Category Archives: Personal Reflections

This is Why I Have a Blog (in 212 words)

While visiting my parents recently an older gentleman on a scooter rode up and greeted me. We had a friendly conversation within the confines of my parents’ gated community. He said his dog had mistaken me for his son. I looked down and saw a small dog or large rodent sniffing my shoes. Then his son emerged from the house. The son was quite animated as he was taking a smoke break from his online gaming.

The next morning I saw the son again. He was pedaling his bicycle slowly, smoking, and looking rather like a homeless man. He didn’t seem to recognize me.

I found myself thinking I felt reassured that the older gentleman’s very small dog obviously had a very small brain.

But who am I to say whom or what I do or do not resemble. Maybe I’m more like a gaming and smoking homeless man on the street than I think. After all, I can’t see myself very well anyway.

This is the nature of my internal conversations. A swing towards the too critical and too judgmental followed by a swing back toward self-critique.

This might be why B.F. Skinner suggested that thinking is irrelevant.

This also might be why I have a blog and not a dog.

Your Life is Now: Trapper Creek Reflections

The Road

Note: This is a re-post. I had a chance to drive to Trapper this past week with one of our doc students and I was reminded of the powerful life experiences that happen at Trapper Creek Job Corps.

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Sometimes on Thursday or Fridays I drive from Missoula to Trapper Creek Job Corps. Then I drive back the same day. It’s a 140 mile round trip. Sometimes I have interns with me. The company makes the miles go by more quickly. Sometimes the interns are very nervous sitting next to me for the whole drive and consequently compete to see who gets the back seat. This makes me wonder if maybe I shouldn’t quiz them about theories of counseling and psychotherapy as we drive there together. Although I wonder about this . . . I haven’t changed my behavior. Maybe this means I’m trying to scare them all into the back seat.

This week I was on my own. When this is the case I usually begin wondering why the heck I drive all these miles. Of course, I get paid to go to Trapper Creek. That’s one answer I give to myself. But I keep wondering anyway. It’s a long day, usually 11 or 12 hours. And when I’m about halfway there, 45 minutes into dodging deer with 45 more minutes to deal with Bitterroot drivers, I begin planning my retirement from Trapper Creek.

This is my 10th year (2013). I know the road and I know the deer and I know the Bitterroot drivers, who, in an apparent show of independence, nearly always drive either 10 mph under or 10 mph over the speed limit.

Today my retirement planning ended shortly after arriving at Trapper Creek. There were three straight appointments scheduled for me: three straight chances to do something more than talk about how to do psychological assessment and psychotherapy. And then a chance to observe and give feedback to the nursing staff and a chance to offer my unsolicited opinion to the physician on how to deal with an ingrown toenail and then a fourth student to see and a staff consultation and a meeting and a quick hello to our three University of Montana school counseling interns and wild typing of reports and poof . . . the day is over without a moment to ponder life or reflect on retirement.

The drive back to Missoula is nearly always better. There are stories to tell, opportunities to second guess myself, and unrealistic hopes and fantasies about having possibly helped someone. The miles melt away.

[The following stories are vague and distorted to preserve anonymity]

Today, with no interns for company my buddy John Cougar Mellencamp joined me on the drive back. We decided to sing together. We sang the same song so many times we lost count.

Your Life is Now

This is your time . . . to do what you will do

The first two young women were graduating from Trapper and moving on to advanced Job Corps training. They needed brief clinical interviews and mental status exams. These two hard working and delightful young women are at Trapper because they’ve experienced poverty and want to improve their lives.

Your life is now

One had a history of having been diagnosed with two severe mental disorders. Before coming to Trapper she’d been on two very powerful psychotropic medications. Funny thing: At Trapper she attained a very high level of functioning without medications . . . for nine straight months!

Your life is now

She had many “citations” for positive behavior. The staff love her. There was no shred of evidence that she had a mental disorder. So I just told her so. She grinned, looked at me, and said, “I guess that’s pretty good news.” Yep, pretty good news.

Your life is now

The second young woman was equally impressive.

In this undiscovered moment

But my last appointment, a young man with a history of trauma, really made my day.

