I’m in Enterprise, Oregon today and tomorrow morning. I got here Sunday evening after a winding ride through forests and mountains. Yes, I’m in Eastern Oregon. Even I, having attended Mount Hood Community College and Oregon State University, had no idea there were forests and mountains in Enterprise.
The scenes are seriously amazing, but the people at the Wallowa Valley Center for Wellness-where I’m doing a series of presentations on suicide assessment and prevention-are no less amazing. I’ve been VERY pleasantly surprised at the quality, competence, and kindness of the staff and community.
Just in case you’re interested, below I’m posting ppts for my three different presentations. They overlap, but are somewhat distinct.
Earlier this year I was asked by a school district to create and record a one-hour training on strengths-based suicide assessment. I made the recording, shipped it off, got paid, and mostly forgot about it. However, because I have the recording and sometimes I think it’s good to give things away, I’m sharing the link here: https://youtu.be/kLlkh8nJ2pI
The video is about 62 minutes, recorded on Zoom, and slightly oriented toward school counselors and school psychologists. I’m sharing this video just in case it might be useful to you in your teaching or for your clinical group or personal knowledge, etc. Feel free to share the link.
If you feel you benefit from this video, I hope you’ll consider the “pay it forward” concept. No need to pay me . . . just notice opportunities where you can share your gifts and talents and resources with others and pay it forward.
In honor of National Suicide Prevention Month, I’m offering another chunk of information about suicide assessment and treatment. This information is an excerpt from our book, Suicide Assessment and Treatment Planning: A Strengths-Based Approach. In the book, we discuss assessment and treatment planning using a dimensional approach. The first (and central) dimension for suicide assessment and treatment is the emotional dimension.
When clients are depressed and suicidal, everyone—including family, friends, co-workers, counselors, and clients—wish for an improved emotional state. But often the process is slow, and as a result, the very people upon whom the client relies for support may lose patience. Supportive people, even counselors, may feel urges to say things that are emotionally dismissive, like, “Cheer up” or “Come on, you need to exercise!” or “Why can’t you do something to make your life better?”
Moving clients out of despair and into the light is difficult; if it were otherwise, clients would resolve suicidality on their own. Directly or indirectly suggesting to clients in suicidal pain to “cheer up” often backfires, creating anger, hostility, and resistance to treatment; this resistance is a powerful phenomenon called, psychological reactance(Brehm & Brehm, 1981).
Psychological reactance occurs when clients perceive their ultimate freedoms as threatened. If clients sense that clinicians want to coerce them to stay alive, in response, they may dig in their heels and engage in behaviors designed to restore feelings of autonomy. Psychological reactance is one explanation for why clients who are suicidal sometimes vehemently resist help, insisting on their right to think about and act on suicidal impulses. Repeated empathic acceptance of the client’s emotional pain is one way to avoid activating reactance; empathic acceptance also allows clients to begin exploring and addressing key emotional issues in counseling.
Key Emotional Issues to Address
Many emotional issues are relevant to suicide treatment planning. These include: (a) excruciating distress, (b) specific disturbing emotions, such as, acute or chronic shame and guilt, anger, or sadness, and (c) emotional dysregulation. In this next section, we briefly review core emotional issues that you may guide your treatment planning. Later in the chapter we provide case examples and vignettes illustrating methods for working in the emotional dimension.
Shneidman referred to the emotional state surrounding suicide as “psychache” or unbearable distress. He wrote: “The suicidal drama is almost always driven by psychological pain, the pain of negative emotions—what I call psychache. Psychache is at the dark heart of suicide; no psychache, no suicide.” (2001, p. 200, italics added).
Even when using a strength-based or wellness model, exploring the “pain of negative emotions” or excruciating distress is usually your first focus. Sometimes, to avoid activating reactance or resistance, you’ll need to stay with your client’s emotional pain longer than you’d prefer. Staying with your clients’ pain not only helps bypass resistance, it also models that facing negative affective states without fear, avoidance, or dissociation requires personal strength. Even so, as you focus on suicidal pain, you might wish the client would immediately adopt a more positive mindset, or find the process difficult to bear. You also might need to turn to colleagues or your self-care plan for support. Nevertheless, job one in the emotional dimension is to recognize and resonate with your client’s emotional pain.
