Category Archives: Suicide Assessment and Intervention

Suicide Interventions for Mental Health Professionals

This is the second follow up post to the MUS Suicide Summit in Bozeman this past week. It focuses on specific suicide interventions. As I looked through this and the material in the previous post, it reminded me that Dr. Janet P. Wollersheim was a huge influential force in my understanding of suicide assessment. Thanks Dr. Wollersheim!

Suicide Interventions

The following sections consist of basic ideas about suicide intervention options during a suicide crisis. These guidelines are consistent with Shneidman’s (1996) excellent advice for therapists working with suicidal clients: “Reduce the pain; remove the blinders; lighten the pressure—all three, even just a little bit” (p. 139).

Listening and Being Empathic

The first rule of working therapeutically with suicidal clients is to listen empathically. Your clients may have never openly discussed their suicidal thoughts and feelings with another person. Use basic attending behaviors and listening responses (e.g., paraphrasing and reflection of feeling) to show your empathy for the depth of your clients’ emotional pain is a solid foundation.

Establishing a Therapeutic Relationship

A positive therapy relationship is important to successful suicide assessment and effective treatment. In crisis situations (e.g., suicide telephone hotline) there’s less time for establishing therapeutic relationships and more focus on applying interventions. However, whether you’re working in a crisis or therapy setting, you should still use relationship-building counseling responses as much as possible given the constraints of your setting.

Within the CAMS approach, assessment is used to help therapists understand “the idiosyncratic nature of the client’s suicidality, so that both parties can intimately appreciate the client’s suicidal pain and suffering” (Jobes et al., 2007, p. 287). At some point after you’ve “intimately appreciated” your client’s suicidality, you may then make an empathic statement to facilitate hope:

I hear you saying you’re terribly depressed. Despite those feelings, it’s important for you to know that most people who get depressed get over it and eventually feel better. The fact that we’re meeting today and developing a plan to help you deal with your emotional pain is a big step in the right direction.

Clients who are depressed or emotionally distressed may have difficulty remembering positive events or emotions (Lau et al., 2004). Therefore, although you can help clients focus on positive events and past positive emotional experiences, you also need empathy with the fact that it isn’t easy for most clients who are suicidal to recall anything positive.

Clinician: Can you think of a time when you were feeling better and tell me what was happening then?
Client: (in a barely audible voice) No. I don’t remember feeling better.
Clinician: That’s okay. It’s perfectly natural for people who are feeling depressed to not be able to remember positive times.

Suicidal clients also may have difficulty attending to what you’re saying. It’s important to speak slowly and clearly, occasionally repeating key messages.

Safety Planning

Helping clients develop practical plans for coping with and reducing psychological pain is central to suicide intervention. This plan can include relaxation, mindfulness, traditional meditation practices, cognitive restructuring, social outreach, and other strategies that increase self-soothing, decrease social isolation, improve problem-solving, and decrease feelings of being a social burden.
Instead of traditional no-suicide contracts, contemporary approaches emphasize obtaining a commitment to treatment statement from clients (Rudd et al., 2006). These treatment statements or plans go by various names including, “Commitment to Intervention,” “Crisis Response Plan,” “Safety Plan,” and “Safety Planning Intervention” (Jobes et al., 2008; Stanley & Brown, 2012). These statements describe activities that clients will do to address depressive and suicidal symptoms, rather than focusing narrowly on what the client will not do (i.e., commit suicide). These plans also include ways for clients to access emergency support after hours (such as the national suicide prevention lifeline (800) 273-TALK or a similar emergency crisis number.

Stanley and Brown (2005) developed a brief treatment for suicidal clients, called the Safety Planning Intervention (SPI). This intervention was developed from cognitive-therapy principles and can be used in hospital emergency rooms as well as inpatient and outpatient settings (Brown et al., 2005). The SPI includes six treatment components:

1. Recognizing warning signs of an impending suicidal crisis.
2. Employing internal coping strategies.
3. Utilizing social contacts as a means of distraction from suicidal thoughts.
4. Contacting family members or friends who may help to resolve the crisis.
5. Contacting mental health professionals or agencies.
6. Reducing the potential use of lethal means. (Stanley & Brown, 2012, p. 257)

Stanley and Brown (2012) noted that the sixth treatment component, reducing lethal means, isn’t addressed until the other five safety-plan components have been completed. Component six also may require assistance from family members or a friend, depending on the situation. All six of these components should be included in your documentation, including firearms management.