We had visited two weeks previously and had made a plan to try some EMDR for his troubling trauma symptoms. He was eager and right on time. We talked briefly to warm up. He chose a memory. We went through various rating procedures included in the EMDR protocol.

Lift your head up above the crowd

We did several sets of eye movements. I did my usual wandering in and out of the “proper” EMDR protocol. After 10 minutes, we stopped and I asked him to reflect on his experience. He turned his head back and forth and said, “My neck doesn’t hurt anymore.”

We could shake this world

Then he smiled and said, “I feel like I can breathe again.” And then, “I wish I’d known about this ten years ago.”

If you would only show us how

Thank you Trapper Creek

Thank you fine young women and men

Thank you nurses and doctor and interns and staff

Thank you deer and Bitterroot drivers

Thank you for showing me how to shake this world and make a difference.

 Your life is now

The Return of Mother’s Little Helper . . .

This week Allen E. Ivey (the creator of the microcounseling approach) sent me a link to an article claiming that exercise is better for long-term brain functioning than medications. He was “venting” because he thinks this is not “new” information and instead constitutes basic common sense that everyone should embrace. The fact that exercise is good for neurological development and functioning is obvious and it can be frustrating to see the media acting surprised over and over again that life experiences—including counseling and psychotherapy—improves health, life satisfaction, and brain functioning.

Dr. Ivey’s comments and the article he sent reminded me of an unpublished piece I wrote a few years ago. It was a sarcastic commentary on a recent (at the time) publication touting the efficacy of antidepressants in treating depressive symptoms in mothers.

Here’s the piece. Sarcasm included.

The Return of Mother’s Little Helper

            Mother’s little helper is back.

            In a recent landmark study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a prestigious group of researchers reported that children with depression improved or recovered when their depressed mothers became less depressed. The researchers were surprised and optimistic that an environmental change—mothers becoming less depressed—could directly help children whom they thought had biological depression. This is an important finding, especially given concerns about prescribing psychotropic medicines directly to children.

            Having closely followed pharmaceutical research in child psychiatry, I’m always skeptical about landmark studies and promising new drugs, but try to stay balanced and hopeful. When I mentioned the research results to my graduate students in counseling and social work, all of whom happened to be women, they felt no need for balance or hope. They responded in unison.

            “No duh. Obviously children will do better if their mothers aren’t depressed. Who needs a study to tell you that?”

            I felt instantly defensive for pharmaceutical researchers everywhere. Okay, maybe the study demonstrated the obvious, but helping children be less depressed is clearly a good thing.

            My students weren’t convinced. They asked, “What treatment did the mothers’ get?”

            “Mostly they got Celexa.” Celexa is very similar to Prozac. They’re both classified as ‘SSRIs,’ meaning they selectively focus on making serotonin more plentiful in crucial brain regions.

            My cynical students pressed on: “Did the makers of Celexa fund the study?”

            “No,” I responded. “Forest Laboratories makes Celexa, but the study was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.” I felt redeemed; the study was objective.

            “How many of the authors were paid by Forest Laboratories?”

            I happened to have the article with me, so I looked at the back page where financial disclosures are conveniently listed—in very small print. I squinted my way through: “Only 3 authors name Forest Laboratories as giving them money. And Forest Laboratories is thanked in the fine print for supplying all the medication for free.”

            Actually, that wasn’t too bad. There were 15 coauthors on the study; only 20% were linked to Forest Laboratories.

            But my picky students wanted to know about the numbers, so I explained that 151 mothers started the study, but 37 (24.5%) dropped out before three months. Overall, 38 of the 114 remaining mothers recovered from their depressive condition and another 16 improved somewhat. The authors report an overall response rate of 47%.

            A student pecked at her calculator and declared. “No way! Fifty-four of 151 isn’t 47%, it’s 36%; they’re either lying, cheating, or very bad at arithmetic.”

            “How about the kids,” another asked.  “How many of them got better?”

            “Well, it’s complex and hard to say, but overall the researchers report that, of 105 kids, 9 were significantly affected during the study, 4 in a positive direction and 5 in a negative direction.”