Acute or Chronic Shame and Guilt
Shame and guilt are non-primary emotions because they involve significant self-reflection. Shame connotes beliefs of being unworthy, defective, or bad. Shame is often directly linked to core beliefs about the self, and activated by particular life situations. In contrast, guilt is more specific, often associated with certain actions or lack of actions (e.g., “I should be doing more to fight racism” or “I shouldn’t have been so critical of my professor”). Generally, guilt can lead to shame, and shame is more likely to ignite suicidality. Reducing or resolving shame or guilt may be a crucial therapeutic goal.
Suicidal thoughts are often accompanied by shame. Cultures around the world have historically judged death by suicide as a shameful or sinful event, and many still do. Your client’s experience may be something like, “Not only do I have suicidal thoughts—which are terrible in their own right—but the fact that these thoughts exist in my mind also make me a bad person.” This double dose of negative judgment, emotional pain plus self-condemnation, often needs to be addressed in counseling. One strategy that may fit into your treatment plan is to help clients develop greater self-compassion as a method for countering their self-condemnation.
In graduate school, we had a professor who suggested we consider this question: “Who is this client planning to commit suicide at?” Often, people who are suicidal carry great anger toward one or more friends, lovers, or family members and thus think of suicide as an act of revenge. Counselors should listen for underlying themes that involve using suicide as a behavioral goal for getting even or intentionally hurting others (Marvasti & Wank, 2013).
Thoughts of dying by suicide sometimes emerge as a revenge fantasy. Thoughts like, “I’ll show them” or “they’ll suffer forever” represent anger, along with the desire to punish others. It can be tempting to point out to clients that death is an irrationally high price for fulfilling revenge fantasies. However, helping clients express, accept, and understand the depth of their anger will usually reduce suicidality more efficiently than pointing out that death is a maladaptive revenge strategy. If revenge is central and forgiveness isn’t a viable option, then an apt philosophy to gently infuse into your clients is that the best revenge is a well-lived life.
Major depression is the psychiatric diagnosis most commonly linked with suicide attempts, especially among older adults (Melhem et al., 2019). Clients who present with sadness as a dominant emotion may or may not meet diagnostic criteria for major depression. However, when sadness and the associated emotions and cognitions of irritability, regret, discouragement, and disappointment are central sources of distress, we recommend targeting those symptoms with evidence-based counseling interventions. Weaving positive psychology or happiness interventions into treatment planning is especially appropriate for clients struggling with sadness and depression (Seligman, 2018; Rashid & Seligman, 2018). More information about evidence-based approaches and positive psychology interventions is provided later in this chapter and in upcoming chapters.
Clients who are suicidal may exhibit emotional dysregulation during counseling sessions and in their everyday lives. Clients may be emotionally labile, shifting from expressing anger to feelings of affection, appreciation, and deep connection. Clients may share stories of repeated maladaptive emotional overreactions to life’s challenges. Although unstable relationships, emotional swings, and explosive anger fit with the diagnostic criteria for borderline personality disorder, when clients are experiencing excruciating distress, they may behave in ways that resemble borderline personality disorder. However, instead of pathologizing clients with a personality disorder diagnosis, we recommend framing client behaviors using a social constructionist strength-based orientation, such as: Given enough situationally-based stress, including, as Linehan (1993) noted—emotionally invalidating environments—nearly everyone becomes dysregulated and appears unstable. Normalizing dysregulation as a natural response to intense distress helps maintain a strength-based perspective.
Treatment plans for clients who are suicidal often include teaching emotional regulation skills; this translates to helping clients become more capable of regulating themselves in the face of emotionally activating circumstances. Linehan’s (1993, 2015) protocols for working with clients with borderline personality characteristics are recommended for emotional regulation skill development. However, alternative approaches exist, some of which come from positive psychology, happiness, and well-being literature (Hays, 2014; Lyubomirsky, 2007, 2013; see Wellness Practice 4.1).