Identifying Alternatives to Suicide

Engaging in a debate about the acceptability of suicide or whether with clients with suicidal impulses “should” attempt suicide can backfire. Sometimes suicidal individuals feel so disempowered that they perceive the possibility of killing themselves as one of their few sources of control. Rather than argue, your focus is on helping clients identify methods for coping with suicidal impulses and find more desirable life alternatives. .

Suicidal clients may be unable to identify options to suicide. As Shneidman (1980) suggested, clients need help to “widen” their view of life’s options.

Shneidman (1980) wrote of a situation in which a pregnant teenager came to see him in suicidal crisis. She had a gun in her purse. He agreed with her that suicide was an option, while pulling out paper and a pen to write down alternatives to suicide. Shneidman generated most of the options (e.g., “You could have the baby and give it up for adoption”), while she systematically rejected them (“I can’t do that”). He wrote them down anyway, noting they were only making a list of options. Eventually, he handed her a list of options and asked her to rank her preferences. To both of their surprise, she indicated death by suicide was her third preferred option. They worked together to implement options one and two. Happily, she never needed to choose option three.

This is a straightforward intervention. You can practice it with your peers and implement it with suicidal clients. There’s always the possibility that clients will decide suicide is their #1 choice (at which point you’ve obtained important assessment information). However, it’s surprising how often suicidal clients, once they’ve had help expanding their mental constriction symptoms, discover more preferable options; options that involve embracing life.

Separating the Psychic Pain From the Self

Rosenberg (1999; 2000) wrote, “The therapist can help the client understand that what she or he really desires is to eradicate the feelings of intolerable pain rather than to eradicate the self” (p. 86). This technique can help suicidal clients because it provides empathy for their pain, while helping them see that their wish is for the pain, rather than the self, to stop existing.

Rosenberg (1999) also recommended helping clients reframe what’s usually meant by the phrase feeling suicidal. She noted that clients benefit from seeing their suicidal thoughts and impulses as a communication about their depth of feeling, rather than as an “actual intent to take action” (p. 86). Again, this approach can decrease clients’ needs to act on suicidal impulses, partly because of the cognitive reframe and partly because of the therapist’s empathic connection.

Becoming Directive and Responsible

Both ethically and legally, when clients are a clear danger to themselves, it’s the therapist’s responsibility to intervene and provide protection. This mandate means taking a directive role. You may have to tell the client what to do, where to go, and whom to call. It also may involve prescriptive therapeutic interventions, such as urging clients to get involved in daily exercise, recreational activities, church activities, or whatever is preventative based on their unique individual needs.

Clients who are acutely suicidal may require hospitalization. Many professionals view hospitalization as less than optimal, but if you have a client with acute suicide ideation, hospitalization may be your best alternative. If so, be positive and direct. Clients may have negative views of life inside a psychiatric hospital. Statements similar to the following can aid in beginning the discussion.

  • I wonder how you feel (or what you think) about staying in a hospital until you feel safer and more in control?
  • I think being in the hospital may be just the right thing for you. It’s a safe place. You can work on coping skills and on any medication adjustments you may need or want.

Linehan (1993) discussed several directive approaches for reducing suicide behaviors based on dialectical behavior therapy. She advocated:

  • Emphatically instructing the client not to commit suicide.
  • Repeatedly informing the client that suicide isn’t a good solution and that a better one will be found.
  • Giving advice and telling the client what to do when/if he or she is frozen and unable to construct a positive action plan.

These suggestions can give you a sense of how directive you may need to be when working with clients who are suicidal.

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R-I-P-SC-I-P: An Acronym for Remembering the Essential Components of a Suicide Assessment Interview

This post is part 1 of a follow up to requests I’ve gotten following the MUS Suicide Prevention Summit in Bozeman. A number of people asked: What’s R-I-P-SC-I-P and how do I get more information about it? The answer is that it’s just an acronym to help practitioners recall key areas to cover in a comprehensive suicide assessment interview. But because I made it up in honor of Robert Wubbolding while doing a workshop in Cincinnati (he’s created several acronyms for Choice Theory and Reality Therapy), I’m pretty much the only source.

