBH signing up for a two-day SBSASTW (strengths-based suicide assessment and treatment workshop) isn’t everyone’s COT (cup of tea). TAI (think about it). That’s like 13 hours of suicide-related content. If you TAI, it CBYD (could bring you down).

That’s why, we will weave some PDC (pretty damn cool) EBHIs (evidence-based happiness interventions) into our 13 hours. This will be the MFE (most fun ever) two days of suicide training on November 19 and 20. YCBOI (you can bet on it).

But IMHO, woohoo. Really YSKAT. IMHO signing up for a two-day strengths-based suicide assessment and treatment workshop is TRTTD (the right thing to do).

YAMBWing (You also may be wondering), when John writes “we” is he going with the singular “we” or is he indicating there will be other presenters. TBH, John doesn’t know, but he’s hoping to recruit some of the amazing participants from this summer MHP (Montana Happiness Project) retreat to join in on the FUN (fricken unbelievably nice).

OK. I’ve had it with all these letters. And so, if you want to sign up, check out “Session three” on this link: https://www.familiesfirstmt.org/umworkshops.html

If that doesn’t help, send me an email (john.sf@mso.umt.edu) and I’ll see if I can help you figure out how to sign up. Just LMK. The session is also Zoomable.

The Efficacy of Antidepressant Medications with Youth: Part II

After posting (last Thursday) our 1996 article on the efficacy of antidepressant medications for treating depression in youth, several people have asked if I have updated information. Well, yes, but because I’m old, even my updated research review is old. However, IMHO, it’s still VERY informative.

In 2008, the editor of the Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, invited Rita and I to publish an updated review on medication efficacy. Rita opted out, and so I recruited Duncan Campbell, a professor of psychology at the University of Montana, to join me.

Duncan and I discovered some parallels and some differences from our 1996 article. The parallels included the tendency for researchers to do whatever they could to demonstrate medication efficacy. That’s not surprising, because much of the antidepressant medication research is funded by pharmaceutical companies. Another parallel was the tendency for researchers to overstate or misstate or twist some of their conclusions in favor of antidepressants. Here’s the abstract:

Abstract

This article reviews existing research pertaining to antidepressant medications, psychotherapy, and their combined efficacy in the treatment of clinical depression in youth. Based on this review, we recommend that youth depression and its treatment can be readily understood from a social-psycho-bio model. We maintain that this model presents an alternative conceptualization to the dominant biopsychosocial model, which implies the primacy of biological contributors. Further, our review indicates that psychotherapy should be the frontline treatment for youth with depression and that little scientific evidence suggests that combined psychotherapy and medication treatment is more effective than psychotherapy alone. Due primarily to safety issues, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors should be initiated only in conjunction with psychotherapy and/or supportive monitoring.

The main difference from our 1996 review was that in the late 1990s and early 2000s, there were several SSRI studies where SSRIs were reported as more efficacious than placebo. Overall, we found 6 of 10 reporting efficacy. An excerpt follows:

Our PsychInfo and PubMed database searches and cross- referencing strategies identified 10 published RCTs of SSRI efficacy. In total, these studies compared 1,223 SSRI treated patients to a similar number of placebo controls. Using the researchers’ own efficacy criteria, six studies returned significant results favoring SSRIs over placebo. These included 3 of 4 fluoxetine studies (Emslie et al. 1997, 2002; Simeon et al. 1990; The TADS Team 2004), 1 of 3 paroxetine studies (Berard et al. 2006; Emslie et al. 2006; Keller 2001), 1 of 1 sertraline study (Wagner et al. 2003), and 1 of 1 citalopram study (Wagner et al. 2004).

Despite these pharmaceutical-funded positive outcomes, medication-related side-effects were startling, and the methodological chicanery discouraging. Here’s an excerpt where we take a deep dive into the medication-related side effects and adverse events (N.B., the researchers should be lauded for their honest reporting of these numbers, but not for their “safe and effective” conclusions).

SSRI-related medication safety issues for young patients, in particular, deserve special scrutiny and articulation. For example, Emslie et al. (1997) published the first RCT to claim that fluoxetine is safe and efficacious for treating youth depression. Further inspection, however, uncovers not only methodological problems (such as the fact that psychiatrist ratings provided the sole outcome variable and the possibility that intent-to-treat analyses conferred an advantage for fluoxetine due to a 46% discontinuation rate in the placebo condition), but also, three (6.25%) fluoxetine patients developed manic symptoms, a finding that, when extrapolated, suggests the possibility of 6,250 mania conversions for every 100,000 treated youth.