Rita has slipped away with a friend to go to a Tippet Rise (https://tippetrise.org/events/36201) concert. IMHO, Tippet Rise has amazing concerts. As a means to cope with my jealousy, I’ve decided to pass along a couple of freebies I found in my email inbox. Given that most of the freebies I receive in my inbox are related to someone who wants to trick me into becoming a few hundred million bucks richer, rest assured, I’ve screened out the fake-freebies, and have vetted these.
First, from Dr, Thomas McMahon of Yale University. He wrote about a free eBook:
Youth Suicide Prevention and Intervention offers a comprehensive review of current research on the public health crisis and best practices to prevent youth suicide. The volume was edited by John P. Ackerman, PhD from the Center for Suicide Prevention and Research at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and Lisa M. Horowitz, PhD, MPH from the National Institute of Mental Health. It includes 18 chapters organized into five sections on (a) foundations for suicide prevention, (b) prevention and postvention in school settings, (c) screening and intervention with suicidal teens, (d) prevention and intervention for special populations, and (e) the development of more effective systems of prevention.
With support provided by Nationwide Children’s Hospital Foundation and Big Lots Behavioral Health Services, the volume is available in an open access format. An electronic copy of specific chapters or the entire volume can be downloaded free of charge here.
Second, Amanda DiLorenzo-Garcia, Ph.D, of the University of Central Florida shared info about a free virtual symposium. Here’s what she wrote:
In honor of suicide prevention month, the Alachua County Crisis Center hosts a free mental health symposium. It is an incredible resource for counseling students, counselors, parents/guardians, teachers, first responders, etc. Therefore, it is open to the community at large.
This year the symposium is titled Holding Space Together: Addressing the Mental Health Needs of 2022. Topics vary and include suicide prevention, parenting, mindfulness, black mental health, burnout, tapping skills, ADHD, etc. The sessions will take place September 12-15th, 2022 between 5:30-8:30pm EST virtually. Sessions are facilitated by Alachua County Crisis Center staff, community agency mental health providers, and Counselor Education faculty from various institutions. The information is geared toward the general community; however, there are sessions that counselors and counseling students may benefit from attending as well.
That’s all for now. The book section is below. Have a great holiday weekend . . .
Working in the Behavioral Dimension
When times are difficult and life feels intolerable, many people think about suicide as an alternative to life. But most individuals, despite intense emotional and psychological pain, don’t act on their suicidal thoughts. In fact, people often cling to life even in the face of great pain. Philosophers, suicidologists, and evolutionary biologists all point to the likelihood that humans are genetically predisposed toward survival (Glasser, 1998).
For a variety of biological, psychological, and environmental reasons, it’s usually easier to get people to experiment with new behaviors than it is to get them to stop engaging in their old, habitual behaviors. As children, you may have been repeatedly told “don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t date that person, and don’t you dare miss your curfew again.” But often, those admonitions didn’t stick. Given how difficult it is to successfully get people to comply with prohibitions makes the “don’t act on suicide impulses” goal of this chapter an arduous task.
This chapter isn’t so much about telling people what not to do, as it is on helping them identify and act on alternative behaviors. Our aim is to stay primarily strength-based, helping clients flood their personal lives with positive behaviors. We’ll review and describe methods for building healthy behavior patterns, developing positive safety plans, and more.
Key Behavioral Issues to Address
The empirical research is thin, but several near-term predictors of suicidal behavior have been identified. These include: (a) active suicide planning or intent, (b) dispositional pain insensitivity and acquired suicide capability, (c) impulsivity, and (d) access to lethal means (Joiner, 2005; Klonsky & May, 2015; O’Connor, 2011).
Suicide Planning or Intent
Suicide ideation is common—especially among clients and students who are experiencing depressive symptom. But early everyone who thinks about suicide, chooses not to act on their thoughts.
Suicide planning is a step closer to action. When clients have suicide plans, their ideas have taken shape into potential behaviors. Typically, clients who have plans that include greater specificity, higher lethality, more accessibility, and less chance of being prevented are at higher risk. Nevertheless, most clients who have suicide plans don’t act on them.