            The students mumbled and grumbled. “Are you kidding? That’s not much improvement.” They went on to rant a bit about never knowing a depressed, sleep-deprived mother—including themselves—who looked forward to 18 hours of screeching children and smelly diapers? One student, now a grandmother, noted that Valium (the original mother’s little helper) was the most prescribed drug in the U.S. from 1969-1982 and such a big pharmaceutical success that it inspired a Rolling Stones song. Unfortunately, Valium turned out to be terribly addictive, but now apparently, there’s Celexa, Prozac, and other options for overwhelmed mothers.

            After a few more stories, my students asked, “What were the study’s conclusions?”

            I read aloud: “. . . these findings suggest that it is important to provide vigorous treatment to mothers if they are depressed.”

            Throughout the room, eyes began to roll.

            “That’s a big surprise. They want depressed moms to feel guilty if they don’t take antidepressants. That’s what they mean by ‘vigorous treatment.’ As if a hard life is made better by serotonin? How much did they spend on that study anyway?”

            “I really don’t know,” I answered.  “Maybe half a million?”

            The student with the calculator pecked away again: “They should use that money to do a study on something that might really help depressed mothers.”

            “Like what?” I asked.

            “Like maybe a study on the effectiveness of splitting half a million among 114 moms—that’s over $4,300 each. They could just give them the money, or pay for some counseling and parenting consultations, or health club memberships, or childcare, or massages, or vocational training. Better yet, the researchers could use the money to train fathers to hang around the house and be helpful, rather than lying around watching sports and reading Penthouse.”

            At that point I decided class was over. I’d learned about as much as I could handle for one day.

ACA Conference in Cincinnati: Day One

Yesterday was Day One of my American Counseling Association conference experience and it has led me to notice that whenever I dish up my plate, it always seems there’s a little food that falls off the edges. My grandmother used to say my eyes were bigger than my stomach, but that’s silly because I’ve looked at my stomach; if my eyes really were bigger, I’d look like a brother from another planet. Obviously, this is a metaphor.

The point is that I always try to fit too much material into my presentations. Yesterday I presented a 6 hour “Learning Institute” titled, “Counseling Challenging Teenagers.” It was a very nice experience with about 20 participants who care enough about working with teenagers to show up in Cincinnati 2 days before the conference actually starts for a spendy workshop. I was impressed with the participants and the questions and the dedication to learning and serving teenagers. Very cool.

However, not surprisingly, because as Robert Frost would undoubtedly contend, my reach consistently exceeds my grasp, I didn’t quite fit every part of the workshop content into the workshop . . . which brings me to the purpose of this post . . . which is to describe my next two postings . . . which will be on alternative to suicide and neodissociation as a suicide intervention . . . which were the two parts of the workshop that exceeded my grasp.

Highlights of Day One: The man who drove 18 hours from Maryland to attend (and managed to mostly stay awake); the woman who helped with the workshop as a volunteer and then was super-giddy about getting me to take a photo of her with Bob Wubbolding (and then, I think to humor me, acted excited to include me in an additional photo with the two of them); finding a Starbucks, Panera Bread, and Chipotle within blocks of the Convention Center.

More soon.

 

Why I Need a Sexual Assault Reality Check

Last week I accidentally discovered a disturbing online video that sarcastically demeans the sexual assault awareness training we use at the University of Montana. It features a very creepy man. In my experience, it’s rare to see and hear someone who is CLEARLY misogynistic. I may be going out on a limb here, but it appears that a very creepy misogynistic man made this video.

Despite his creep factor (did I mention he was creepy?), he makes a point in the video that I’ve heard before. It goes something like this: During sexual encounters it’s the woman’s responsibility to say “No” in a way that is clear and explicit and unequivocal. If this message isn’t delivered and received, then the sexual encounter can or should continue.

Now, I’m all for women speaking up. That’s a good thing. But for me, the problem of this message is the assumption that because males are built to want and need sex, they’re basically unconcerned with how their partner is feeling and in the absence of a clear and unequivocal message, should simply proceed toward intercourse.