The following is a pre-published excerpt from the Suicide Assessment chapter in the forthcoming 6th edition of Clinical Interviewing. It includes some general information, a summary of R-I-P-SC-I-P, and some guidance on how to talk with clients about suicide ideation. Much more of this is in the whole chapter, but I can’t post it here.

Suicide Assessment Interviewing

A comprehensive and collaborative suicide assessment interview is the professional gold standard for assessing suicide risk. Suicide assessment scales and instruments can be a valuable supplement—but not a substitute—for suicide assessment interviewing (see Putting It in Practice 10.1).

A comprehensive suicide assessment interview includes the following components:

  • Gathering information about suicide risk and protective factors: This should be done in a manner that emphasizes your desire to understand the client and not as a checklist to estimate risk
  • Asking directly about possible suicidal thoughts
  • Asking directly about possible suicide plans
  • Gathering information about client self-control and agitation
  • Gathering information about client suicide intent and reasons to live
  • Consultation with one or more professionals
  • Implementation of one or more suicide interventions, including, at the very least, collaborative work on developing an individualized safety plan
  • Detailed documentation of your assessment and decision-making process (Table 10.3 includes an acronym to help you recall the components of a comprehensive suicide assessment interview)

Table 10.3: RIP SCIP – A Suicide Assessment Acronym

R = Risk and Protective Factors
I = Suicide Ideation
P = Suicide Plan
SC = Client Self-Control and Agitation
I = Suicide Intent and Reasons for Living
P = Safety Planning

These assessment domains or dimensions form the acronym R-I-P-SC-I-P (pronounced RIP SKIP).

Exploring Suicide Ideation

Unlike many other risk factors (e.g., demographic factors), suicide ideation is directly linked to potential suicide behavior. It’s difficult to imagine anyone ever dying by suicide without having first experienced suicide ideation.

Because of this, you may decide to systematically ask every client about suicide ideation during initial clinical interviews. This is a conservative approach and guarantees you won’t face a situation where you should have asked about suicide, but didn’t. Alternatively, you may decide to weave questions about suicide ideation into clinical interviews as appropriate. At least initially, for developing professionals, we recommend using the systematic approach. However, we recognize that this can seem rote. From our perspective, it is better to learn to ask artfully by doing it over and over than to fail to ask and regret it.

The nonverbal nature of communication has direct implications for how and when you ask about suicide ideation, depressive symptoms, previous attempts, and other emotionally laden issues. For example, it’s possible to ask: “Have you ever thought about suicide?” while nonverbally communicating to the client: “Please, please say no!” Therefore, before you decide how you’ll ask about suicide ideation, you need the right attitude about asking the question.

Individuals who have suicidal thoughts can be extremely sensitive to social judgment. They may have avoided sharing suicidal thoughts out of fear of being judged as “insane” or some other stigma. They’re likely monitoring you closely and gauging whether you’re someone to trust with this deeply intimate information. To pass this unspoken test of trust, it’s important to endorse, and directly or indirectly communicate the following beliefs:

  • Suicide ideation is normal and natural and counseling is a good place for clients to share those thoughts.
  • I can be of better help to clients if they tell me their emotional pain, distress, and suicidal thoughts.
  • I want my clients to share their suicidal thoughts.
  • If my clients share their suicidal thoughts and plans, I can handle it!

If you don’t embrace these beliefs, clients experiencing suicide ideation may choose to be less open.

Asking Directly about Suicide Ideation

Asking about suicide ideation may feel awkward. Learning to ask difficult questions in a deliberate, compassionate, professional, and calm manner requires practice. It also may help to know that, in a study by Hahn and Marks (1996), 97% of previously suicidal clients were either receptive or neutral about discussing suicide with their therapists during intake sessions. It also may help to know that you’re about to learn the three most effective approaches to asking about suicide that exist on this planet.

Use a normalizing frame. Most modern prevention and intervention programs recommend directly asking clients something like, “Have you been thinking about suicide recently?” This is an adequate approach if you’re in a situation with someone you know well and from whom you can expect an honest response.

A more nuanced approach is to ask about suicide along with a normalizing or universalizing statement about suicide ideation. Here’s the classic example:

Well, I asked this question since almost all people at one time or another

during their lives have thought about suicide.