Suicide intent—although still in the realm of thought—implies enactment of a plan. Suicide intent is especially disturbing when associated with repeated suicide attempts or rehearsal of specific suicide methods. Mentally rehearsing or physically practicing suicide behaviors makes the manifestation of those behaviors more likely. However, when intent is high, planning and rehearsing may not be required; given an opportunity, clients with extremely high intent may spontaneously and impulsively jump from moving cars, dash into heavy traffic, throw themselves into bodies of water, or find whatever means they can to end their lives.
Clients with high suicide intent sometimes require hospitalization and may need to be on safety watch. Pulling clients back from the suicidal edge and modifying their intent is frightening, but potentially gratifying. If you work with clients who have extremely high intent, remember to focus on your own safety and find support for potential vicarious traumatization.
Suicide Desensitization or Acquired Capability
Some individuals are unusually fearless and sensation-seeking from birth. O’Connor (2011) refers to this as dispositional pain insensitivity. In contrast, other individuals, born with normal pain sensitivity and a normal aversion to death can, over time, achieve what Joiner (2005) called acquired capability; this process is also called suicide desensitization. Joiner wrote: “The capability to act on (suicidal) desire is acquired over time through exposure to painful and provocative events” (2005, p. 3).
The predisposition to fearlessness and high pain tolerance likely has biogenetic roots (Klonsky & May, 2015). In such cases, psychosocial therapeutic strategies are limited. Identifying high-risk and high-vulnerability situations and activities and then working collaboratively with clients on appropriate coping strategies may be the best treatment option.
Clients who have acquired capability have become desensitized to suicide over time (Joiner, 2005). Desensitization can be unintentional or intentional. Repeated trauma or exposure to chronic physical pain can produce desensitization. Alternatively, self-mutilation and substance abuse and dependence are intentional behaviors that produce numbness and can reduce fear of pain and suicide.
Clients who are highly impulsive tend to act suddenly, without planning, and without reflective contemplation. Impulsivity can be examined as a trait—individuals who display a pattern of acting without planning and do so across time and different circumstances have trait impulsivity. Impulsivity can also be situationally triggered; ingesting alcohol, being around certain people, or being in particular situations can magnify impulsivity.
Clients diagnosed with bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and substance use disorders are more inclined toward impulsive behavior patterns and suicide. Effective treatments of impulsivity are limited. Some possibilities include (a) dialectical behavior therapy (Linehan, 1993), (b) lithium (Cipriani et al., 2013), and (c) individual or group treatment for substance abuse (López-Goñi et al., 2018).
Access to Lethal Means
Easy availability of lethal means increases suicide risk. Firearms are far and away the most lethal suicide method. Although firearms can quickly become a politicized issue, access to firearms unarguably magnifies suicide risk (Anestis & Houtsma, 2018). Other common and lethal suicide methods include poisoning (using pills or carbon monoxide) and suffocation/asphyxiation. Reducing access to lethal means or enhancing firearms safety are common strategies that reduce immediate suicide potential.
Emily Sallee and I had an excellent (and inspiring) day 1 at the 2022 MASP Summer Institute. The MASP members and other participants have been fabulous. Today, we built a foundation upon which we will build great things tomorrow.
What’s up for tomorrow? Advanced treatment planning using the seven-dimensional strengths-based model. Just in case you’re at the Summer Institute OR you want a peek into what we’re doing, here are some handouts.
Here’s a visual/cartoon with a nice message, despite the outdated language.
And here’s some late-breaking news related to Montana Schools.
Next Monday and Tuesday (June 6 and 7), in Billings, I’m partnering with the amazing Dr. Emily Sallee to offer a two-day workshop for the Montana Association of School Psychologists. This is an in-person workshop—which is pretty darn exciting, especially because COVID cases in Billings right now are low.
The workshop is titled,Weaving Evidence-Based Happiness Interventions into Suicide Assessment & Treatment Planning .
Here’s the description:
In this 2-day workshop you will build your skills for providing evidence-based suicide assessment and treatment. Using a strengths-based foundation, this workshop includes a critique of traditional suicide assessment, a review of an alternative assessment approach for determining “happiness potential,” and skill-building activities on how to use more nuanced and therapeutic approaches to assessment. We will view video clips and engage in active practice of strategies for building hope from the bottom up, safety-planning and other essential interventions. Throughout the workshop, we will explore how to integrate evidence-based happiness and wellness strategies into suicide assessment, treatment, and professional self-care.