Similarly, in the much-heralded Treatment of Adolescents with Depression Study (TADS), self-harming and suicidal adverse events occurred among 12% of fluoxetine treated youth and only 5% of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) patients. Additionally, psychiatric adverse events were reported for 21% of fluoxetine patients and 1% of CBT patients (March et al. 2006; The TADS Team 2004, 2007). Keller et al. (2001), authors of the only positive paroxetine study, reported similar data regarding SSRI safety. In Keller et al.’s sample, 12% of paroxetine-treated adolescents experienced at least one adverse event, and 6% manifested increased suicidal ideation or behavior. Interestingly, in the TCA and placebo comparison groups, no participants evinced increased suicidality. Nonetheless, Keller et al. claimed paroxetine was safe and effective.

When it came to combination treatment, we found only two studies, one of which made a final recommendation that was nearly the opposite of their findings:

Other than TADS, only one other RCT has evaluated combination SSRI and psychotherapy treatment for youth with depression. Specifically, Melvin et al. (2006) directly compared sertraline, CBT, and their combination. They observed partial remission among 71% of CBT patients, 33% of sertraline patients, and 47% of patients receiving combined treatment. Consistent with previously reviewed research, Sertraline patients evidenced significantly more adverse events and side effects. Surprisingly and in contradiction with their own data, Melvin et al. recommended CBT and sertraline with equal strength.

As I summarize the content from our article, I’m aware that you might conclude that I’m completely against antidepressant medication use. That’s not the case. For me, the take-home points include, (a) SSRI antidepressants appear to be effective for some young people with depression, and (b) at the same time, as a general treatment, the risk of side effects, adverse effects, and minimal treatment effects make SSRIs a bad bet for uniformly positive outcomes, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be any positive outcomes. In the end, for my money—and for the safety of children and adolescents—I’d go with counseling/psychotherapy or exercise as primary treatments for depressive symptoms in youth, both of which have comparable outcomes to SSRIs, with much less risk.

And here’s a link to the whole article:

 

Antidepressant Medications for Treating Depression in Youth: A 25-Year Flashback

About 25-years ago Rita and I published an article titled, “Efficacy of antidepressant medication with depressed youth: what psychologists should know.” Although the article targeted psychologists and was published in the journal, Professional Psychology, the content was relevant to all mental health professionals as well as anyone who works closely with children.

Yesterday, when teaching my research class to a fantastic group of Master’s students in the Department of Counseling at UM, I had a moment of reminiscence. Not surprisingly, along with the reminiscence, came a resurgence of emotion and passion. I was sharing about how it’s possible to find an area of interest that hooks so much passion, that you might end up tracking down, literally everything ever published on that topic (as long as the topic is small enough!).

The motivation behind my interest in the efficacy of antidepressants with youth came about because of a confluence of factors. First, I was working with youth every day, many of whom were prescribed antidepressant medications. Second, I was in a sort of professional limbo—working in full-time private practice—but wishing to be in academia. Third, out of virtual nowhere, in 1994, Bob Deaton, a professor of social work at the University of Montana, asked Rita and I to do an all-day presentation for the Montana Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. Bob’s offer was not to be refused, and I’ve been in Bob Deaton’s debt ever since. If you’re out there reading this, thanks again Bob, for your confidence and the opportunity.

To prep, Rita and I split up the content. One of my tasks was to dive into all things related to antidepressant medications. Before embarking on the journey into the literature, I expected there would be modest evidence supporting the efficacy of antidepressants in treating depression in youth.

My expectations were completely wrong. Much to my shock, I discovered that not only was there not much “out there,” but the prevailing research was riddled with methodological problems and, bottom line, there had NEVER been a published study indicating that antidepressants were more effective in treating depression in youth than placebo. I was gob smacked.

Just to give you a taste, here’s the abstract:

Pharmacologic treatments for mental or emotional disorders are becoming increasingly popular, especially in managed care environments. Consequently, psychologists must remain cognizant of medication efficacy concerning specific mental disorders. This article reviews all double-blind, placebo- controlled efficacy trials of tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) with depressed youth that were published in 1985-1994. Also, all group-treatment studies of depressed youth using fluoxetine, a serotonin-specific reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), are summarized. Results indicate that neither TCAs nor SSRIs have demonstrated greater efficacy than placebo in alleviating depressive symptoms in children and adolescents, despite the use of research strategies designed to give antidepressants an advantage over placebo. The implications of these findings for research and practice are discussed.