There is nothing abnormal about the thought. In fact it is very normal when one

feels so down in the dumps.

The thought itself is not harmful. (Wollersheim, 1974, p. 223)

A common fear is that asking about suicide will put suicidal ideas in clients’ heads. There’s no evidence to support this (Jobes, 2006). More likely, your invitation to share suicidal thoughts will reassure clients that you’re comfortable with the subject, in control of the situation, and capable of dealing with the problem.

Use gentle assumption. Based on over two decades of clinical experience with suicide assessment Shawn Shea (2002/ 2004/2015) recommends using a framing strategy referred to as gentle assumption. To use gentle assumption, the interviewer presumes that certain illegal or embarrassing behaviors are already occurring in the client’s life, and gently structures questions accordingly. For example, instead of asking “Have you been thinking about suicide?” you would ask: “When was the last time when you had thoughts about suicide?” Gentle assumption can make it easier for clients to disclose suicide ideation.

Use mood ratings with a suicidal floor. It can be helpful to ask about suicide in the context of a mood assessment (as in a mental status examination). Scaling questions such as those that follow can be used to empathically assess mood levels.

1. Is it okay if I ask some questions about your mood? (This is an invitation for collaboration; clients can say “no,” but rarely do.)

2. Please rate your mood right now, using a zero to 10 scale. Zero is the worst mood possible. In fact, 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. 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 links the mood rating to the external situation.)

4. What’s the worst or lowest mood rating you’ve ever had? (This informs the interviewer about the lowest lows.)

5. What was happening back then to make you feel so down? (This links the lowest rating to the external situation and may lead to discussing previous attempts.)

6. For you, what would be a normal mood rating on a normal day? (Clients 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.)

The preceding protocol assumes clients are minimally cooperative. More advanced interviewing procedures can be added when clients are resistant (see Chapter 12). The process facilitates a deeper understanding of life events linked to negative moods and suicide ideation. This can lead to formal counseling or psychotherapy, as well as safety planning.

Responding to Suicide Ideation

Let’s say you broach the question and your client openly discloses the presence of suicide ideation. What next?

First, remember that hearing about your client’s suicide ideation is good news. It reflects trust. Also remember that depressive and suicidal symptoms are part of a normal response to distress. Validate and normalize:

Given the stress you’re experiencing, it’s not unusual that you think about suicide sometimes. It sounds like things have been really hard lately.

This validation is important because many suicidal individuals feel socially disconnected, emotionally invalidated, and as if they’re a social burden (Joiner, 2005). Your empathic reflection may be more or less specific, depending on how much detailed information your client has given you.

As you continue the assessment, collaboratively explore the frequency, triggers, duration, and intensity of your client’s suicidal thoughts.

  • Frequency: How often do you find yourself thinking about suicide?
  • Triggers: What seems to trigger your suicidal thoughts? What gets them started?
  • Duration: How long do these thoughts stay with you once they start?
  • Intensity: How intense are your thoughts about suicide? Do they gently pop into your head or do they have lots of power and sort of smack you down?

As you explore the suicide ideation, strive to emanate calmness, and curiosity, rather than judgment. Instead of thinking, “We need to get rid of these thoughts,” engage in collaborative and empathic exploration.

Some clients will deny suicidal thoughts. If this happens, and it feels genuine, acknowledge and accept the denial, while noting that you were just using your standard practice.

Okay. Thanks. Asking about suicidal thoughts is just something I think is important to do with everyone.

On the other hand, if the denial seems forced, or is combined with depressive symptoms or other risk factors, you’ll still want to use acknowledgement and acceptance, but then find a way to return to the topic later in the session.

Three Strategies for Conducting State-of-the-Art Suicide Assessment Interviews

Tomorrow is the first day of the MUS Statewide Summit on Suicide Prevention in Bozeman, Montana. From 2:30-3:45pm I’ll be participating on a panel: “Screening and Intervention Options with the Imminently Suicidal.” During my 10-12 minutes, I’ll be offering my version of what I view as essential strategies and skills for face-to-face suicide assessment interviewing. Below is the handout for the Summit. I think it’s a great thing that we’re meeting in an effort to address this important problem in Montana. Thanks to Lynne Weltzien of UM-Western in Dillon and Mike Frost of UM-Missoula for the invitation. Here’s the handout . . .