As a part of my presentations for ACA last week, I prepared a couple of short video clips. These clips are part of a much, much longer, three-volume (7.5 hour) video series produced and published by psychotherapy.net. Victor Yalom of psychotherapy.net gave me permission to occasionally share a few short clips like these. If you’re interested in purchasing the whole video series (or having your library do so), you can check out the series here: https://www.psychotherapy.net/videos/expert/john-sommers-flanagan
IMHO, although the whole video series is excellent and obviously I recommend it, these clips can be used all by themselves to stimulate class discussions. Check them out if you’re interested.
Kennedy is a 15-year-old cisgender female referred by her parents for suicidal ideation. Although a case could be made for using a family systems approach, this opening is of me working 1-1 with Kennedy. When I show this video, I like to emphasize that I’m using a “Strengths-based Approach” AND I’m also asking a series of questions that pull for Kennedy to talk about her distress. This is because clients generally need to talk about their distress before they can focus on strengths or solutions. Instead of practicing “toxic positivity” this approach emphasizes the need to come alongside and be empathic with client pain and distress.
Chase is a 35-year-old cisgender Gay male. In this brief excerpt, I try (somewhat poorly) to use a pattern interpretation to facilitate insight into his history of social relationships. Chase’s response is to dismiss my interpretation. Back in my psychoanalytic days, we talked about and used trial interpretations to gauge whether an abstract-oriented psychodynamic approach was a good fit for clients. Chase’s response is so dismissive that I immediately shift to using a very concrete approach to analyzing his social universe. Then, when Chase isn’t able to identify anyone who is validating, I use a strategy I call “Building hope from the bottom up” to help him start the brainstorming process.
A big thanks to psychotherapy.net and Victor Yalom for their support of this work.
As always, if you have thoughts or feedback on these clips or life in general, please feel free to share.
Last week I had the honor of presenting three times at the American Counseling Association meeting in Atlanta. Today, I’m posting the Abstracts and Powerpoints from those presentations, just in case someone might find the information useful.
On Friday, April 8: The way of the humanist: Illuminating the path from suicide to wellness. Invited presentation on behalf of the Association for Humanistic Counseling.
At this moment, counselors are hearing more distress, anxiety, and suicidal ideation than ever before. In response, we are called to resonate with our clients’ distress. On behalf of the Association for Humanistic Counseling, John Sommers-Flanagan will describe how humanistic principles of acceptance and empathy can paradoxically prepare clients to embrace wellness interventions. Participants will learn five evidence-based happiness strategies to use with their clients and with themselves.
Also, on Friday, April 8: Using a strengths-based approach to suicide assessment and treatment in your counseling practice. Invited presentation on behalf of ACA Publications.
Most counselors agree: no clinical task is more stressful than suicide assessment and treatment planning. When working with people who are suicidal, it’s all-too-easy for counselors to over-focus on psychopathology and experience feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. However, framing suicidal ideation as an unparalleled opportunity to help alleviate your client’s deep psychological pain, and embracing a strengths-based orientation, you can relieve some of your own anxiety. This practice-oriented education session includes an overview of strengths-based principles for suicide assessment and treatment.
On Saturday, April 9, Being seen, being heard: Strategies for working with adolescents in the age of Tik Tok. Educational presentation (with Chinwe Williams).
Counseling and connecting with adolescents can be difficult. In this educational session, we will present six strategies for connecting with and facilitating change among adolescents. For each strategy, the co‐presenters, coming from different cultural and generational perspectives, will engage each other and participants in a discussion of challenges likely to emerge when counseling adolescents. Social media influences, self‐disclosure, and handling adolescents’ questions will be emphasized.
Today I’m spending all day with the Youth Homes staff in Missoula . . . talking about strengths-based approaches to suicide. Should be fun, or at least as fun as a day of talking about suicide can be . . . Happy Friday, and here are the ppts!
Back in the days when video recording involved film rather than digits, editors would talk about leaving excellent footage “on the floor.” How do I know this? I was alive back in the day.