Early in my research class this semester, an astute young woman asked about the “rule” she had heard about that you shouldn’t cite research that’s more than 10-years-old. It was a great question. I hope I responded rationally, but my apoplectic-ness may have showed in my complexion and words. In my view, we cannot and should not ignore past research. As Samuel Clemens once wrote, “History doesn’t repeat itself, it only rhymes.” If we don’t know the old stuff, we may miss out on the contemporary rhyming pattern. In our article, 25-years-old now, we also discussed some medication research reporting shenanigans (although we used more professional language. Here’s an excerpt of our discussion about drop-out rates.

Dropout rates. Side effects and adverse events can significantly affect medication study outcomes by causing participants to discontinue medication treatment. For example, in the IMI [imipramine] study with children ( Puig-Antich et  al.,  I987), 4 out of 20 (20%) of the medication group did not complete the study, whereas in the two DMI [desipramine] studies ( Boulos et al., l99 l; Kutcher et al., 1994 ), 6 out of 18 (33%) and 9 out of 30 (30%) medication participants dropped out because of side effects. For each of these studies, participants who dropped out of the treatment groups before completing the treatment protocol were eliminated from data analyses. The elimination of dropout participants from data analyses produced inappropriately inflated treatment-response rates. For example, although Puig-Antich et al. (1987) reported a treatment-response rate of 56% (9 of 16 participants), if all participants are included within the data analyses, the adjusted or intent-to-treat response rate is 45% (9/20). For the three studies that reported the number of medication protocol participants who dropped out of the study, the average reduction in response rate was 16.5%. Overall, intent­to-treat response rates ranged from less than 8% to 45% (see Table 2 for intent-to-treat response rates for all reviewed TCA studies).

What’s the value, you might wonder, of looking back 25-years at the methodology and outcomes related to tricyclic antidepressant medication use? You may disagree, but I think the rhyming pattern within antidepressant medication research for youth (and adults) remains. If you’re interested in expanding your historical knowledge about this rhyming, I’ve linked the article here.

Research can be boring; it can be opaque; it can be riddled with stats and numbers. Nevertheless, for me, research remains exciting, both as a source of amazing knowledge, but also as something to read with a critical eye.

The Art of Giving Feedback–Revised

[Note: This is an edited and updated version of a post I did a year or two ago.]

Giving and receiving feedback is a huge topic. In this blog post the focus is on giving and receiving feedback in classroom settings or in counseling/psychotherapy supervision. The following guidelines are far from perfect, but they offer ideas that instructors and students can use to structure the feedback giving and receiving process. Check them out, and feel free to improve on what’s here.

Before you do anything, remember that feedback can feel threatening. Hearing about how we sound and what we look like is pretty much a trigger for self-consciousness and vulnerability. Sometimes, when we look in the mirror, we don’t like what we see, and so obviously, when someone else holds up a mirror, the feedback we experience may be . . . uncomfortable. . . to say the least. To help everyone feel a bit safer, the following can be helpful:

  • Acknowledge that feedback is scary.
  • Emphasize that feedback is essential to counseling skill development.
  • Share the feedback process you’ll be using
  • Make recommendations and give examples of what kind of feedback is most useful.

Acknowledge that Feedback is Scary: You can talk about mirrors (see above), or about how unpleasant it is for most people to hear their own voices or see their own images, or tell a story of difficult and helpful feedback. I encourage you to find your own way to acknowledge that feedback triggers vulnerability.

Feedback is Essential: Encourage students to lean into their vulnerability and be open to feedback—but don’t pressure them. Explain: “The reason you’re in a counseling class is to improve your skills. Though hard to hear, constructive feedback is useful for skill development. Don’t think of it as criticism, but as an opportunity to learn from mistakes and improve your counseling skills.” What’s important is to norm the value of giving and getting feedback.