This assumption—that men don’t care how their partner is feeling—seems wrong to me. In my limited experience (myself, my friends, my clients), I’d conclude this: Although most men want sex, they also want their partner to want sex. Maybe I’m going out on another limb, but I think most men prefer their sexual partner to clearly and unequivocally say “Yes!” about having sex.

What I’m getting at is this: In the absence of a clear and unequivocal “Yes!” maybe men (and women) who want to have intercourse also have an obligation to COMMUNICATE. This communication could involve a verbal check in (e.g., “Are you okay?”) or some other creative means of determining whether consent is happening.

I know this idea is probably unrealistic. Some media messages imply that communication during sex is a turn off. Other media messages suggest that men could suffer from blue balls or that they’re not able to turn off their sexual drive once aroused. These are counter-arguments to a communication solution.  And if you throw a little alcohol or other drugs into the mix, the issue of clear consent becomes substantially less clear.

But I wonder if we might agree on one thing: Consent is a bigger turn-on than a verbal or nonverbal “maybe.”

And so to both my male readers, I’d love your answers to the following multiple-choice questions (and I’d love your feedback too, if you feel so inclined):

1.   Which of the following do you find to be the biggest turn-on?

a. When my sexual partner says no.

b, When my sexual partner says nothing,

c. When my sexual partner says maybe,

d. When my sexual partner clearly and repeatedly says “Yes!”

2.   Which sexual situation would you most prefer?

a. A woman who is drunk and only partially conscious says she wants to have sex with me.

b. A woman who is stoned out of her mind says she wants to have sex with me.

c. A woman who is clean and sober and wide awake says she wants to have sex with me.

Thanks for reading and you can let me know your thoughts via private email (johnsf44@gmail.com) or by posting on this blog.

 

Musings About Online Counseling

As Rita and I updated the Clinical Interviewing text, we did a little web-searching for online counseling resources and the excerpt below includes our musings on this very interesting topic.

From Clinical Interviewing, 4th ed, updated, SF & SF, 2012

http://www.amazon.com/John-Sommers-Flanagan/e/B0030LK6NM/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_1

Online Counseling: Ethics and Reality

As a part of reviewing information for this chapter, we perused Internet therapy options available to potential consumers. Previous publications suggested a possible plethora of Internet counseling and psychotherapy providers with questionable professional credentials (Heinlen, Welfel, Richmond, & O’Donnell, 2003; Shaw & Shaw, 2006). Although we hoped that Internet service provision standards had improved, we weren’t overly impressed with our results. Generally, we found that most providers may have more expertise in business and marketing than they do in professional clinical work. Affixed on this foundation of business and marketing, we found two distinct approaches: the more ethical and the less ethical.

The Less Ethical Approach

Many providers offer online services but don’t acknowledge having specific credentials (e.g., a license) typically associated with clinical expertise. For example, practitioners with bachelor’s degrees (or less) made statements like the following:

“I am a counselor, life coach, and spiritual teacher with over 20 years of experience. I have studied the fields of counseling, psychology, personal growth, relationships, communications, business, computer programming and technology, languages, spirituality, metaphysics and energetic bodywork! In addition to my training, a [sic] 18-year relationship with my second husband has deepened my capacity to help others with relationship issues.”

This sort of enthusiastic introduction was typically followed by an equally enthusiastic statement about the breadth of services offered:

“My online counseling services specialties include, but are not limited to: anxiety/panic, self-esteem, highly sensitive people, couples counseling, relationship advice, life and career coaching, emotional intelligence, personal growth, affairs, guilt issues, work and career, trust issues, abuse/boundary issues, communication skills, conflict resolution, grief and loss, emotional numbness, spiritual development, stress management, blame, court-ordered counseling, codependency, problem resolution, jealousy, codependency and attachment, anger and depression, food and body, and developing peace of mind.”

Curiously, we found that the broad range of claims on websites such as these did not move us toward developing or experiencing peace of mind.

The More Ethical Approach

There were also websites that included professional, licensed providers. For example, one website listed and described eight licensed practitioners with backgrounds in professional counseling, social work, and psychology. These professionals offered webcam therapy, text therapy, e-mail therapy, and telephone therapy.