Today I’ve been working on revising a continuing education “course” for ContinuingEdCourses.net. The course has been popular and so the ContinuingEdCourses.net owners asked for a revision. I stalled until they recognized my stalling for what it was essentially told me I was overdue and late, which made me decide it would feel better to finish the revision than it would to keep procrastinating. I’m guessing maybe others of you out there can relate to that particular moment in time.
While editing and revising I discovered (actually I rediscovered) my penchant for redundancy. Sometimes that penchant is intentional and other times the penchant is an annoying rediscovery. This paragraph that you’re reading in the here-and-now includes an intentional penchant. The CE course included an unintentional penchant. Are you familiar with the research on the overuse of words? If you repeat a word over and over, after only a few seconds you can become desensitized to the meaning of the word and the word will just sound like a sound. I’m feeling a penchant for that too.
Bottom line: I had to cut some nice content. It ended up on the metaphorical floor, until I picked it up, dusted it off, and put it in this blog. Here you go. . .
Editor’s note [BTW, I’m the editor here, because it’s my blog, so I own all the mistakes, misspellings, and misplaced commas]: Turns out I edited out the other redundant content, but I’m posting this anyway, because it’s still 2/22/22, which happens to be most redundant date of the year. Now, here you go. . .
Four Suicide Myths
The word “myth” has two primary meanings.:
A myth is a traditional or popular story or legend used to explain current cultural beliefs and practices. This definition emphasizes the positive guidance that myths sometimes provide. For example, the Greek myth of Narcissus warns that excessive preoccupation with one’s own beauty can become dangerous. Whether or not someone named Narcissus ever existed is irrelevant; the story tells us that too much self-love may lead to our own downfall.
The word myth is also used to describe an unfounded idea, or false notion. Typically, the false notion gets spread around and, over time, becomes a generally accepted, but inaccurate, popular belief. One contemporary example is the statement, “Lightning never strikes the same place twice.” In fact, lightning can and does strike the same place twice (or more). During an electrical storm, standing on a spot where lightning has already struck, doesn’t make for a good safety strategy.
The statement “We only use 10% of our brains” is another common myth. Although it’s likely that most of us can and should more fully engage our brains, scientific researchers (along with the Mythbusters television show) have shown that much more than 10% of our brains are active most of the time – and probably even when we’re sleeping.
False myths can stick around for much longer than they should; sometimes they stick around despite truckloads of contradictory evidence. As humans, we tend to like easy explanations, especially if we find them personally meaningful or affirming. Never mind if they’re accurate or true.
Historically, myths were passed from individuals to groups and other individuals via word of mouth. Later, print media was used to more efficiently communicate ideas, both factual and mythical. Today we have the internet and instant mythical messaging.
Suicide myths weren’t and aren’t designed to intentionally mislead; mostly (although there are some exceptions) they’re not about pushing a political agenda or selling specific products. Instead, suicide myths are the product of dedicated, well-intended people whose passion for suicide prevention sometimes outpaces their knowledge of suicide-related facts (Bryan, 2022).
Depending on your perspective, your experiences, and your knowledge base, it’s possible that my upcoming list of suicide myths will push your emotional buttons. Maybe you were taught that “suicide is 100% preventable.” Or, maybe you believe that suicidal thoughts or impulses are inherently signs of deviance or a mental disturbance. If so, as I argue against these myths, you might find yourself resisting my perspective. That’s perfectly fine. The ideas that I’m labeling as unhelpful myths have been floating around in the suicide prevention world for a long time; there’s likely emotional and motivational reasons for that. Also, I don’t expect you to immediately agree with everything in this document. However, I hope you’ll give me a chance to make the case against these myths, mostly because I believe that hanging onto them is unhelpful to suicide assessment and prevention efforts.
Myth #1: Suicidal thoughts are about death and dying.
Most people assume that suicidal thoughts are about death and dying. Someone has thoughts about death, therefore, the thoughts must literally be about death. But the truth isn’t always how it appears from the surface. The human brain is complex. Thoughts about death may not be about death itself.
Let’s look at a parallel example. Couples who come to counseling often have conflicts about money. One partner likes to spend, while the other is serious about saving. From the surface, you might mistakenly assume that when couples have conflicts about money, the conflicts are about money – dollars, cents, spending, and saving. However, romantic relationships are complex, which is why money conflicts are usually about other issues, like love, power, and control. Nearly always there are underlying dynamics bubbling around that fuel couples’ conflicts over money.