Three Strategies for Conducting
State-of-the-Art Suicide Assessment Interviews
John Sommers-Flanagan, Ph.D.
University of Montana

I. To conduct efficient and valid suicide assessment interviews, clinicians need to hold an attitude of acceptance (not judgment) and use several state-of-the-art assessment strategies.

II. If clinicians believe suicide ideation is a sign of psychopathology or deviance, students or clients will sense this and be less open.

III. Asking directly about suicide is essential, but experienced clinicians use more nuanced assessment strategies.

a. Normalizing statements

  • I’ve read that up to 50% of teenagers have thought about suicide. Is that true for you?
  • When people are depressed or feeling miserable, it’s not unusual to have thoughts of suicide pass through their mind. Have you had any thoughts of suicide?

b. Gentle assumption (Shea, 2002, 2004, 2015)

  • When was the last time you had thoughts about suicide?

c. A solution-focused mood evaluation with a suicide floor

1. “Is it okay if I ask some questions about your mood?” (This is an invitation for collaboration; clients can say “no,” but rarely do.)

2. “Please rate your mood right now, using a zero to 10 scale. Zero is the worst mood possible. In fact, 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. 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 links the mood rating to the external situation.)

4. “What’s the worst or lowest mood rating you’ve ever had?” (This informs the interviewer about the lowest lows.)

5. “What was happening back then to make you feel so down?” (This links the lowest rating to the external situation and may lead to discussing previous attempts.)

6. “For you, what would be a normal mood rating on a normal day?” (Clients 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 protocol assumes cooperation. More advanced interviewing procedures can be added if clients are resistant. The goal is a deeper understanding of life events linked to negative moods and suicide ideation and a possible direct transition to counseling or safety planning.

 

IV. When students or clients disclose suicide ideation clinicians should:

a. Stay calm

b. Express empathy

c. Normalize ideation

d. Move to conducting a full suicide assessment interview (i.e., R-I-P-SC-I-P*) or refer the student/client to someone who will do a full assessment along with safety planning

e. Use suicide interventions as appropriate

 

V. Using Shneidman’s “Alternatives to Suicide” approach is a parsimonious way to simultaneously assess and intervene to reduce danger to self

 

VI. IMHO: All health and mental health providers should be trained to use these clinical skills and strategies when working with potentially suicidal students/clients.

 

Adapted from: Clinical Interviewing (6th ed., 2016), Wiley. Feel free to share this handout as long as authorship is included. For more information or to ask about professional workshops for your organization, contact John Sommers-Flanagan: john.sf@mso.umt.edu or 406-721-6367.

 

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Suicide Risk Factors, Part III

It’s been awhile since I started my holiday and post-holiday look at suicide risk factors. In previous posts I focused on Demographic and Ethnic Factors related to death by suicide and then on the broad category of Mental Disorders and Psychiatric Treatment. This post focuses on Personal and Social Factors that are linked to suicide.

Not to worry, soon I’ll be moving beyond this tragic but important topic.

The following is mostly an excerpt from our Clinical Interviewing text.

Social and Personal Factors

There are a number of social and personal factors linked to increased suicide risk. Many of these factors have been reviewed and integrated into Thomas Joiner’s interpersonal theory of suicide (Joiner & Silva, 2012; Van Orden et al., 2010).

Social Isolation/Loneliness
In a review of the literature, 34 research studies were identified that include support for social isolation as a suicide risk factor (Van Orden et al., 2010). These findings provide support for Joiner’s (Joiner & Silva, 2012) attachment-informed interpersonal theory of suicide. Van Orden et al (2008) described the two primary dimensions of Joiner’s interpersonal theory:

The theory proposes that the needs to belong and to contribute to the welfare of close others are so fundamental that the thwarting of these needs (i.e., thwarted belongingness and perceived burdensomeness) is a proximal cause of suicidal desire. (Van Orden et al., 2008, p. 72)

Interpersonal theory explains why a number of social factors, such as unemployment, social isolation, reduced productivity, and physical incapacitation are associated with increased suicide risk. Specifically, research indicates that divorced, widowed, and separated people are in a higher suicide-risk category and that single, never-married individuals have a suicide rate nearly double the rate of married individuals (Van Orden et al., 2010). Based on interpersonal theory, an underlying reason that these factors are linked to suicidality is because they involve thwarted belongingness and a self-perception of being a burden to family and friends, rather than contributing in a positive way to the lives of others.