Prices included:

  • E-mail therapy: $25 per online counselor reply
  • Unlimited e-mail therapy: $200 per month
  • Chat therapy: $45 per 50-minute session
  • Telephone therapy: $80 per 50-minute session
  • Webcam therapy: $80 per 50-minute session

The more ethical professional Internet services also tended to include information related to theoretical orientation. For example, a “postmodern” approach was described as involving: “Staying positive . . . focused on the here and now . . . offering solutions that meet your needs . . . a collaborative and respectful environment . . . quick results . . .”

How to Choose an Internet Services Provider

The National Directory of Online Counselors now exists to help consumers choose an online provider. They state:

“We have personally verified the credentials and the websites of each therapist listed in the National Directory of Online Counselors. Feel assured that the therapists listed are state board licensed, have a Master’s Degree or Doctoral Degree in a mental health discipline, and have online counseling experience.”

The listed therapists and websites are set up and ready to handle secure communication, and offer various services such as eMail Sessions, Chat Sessions, and Telephone Sessions. All work conducted by the professional licensed therapists meet[s] strict confidentiality standards overseen by their professional state board.

Both of these distinct approaches to online therapy emphasize that help is only a mouse click away.

Talking with Kids about Trauma and Tragedy

             All too often, very bad and traumatic things happen in the world. Many of these terrible things find their way into the news. This can be shocking and depressing not only for the people who were directly affected, but also for the general public. We are often repeatedly exposed to words and images that can trigger emotional and behavioral reactions in adults and children. Below is a short list with brief descriptions of how adults can help children deal effectively with traumatic information from the news and other media sources.

TALKING WITH CHILDREN: CONVERSATIONS ABOUT REALITY

The first step in talking with children is always the opposite of talking. LISTEN. Listen for how children have been affected. Listen for what they’ve seen and heard. Listen for their fears and fantasies. Listen for their personal coping strategies and solutions.

It’s important to listen closely, but if you listen too hard for children to talk about trauma, you run the risk of making them think they SHOULD be traumatized. If this happens, then children often will start giving you what they think you want . . . they’ll start talking about trauma. Therefore, a big challenge for adults is to listen in a balanced way.  Don’t spend too much time everyday encouraging children to talk about their deepest fears. If you do, it’s possible that everyone will get more and more scared — including you!

Perhaps the biggest deal when talking with kids about real tragic events, is being able to answer their questions. They may ask you terribly hard questions, like, “Will there be a plane crashing in our neighborhood?” or “Do you think a shooter might come to our school?” or “Will I be safe at home?” or “Teacher, are you scared?”

Children often ask very good and very hard questions. An important guideline for teachers, parents, and counselors is to stay balanced. This means you can admit to being scared — as long as you also admit to being strong. Some children can quickly pick up on false reassurance, which is one reason why I’m not in agreement with Dr. Joyce Brothers who suggested after 9/11 that it was a good time to lie to your children. Instead, I recommend acknowledgement that the world is not always a safe place, but that you’ll do everything you can to be strong and help keep the child or children safe.

With preschoolers, there are some conversational topics that are best to avoid. For example, there’s no need to go into graphic detail about specific injuries, etc.  This is similar to the fact that very young children don’t need to know all the details about sexuality. It’s better to speak generally about violence and destruction. It’s also very important to protect your children from too much exposure to media coverage of violent events.

It’s also important to never forget about focusing on children’s strengths. Listening first provides you with a foundation for giving children feedback about their strengths. Be sure to listen for children’s strengths . . . and then reflect them back. You can also encourage children to tell you about their strengths – including both ways they’ve handled hard things in the past and ways they might handle hard things in the future.

 PLAYING WITH CHILDREN: REENACTMENT, PRETEND PLAY, AND MASTERY

Younger children will typically play out or reenact their traumatic experiences. For preschoolers pretend play will be the dominant way they deal with the trauma of what they’ve seen and heard. Around 9/11 children were likely to build towers and have them knocked down. They also enacted play activities involving airplanes, police, terrorists (or other “evil/bad” people). If they’ve been exposed to images and heard about school shootings you might see some play activities involving guns and death and loss. For the most part, it’s best to just sit back and watch children as they enact these scenes. By allowing them un-directed play time and some nondirective commentary, you’ll be helping them take their first steps toward healing (more information on non-directive play is included on the “Special Time” tip sheet on this blogsite).

