Category Archives: Clinical Interviewing

New Zealand Jubilee Resources!

Kia ora.

I’m in New Zealand to present at their 50th Anniversary Jubilee Psychology Society Conference. . . which is way cool. Below are two resource links.

First, the Powerpoint Slides: NZ 2018 Suicide Workshop

Second, a link to my 2018 Journal of Health Service Psychology article on suicide assessment and intervention: https://www.nationalregister.org/pub/the-national-register-report-pub/journal-of-health-service-psychology-winter-2018/conversations-about-suicide-strategies-for-detecting-and-assessing-suicide-risk/

Have a fabulous week!

John

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My Slate Article on Donald Trump’s Dangerous Personality Dimensions

Hi All.

The Slate Magazine article where I use Theodore Millon’s personality descriptions to articulate possible challenges linked to Trump and the U.S. Presidency is out. Here’s the link: https://slate.com/technology/2018/08/no-matter-how-bad-it-gets-trump-will-never-give-up.html

As always, feel free to comment. You can do that here or on the Slate article itself.

John SF

The Rest of the Story on Trump’s Personality

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The Slate article on Donald Trump and his personality is coming out tomorrow morning. Of course, as with all things writing, it was wonderful and challenging. Writing for a popular online magazine like Slate is a new venue for me, so I learned plenty, and was honored to work with Slate’s Health and Science editor, Susan Matthews. She helped me be more focused and more articulate.

I’ll post a link to the article here tomorrow.

The main focus of the article was to look at Donald Trump’s personality through the lens of Theodore Millon’s antisocial personality formulations. Millon’s perspective is fascinating and I think some of his descriptive phrases fit Trump “beautifully,” but one of the  points of the article is for you to be the judge.

In the meantime, I want to share a paragraph that got cut. As we made revisions, it fell slightly outside the focus, but it was one of my favorite paragraphs. . . so here it is:

Recruiting independent actors to resist Trump is difficult. Trump skillfully uses intimidation, direct and indirect threats, and offers of power to recruit new supporters who will walk to the microphone, as Brett Kavanaugh did, and speak to the world of Trump’s unprecedented greatness. Exhibiting a glaring lack of judicial independence, Kavanaugh opened his nomination speech with a no holds barred endorsement of Trump’s character, stating, “No president has ever consulted more widely, or talked with more people from more backgrounds, to seek input about a Supreme Court nomination.” Never mind that reflective consultation is anathema to antisocial personalities or that Kavanaugh would have had to review 230 years of Supreme Court nominations to support his statement. Soliciting others to lie for them is a common antisocial strategy. Kavanaugh‘s genuflection to Trump is a foreboding example of how far and deep Trump’s power and influence run.

After the article is out, I’ll be posting more content that wasn’t quite ready for prime time.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One final note before ending Part Two.

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

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

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

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

Psychiatric diagnosis looks easy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued . . .

Mental Health or Mental Illness: Defining Mental Disorders

East Rosebud

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

Defining Mental Disorders

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

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

Why Mental Disorder and not Mental Illness?

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

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

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

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

General Criteria for Mental Disorders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Diagnose?

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

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

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

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

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

 

Suicide Assessment: Mood Scaling with a Suicide Floor

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The following material is adapted from an article in the Journal of Health Service Psychology. You can access the whole article here: https://www.nationalregister.org/pub/the-national-register-report-pub/journal-of-health-service-psychology-winter-2018/conversations-about-suicide-strategies-for-detecting-and-assessing-suicide-risk/

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My favorite suicide assessment procedure is to ask about suicide in the context of a mood assessment (as in a mental status examination). This procedure utilizes a scaling question to explore patient mood and possible suicide ideation (Sommers-Flanagan & Shaw, 2017). As you read through these steps, think about how you might apply this procedure with a recent or current patient of yours.