Truth #1: Among suicidologists and psychotherapists, the consensus is clear: suicidal thoughts and impulses are less about death and more about a natural human response to intense emotional and psychological distress (aka psychache or excruciating distress). I use the term “excruciating distress” to describe the intense emotional misery that nearly always accompanies the suicidal state of mind. The take-home message from busting this myth should help you feel relief when clients mention suicide. You can feel relief because when clients trust you enough to share their suicidal thoughts and excruciating distress with you, it gives you a chance to help and support them. In contrast, when clients don’t tell you about their suicidal thoughts, then you’re not able to provide them with the services they deserve. Your holding an attitude that welcomes client openness and their sharing of distress and suicidal thoughts is foundational to effective treatment.
Myth #2: Suicide and suicidal thinking are signs of mental illness.
Philosophers and research scientists agree: nearly everyone on the planet thinks about suicide at one time or another – even if briefly. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche referred to suicidal thoughts as a coping strategy, writing, “The thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets through many a dark night.” Additionally, the rates of suicidal thinking among high school and college students is so high (estimates of 20%-40% annual incidence) that it’s more appropriate to label suicidal thoughts as common, rather than a sign of deviance or illness.
Edwin Shneidman – the American “Father” of suicidology – denied a relationship between suicide and so-called mental illness in the 1973 Encyclopedia Britannica, stating succinctly:
Suicide is not a disease (although there are those who think so); it is not, in the view of the most detached observers, an immorality (although … it has often been so treated in Western and other cultures).
A recent report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) supports Shneidman’s perspective. The CDC noted that 54% of individuals who died by suicide did not have a documented mental disorder (Stone et al., 2018). Keep in mind that the CDC wasn’t focusing on people who only think about or attempt suicide; their study focused only on individuals who completed suicide. If most individuals who die by suicide don’t have a mental disorder, it’s even more unlikely that people who think about suicide (but don’t act on their thoughts), suffer from a mental disorder. As Wollersheim (1974) used to say, “Having the thought of suicide is not dangerous and is not the problem (p. 223).”
Truth #2: Suicidal thoughts are not – in and of themselves – a sign of illness. Instead, suicidal thoughts arise naturally, especially during times of excruciating distress. The take-home message here is that clinicians should avoid judgment. I know that’s a tough message, because most of us are trained in diagnosing mental disorders and as we begin hearing of signs of depression, emotional lability, or other symptoms, it’s difficult not to begin thinking in terms of psychopathology. However, especially during initial encounters with clients who have suicidal ideation, it’s deeply important for us to avoid labeling – because if clients sense clinicians judging them, it can increase client shame and decrease the chances of them sharing openly.
Myth #3: Scientific knowledge about suicide risk factors and warning signs support accurate allows for the prediction and prevention of suicide.
As discussed previously, mMost suicidologists agree: that Ssuicide is extremelyvery difficult to predict (Franklin et al., 2017).
To get perspective on the magnitude of the problem, imagine you’re at the Neyland football stadium at the University of Tennessee. The stadium is filled with 100,000 fans. Your job is to figure out which 13.54 of the 100,000 fans will die by suicide over the next 365 days.
A good first step would be to ask everyone in the stadium the question that many suicide prevention specialists ask, “Have you been thinking about suicide?” Assuming the usual base rates and assuming that every one of theall 100,000 fans answer you honestly, you might rule out 85,000 people (because they say they haven’t been thinking about suicide). Then you ask them to leave the stadium. Now you’re down to identifying which 13.54 of 15,000 will die by suicide.
For your next step you decide to do a quick screen for the diagnosis of clinical depression. Let’s say you’re highly efficient, taking only 20 minutes to screen and diagnose each of the 15,000 remaining fans. Never mind that it would take 5,000 hours. The result: Only 50% of the 15,000 fans meet the diagnostic criteria for clinical depression.