In a fairly recent study, the suicide notes of 98 active duty U.S. Air Force (USAF) members were analyzed. Using Joiner’s interpersonal theory, results indicated strong themes of hopelessness, perceived burdensomeness, and thwarted belongingness. Overall, interpersonal risk factors were communicated more often than intrapsychic risk factors. (Cox et al., 2011).

Physical Illness

Many decades of research have established the link between physical illness and suicide. Specific illnesses that confer suicide risk include brain cancer, chronic pain, stroke, rheumatoid arthritis, hemodialysis, and HIV-AIDS (e.g., (Lin, Wu, & Lee, 2009; Martiny, de Oliveira e Silva, Neto, & Nardi, 2011). Overall, although physical illness is a major predictor, several social factors appear to mediate the relationship between illness and death by suicide. In particular, Joiner’s concept of becoming a social burden seems a likely contributor to suicidal behavior, regardless of specific diagnosis (Van Orden et al., 2010). Similar to previously hospitalized psychiatric patients, medical patients also exhibit higher suicidal behavior shortly after hospital discharge (McKenzie & Wurr, 2001).

Previous Attempts

Over 27 separate studies have indicated that suicide risk is higher for people who have previously attempted (Beghi & Rosenbaum, 2010). Van Orden et al. (2010) refer to previous attempts as “. . . one of the most reliable and potent predictors of future suicidal ideation, attempts, and death by suicide across the lifespan” (p. 577).

As one example, in a 15-year prospective British study of deliberate self-harm, repeated self-harm was a strong predictor of eventual suicide, especially in young women (Zahl & Hawton, 2004). By the study’s end, 4.7% of women who had repeatedly engaged in deliberate self-harm committed suicide as compared to 1.9% in the single episode group. In this study, deliberate self-harm was defined as intentionally poisoning or self-injuring that resulted in a hospital visit. The study concluded that repeated deliberate self-harm increases suicide risk in males and females, but is a particularly salient predictor in young females. This is the case despite the fact that some clients use cutting, burning, or other forms of self-harm to aid in emotional regulation. Overall the research suggests that self-harm that rises to the level of hospitalization is likely beyond that which enhances self-regulation and instead constitutes practicing or successive approximation toward suicide.

Unemployment

Individuals who have suffered any form of recent, significant personal loss should be considered higher suicide risk (Hall, Platt, & Hall, 1999). However, in particular, unemployment is a life situation that repeatedly has been linked to suicide attempts and death by suicide. Joiner’s (2005) interpersonal theory of suicide posits that unemployment confers suicide risk at least partly because of individuals experiencing an increased sense of themselves as a burden on others. Other losses that can increase risk include (a) status loss, (b) loss of a loved one, (c) loss of physical health or mobility, (d) loss of a pet loss, and (e) loss of face through recent shameful events (Beghi & Rosenbaum, 2010; Packman, Marlitt, Bongar, & Pennuto, 2004).

Sexual Orientation

Over the years the data have been mixed regarding whether gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender individuals constitute a high suicide risk group. More recently, a 2011 publication in the Journal of Homosexuality reported there is no clear and convincing evidence that GLBT individuals die by suicide at a rate greater than the general population (Haas et al., 2011).
Although this is good news, the data also show that GLB populations have significantly higher suicide attempt rates. Haas et al (2011) wrote:

Since the early 1990s, population-based surveys of U.S. adolescents that have included questions about sexual orientation have consistently found rates of reported suicide attempts to be two to seven times higher in high school students who identify as LGB, compared to those who describe themselves as heterosexual. (p. 17)

Overall, it’s likely that transgender people and youth questioning their sexuality may be at increased risk for suicide attempts or death by suicide. Additionally, GLBT youth who have experienced homosexual-related verbal abuse and parental rejection for their behaviors related to gender and sexuality are more likely to engage in suicidal behaviors (D’augelli et al., 2005).

In conclusion, as you can probably see from this and the two previous posts, there are many complex and potentially interacting factors associated with increased suicide risk, but no great predictors. This is unfortunate for those of us who would like to use prediction methods to prevent and reduce suicide rates. But, at the same time, the fact that many people who experience great suffering in their lives still choose life, is a testament to human strength and resiliency.