  1. Is it okay if I ask some questions about your mood? (This is an invitation for collaboration; patients can say “no,” but rarely do.)
  2. I’d like you to rate your mood right now, using a zero to 10 scale. Zero is the worst mood possible. 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 (you might hold your hand up high to illustrate the top of the scale). 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 is what psychoanalysts call binding affect; it links the internal mood to an external situation.) At this point, you might ask questions to have your patient elaborate, in greater detail, the reason for the current mood rating.
  4. What’s the worst or lowest mood rating you’ve ever had? (This question informs you about the patient’s lowest lows.)
  5. What was happening back then to make you feel so down? (This question binds the sad affect to an external situation; it may lead to discussing previous attempts.) Again, you might take time here to explore a previous attempt, in an effort to understand the (a) dynamics that led to it, (b) the seriousness of suicide intent, and (c) what happened to help the patient live and be with you to work on suicide.
  6. For you, what would be a normal mood rating on a normal day? (You can insert this question at any point where it fits. Often, the best point is after the first mood rating because patients will immediately tell you whether they’re a little more up or a little more down than normal. The purpose is to get your patients to 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.)

This procedure is a general map that can be used more or less creatively. No doubt, when you start the process with an individual patient, there will be opportunities to stray from the procedure. For example, when exploring the low end of her mood, your patient may begin sharing a traumatic experience. If so, you are at a key choice point. Should you continue with the next step in the procedure or focus in more detail on the trauma? Either option may be appropriate and will depend on one or more of the following factors:

  • Based on your best judgment, does your client want to talk about trauma in more detail? If so, you should move in that direction and come back to the procedure later.
  • Do you have time to immediately explore the trauma? If not, then you should say so and let your patient know that when you do have time, you will be interested in hearing details.
  • Do you sense that your rapport is minimal and your client is uncomfortable sharing details? If so, then the best option is to continue with the procedure, making a mental note to check back later when your client is more comfortable.

Numbers can be useful in rating patient mood, but because every patient is unique, the meaning of specific numbers will be subjectively variable. I have interviewed teenagers and young adults who emphasize their distress by saying something like, “I’m a negative three!” Despite the fact that having a negative three rating on the suicide scale indicates—in a quantitative sense—suicide certainty, these patients are typically making a point, and may or may not be an especially high suicide risk. In contrast, I have also worked with cases where adult patients burst into tears and admit to suicide ideation after giving themselves a current mood rating of 8 or 9. One patient who rated herself as “9” explained that she always thought of herself as being a 10. For her, anything outside of a perfect mood rating as terribly disturbing.

            Several of my supervisees who work with teenagers have creatively transformed the scaling method to eliminate numbers. One supervisee engaged a patient in mood scaling using musical genres. After a collaborative conversation, they established that listening to opera 24/7 was equivalent to zero and imminent suicide, while listening to heavy metal was a solid 10. When working with a middle school boy, another former student used Yoga as zero and pizza as 10. The point of these examples is that practitioners can collaborate with patients to identify a method to discuss mood. Collaborative rating systems makes the method personally meaningful to the patient; it also involves interpersonal connection, implying that the assessment method has become simultaneously therapeutic.

The mood scaling procedure offers several advantages. First, it is a process that facilitates engagement, and engagement or interpersonal connection is central part of suicide interventions. Second, when patients bind their low and high moods to concrete external situations, you gain knowledge about the themes and triggers that lift and depress your patient’s mood. Third, as illustrated in the case where a client begins talking about trauma, the mood scaling procedure can be abandoned (temporarily or permanently) in favor of more salient therapeutic opportunities. Fourth, mood scaling flows smoothly into safety planning or other suicide interventions (e.g., “When you say that being a zero always involves you being alone, it tells me that one thing we should talk about now or later is how you can reach out to others, and we should talk about who you want to reach out to, during those times when you’re feeling like a zero. It also tells me that we should talk some more about other methods you can use to move from a zero to a one.”).

One final note: The mood scaling technique is an indirect method for assessing suicidality. As such, it is not a replacement for using a normative frame and asking directly. In fact, you should be thinking about if and when you will weave asking directly into your mood scaling process. For example, if your client says “I’m a 3” you might follow that with a normative-based direct question: “It’s not unusual for people who rate themselves as a three to sometimes have thoughts about suicide. Has that been the case for you?”