At this point, you’ve reduced your population to 7,500 University of Tennessee fans, all of whom are depressed and thinking about suicide. How will you accurately identify the 13 or 14 fans who will die by suicide? Mostly, based on mathematics and statistics, you won’t. Every effort to do this in the past has failed. Your best bet might be to provide aggressive pharmacological or psychological treatment for the remaining 7,500 people. If you choose antidepressant medications, you might inadvertently make about 200-250 of your “patients” even more suicidal. If you use psychotherapy, the time you need for effective treatment will be substantial. Either way, many of the fans will refuse treatment, including some of those who will later die by suicide. Further, as the year goes by, you’ll discover that several of the 85,000 fans who denied having suicidal thoughts, and whom you immediately ruled out as low risk, will confound your efforts at prediction and die by suicide.
To gain a broader perspective, imagine there are 3,270 stadiums across the U.S., each with 100,000 people, and each with 13 or 14 individuals who will die by suicide over the next year. All this points to the enormity of the problem. Most professionals who try to predict and prevent suicide realize that, at best, they will help some of the people some of the time.
Truth #3: Although there’s always the chance that future research will enable us to predict suicide, decades of scientific research don’t support suicide as a predictable event. Even if you know all the salient suicide predictors and warning signs, in the vast majority of cases you won’t be able to efficiently predict or prevent suicide attempts or suicide deaths. The take-home message from busting this myth is this: Lower your expectations about accurately categorizing client risk. Most of the research suggests you’ll be wrong (Bryan, 2022; Large & Ryan, 2014). Instead, as you explore risk factors with clients, use your understanding of risk factors as a method for deepening your understanding of the individual client with whom you’re working.
Myth #4: Suicide prevention and intervention should focus on eliminating suicidal thoughts.
Logical analysis implies that if psychotherapists or prevention specialists can get people to stop thinking about suicide, then suicide should be prevented. Why then, do the most knowledgeable psychotherapists in the U.S. advise against directly targeting suicidal thoughts in psychotherapy (Linehan, 1993; Sommers-Flanagan & Shaw, 2017)? The first reason is because most people who think about suicide never make a suicide attempt; that means you’re treating a symptom that isn’t necessarily predictive of the problem. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
After his son died by suicide, Rick Warren, a famous pastor and author, created a YouTube video titled, “Rick Warren’s Message for Those Considering Suicide.” The video summary reads,
If you have ever struggled with depression or suicide, Pastor Rick has a message for you. The pain you are experiencing will not last forever. There is hope!
Although over 1,000 viewers clicked on the “thumbs up” sign for the video, there were 535 comments; nearly all of these comments pushed back on Pastor Warren’s well-intended video message. Examples included:
Are you kidding me??? You’ve clearly never been suicidal or really depressed.
To say “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem” is like saying: “You couldn’t possibly have suffered long enough, even if you’ve suffered your entire life from many, many issues.”
This is extremely disheartening. With all due respect. Pastor, you just don’t get it.
Pastor Rick isn’t alone in not getting it. Most of us don’t really get the excruciating distress, deep self-hatred, and chronic shame linked to suicidal thoughts and impulses. And because we don’t get it, sometimes we slip into try toing rationally persuadesion to encourage individuals with suicidal thoughts to regain hope and embrace life. Unfortunately, a nearly universal phenomenon called “psychological reactance” helps explain why rational persuasion – even when well-intended – rarely makes for an effective intervention (Brehm & Brehm, 1981).
While working with chronically suicidal patients for over two decades, Marsha Linehan of the University of Washington made an important discovery: when psychotherapists try to get their patients to stop thinking about suicide, the opposite usually happens – the patients become more suicidal.
Linehan’s discovery has played out in my clinical practice. Nearly every time I’ve actively pushed clients to stop thinking about suicide – using various psychological ploys and techniques – my efforts have backfired.
Truth #4: Most individuals who struggle with thoughts of suicide resist outside efforts to make them stop thinking about suicide. Using direct persuasion to convince people they should cheer up, have hope, and embrace life is rarely effective. The take-home message associated with busting this myth is that the best approaches to working with clients who are suicidal are collaborative. Instead of taking the role of an esteemed authority who knows what’s best for clients, effective counselors and psychotherapists take a step back and seek to activate their client’s expertise as collaborators onagainst the suicidal problem.
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