On the other hand, sometimes children get stuck in the same repeated play pattern. This more chronic form of play is referred to as post-traumatic play. When children seem genuinely stuck repeating pretend interactions through non-interactive play that provides no apparent gratification, you may need to interact with them in ways that help them get un-stuck. You might want to try these strategies: (a) have the child stand up and take some deep breaths before resuming play; or (b) interact with the child in a way that disrupts the pattern (for example, you might ask, “what would happen if . . . ?”).

Obviously, rigid post-traumatic play patterns indicate a need for professional assistance.

 DRAWING WITH CHILDREN:  CAPTURING THE FEAR ON PAPER

Children’s fears can seem big and intimidating. That’s true for people of any age. Maybe that’s why, for adults and older children, writing about specific fears and trauma can be so helpful. Somehow, writing things down on paper can help to put it in perspective.

Younger children aren’t able to use the written word effectively for personal journaling. That’s where drawing comes in. When children color, draw, paint, or sculpt their fears, the fears become more manageable.

 STORYTELLING STRATEGIES

Storytelling is a very powerful tradition and technique for dealing with many human problems and challenges. Stories can be designed or obtained through published materials. In response to tragedy, it can be helpful for children to hear stories of bravery under difficult or perilous conditions.

If you choose to invent your own stories, be sure to create a story with a main character and a clear beginning, middle, and ending. If you’re comfortable with it, you can even have the children help invent characters and their own stories.

There are many ways to encourage children to make up stories of their own. The advantage of this is that you get to listen for the dynamics of the children’s story and so it provides some assessment information. As a counseling technique, it’s possible to use a pretend radio or television show. You can invite children to be guests on your “show” and interview them about their experience or have them share a story.

 HELPING WITH TRANSITIONS:

Separation anxiety is a common reaction that children have to stressful news or situations. This means children may have trouble saying goodbye to their parents and being left at school or day care. In most cases, it’s best for parents, children, and staff to develop an individualized goodbye and hello routine for drop-offs and pick-ups. These routines will be less necessary as time goes by, but it’s good to have goodbye and hello rituals there when you need them. For example, having a hello and goodbye song, transitional objects, and other objects of comfort can ease the pain of separation.

 HAVING FUN: USING DISTRACTION, HUMOR, AND PLAY TO MOVE PAST TRAUMA

Don’t forget, it’s easy to pay way too much attention to the traumatic news and ignore regular daily play routines. Don’t fall into this trap. It’s good to keep kids active and keep them having fun. It’s good to be prepared with some games, songs, or activities that you can rely on to engage children and help them forget about the bad news for a while.

 LEARNING ACTIVITIES: MASTERY THROUGH EDUCATION, SAFETY, AND SERVICE

Not only does life go on after a trauma; it’s important for life to keep getting better. Ways to move forward include (a) continuing with educational, skill-building, and stress management activities, (b) promoting safety strategies and skills, and (c) involving children in basic service activities . . . possibly even service activities that include teaching other children strategies for coping with trauma or difficult situations.

 GET HELP AS NEEDED

It’s a sign of strength to get help when it’s needed. You may notice specific reactions or experiences in children or yourself that indicate it’s time to for professional assistance. Some of the primary symptoms of trauma and vicarious trauma that can develop in these situations include the following:

  • Repetitive and intrusive thoughts and images.
  • Sleep problems: Insomnia, nightmares, and night terrors.
  • Separation Anxiety and clingy-ness.
  • Specific fears/phobias.
  • Hypervigilence.
  • Regression.

 SELF CARE NOW AND INTO THE FUTURE

Remember to take good care of yourself so you can be of greater help for others. This could involve many different activities including vigorous exercise, maintaining healthy eating and sleeping routines, and scheduling time for social contact and social support.

This Tip Sheet was written by John Sommers-Flanagan, Ph.D., professor of Counselor Education at the University of Montana.