Share the Process You’ll be Using: Before starting a role play or in-class practice scenario, describe the guidelines you’ll be using for giving and receiving feedback (and then generate additional rules from students in the class). Here are some guidelines I’ve used:

  • Everyone who volunteers (or does a demonstration or is being observed) gets appreciation. Saying, “Thanks for volunteering” is essential. I like it when my classes establish a norm where whoever does the role-playing or volunteers gets a round of applause.
  • After being appreciated, the role-player starts the process with a self-evaluation. You might say something like, “After every role play or presentation, the first thing we’ll do is have the person or people who were role-playing share their own thoughts about what they did well and what they think they didn’t do so well.”
  • After the volunteer self-evaluates, they’re asked whether they’d like feedback from others. If they say no, then no feedback should be given. Occasionally students will feel so vulnerable about a performance that they don’t want feedback. We need to accept their preference for no feedback and also encourage them to solicit and accept feedback at some later point in time.

Giving Useful Feedback: It’s always good to start with the positive. Try to be very clear and specific about some things you especially liked. I usually take notes to help me with this; I’ll write down exactly what the role player said and put a + sign next to it so I can say something like, “I see in my notes that I put a + sign next to your very first paraphrase. You seemed to be tracking very well and you shared what you heard with your client in a way that felt nice.

Constructive or corrective feedback shouldn’t focus so much on what was done poorly, but emphasize what could be done to perform the skill even better. Constructive or corrective feedback might sound like this: “I noticed you asked several closed questions. Closed questions aren’t bad questions, but sometimes it’s easier to keep clients talking about important content if you replace your closed questions with open questions or with a paraphrase. Let’s try that. How could you change one of your closed questions to an open question or a paraphrase?” BTW: General and positive comments (e.g., “Good job!”) are pleasant and encouraging, but should be used in combination with more specific feedback; it’s important to know what was good about your job.

Constructive feedback should be specific, concrete, and focused on things that can be modified. For example, you can offer a positive or non-facilitative behavioral observation (e.g., “I noticed you leaned back and crossed your arms when the client started talking about sexuality.”). After making an observation, the feedback giver or the group can explore potential hypotheses (e.g., “Your client might interpret you leaning back and crossing your arms as judgmental”). The feedback giver can also offer an alternative (“Instead, you might want to lean forward and focus on some of your excellent nonverbal listening skills.”).

With constructive feedback you can take some of the evaluation out of the comment by just noticing or observing, rather than judging, “I noticed you said the word, ‘Gotcha’ several times.” You can also ask what else they might say instead, “To vary how you’re responding to your client, what might you say instead of ‘Gotcha’?”

General negative comments such as “That was poorly done.” should be avoided. To be constructive, provide feedback that’s specific, concrete, and holds out the potential for positive change. Feedback should never be uniformly negative. Everyone engages in counseling behaviors that are more or less facilitative. If you happen to be the type who easily sees what’s wrong and have trouble offering praise, impose the following rule on yourself: If you can’t offer positive feedback, don’t offer any at all. Another alternative is to consciously focus on using the sandwich feedback technique when appropriate (i.e., say something positive, say something constructive, then say another positive thing).

IMHO, significant constructive feedback is the responsibility of the instructor and should be given during a private, individual supervision session. The general rule: “Give positive feedback in public and constructive feedback in private” can be useful.

Finally, students should be reminded of the disappointing fact that no one performs perfectly, including the teacher or professor. Also, when you do demonstrations, be sure to model the process by doing a self-evaluation (including things you might have done better), and then asking students for observations and feedback.

A Free Psychotherapy.net Video Offering

I’m just writing you all on this beautiful fall afternoon in Montana to let you know about a FREE 20ish minute video titled, “Working Online with Suicidal Clients in the Age of COVID.” The video features Victor Yalom of Psychotherapy.net and me discussing issues related to suicide and distance counseling.

In honor of national Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, Psychotherapy.net is offering this video free (n.b., to access the video, you’ll need to enter your email address). Note: I used “n.b.” in my previous parenthetical comment to stick with the “Yalom” theme, because I learned to use n.b. (along with a plethora of new vocabulary words, like solipsistic, amnestic, servility, internecine, and sacrosanct), from reading Irvin Yalom’s group psychotherapy textbook.

Here’s the link: https://academy.psychotherapy.net/suicide-prevention-2021-jsf-signup

Victor and I also collaborated on a longer (7.5 hour) suicide assessment and treatment psychotherapy.net video that may be available through your university library subscription.

I hope you’re all as healthy and well as possible.

Happy Autumn,

JSF