And, speaking of resiliency, maybe I’ll be focusing on an exciting and upbeat topic like that next time. Until then, I wish you all the best in your efforts to help your clients through difficult times in their lives. Your work may be more important than you think.

Suicide Risk Factors: Part II

There are many ways to think about suicide risk factors. In my last post, I focused on demographic and ethnic factors related to death by suicide. In this post, the focus is on the broad category of Mental Disorders and Psychiatric Treatment. The next post will focus on Personal and Social Factors that are linked to suicide.

As you’ll see below, the relationship between mental disorders, psychiatric treatment, and suicide is complex. The following material is adapted from our textbook, Clinical Interviewing and so you can find more information there: http://www.amazon.com/Clinical-Interviewing-John-Sommers-Flanagan/dp/1118270045/ref=asap_B0030LK6NM?ie=UTF8

Mental Disorders and Psychiatric Treatment

In general, psychiatric diagnosis is considered a risk factor for suicide. However, some diagnostic conditions (e.g., bipolar disorder and schizophrenia) have higher suicide rates than others (e.g., specific phobias and oppositional-defiant disorder). Several diagnostic conditions associated with heightened suicide risk are discussed in this section.

Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a good example of a mental disorder that has a complex association with increased suicide risk. As you may realize, many individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia are unlikely to attempt suicide or die by suicide. Some individuals with a schizophrenia diagnosis are at higher suicide risk than others.

In 2010, Hor and Taylor conducted a research review of risk factors associated with suicide among individuals with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. They initially identified 1,281 studies, eventually narrowing their focus to 51 with relevant schizophrenia-suicide data. Overall, they reported a lifetime suicide risk of about 5% (Hor & Taylor, 2010). Given that the annual risk in the general population is about 12 in 100,000 and assuming a life expectancy of 70 years the general lifetime risk is likely about 840 in 100,000 or 0.84%. This suggests that suicide risk among individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia is about 6 times greater than suicide risk within the general population.

However, there are unique predictive factors within the general population of individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia that further refine and increase suicide prediction. Hor and Taylor (2010) reported the following more specific suicide risk factors within the general population of individuals with a schizophrenia diagnosis:

  • Age (being younger)
  • Sex (being male)
  • Higher education level
  • Number of prior suicide attempts
  • Depressive symptoms
  • Active hallucinations and delusions
  • Presence of insight into one’s problems
  • Family history of suicide
  • Comorbid substance misuse (p. 81)

If you’re working with a client diagnosed with schizophrenia, the lifetime suicide prevalence for that client is predicted to be higher than in the general population. Presence of any of the preceding factors further increases that risk. This leaves a “highest risk prototype” among clients with schizophrenia as:

A young, male, with higher educational achievement, insight into his problems/diagnosis, a family history of suicide, previous attempts, active hallucinations and delusions, along with depressive symptoms and substance misuse.

Given what’s known about suicide unpredictability, it’s also important to remember that someone who fits the highest risk prototype may not be suicidal, whereas a client with no additional risk factors may be actively suicidal.

Depression

The relationship between depression and suicidal behavior is very well established (Bolton, Pagura, Enns, Grant, & Sareen, 2010; Holikatti & Grover, 2010; Schneider, 2012). Some experts believe depression is always associated with suicide (Westefeld and Furr, 1987). This close association has led to the labeling of depression as a lethal disease (Coppen, 1994).

It’s also clear that not all people with depressive symptoms are suicidal. In fact, it appears that depression by itself is much less of a suicide predictor than depression combined with another disturbing condition or conditions. For example, when depression is comorbid (occurring simultaneously) with anxiety, substance use, post-traumatic stress disorder, and borderline or dependent personality disorder, risk substantially increases. (Bolton et al., 2010). Earlier research also supports this pattern, with suicidality increasing along with additional distressing symptoms or experiences, including:

  • Severe anxiety
  • Panic attacks
  • Severe anhedonia
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Substantially decreased ability to concentrate
  • Global insomnia
  • Repeated deliberate self-harm
  • History of physical/sexual abuse
  • Employment problems
  • Relationship loss
  • Hopelessness (Fawcett, Clark, & Busch, 1993; Marangell et al., 2006; Oquendo et al., 2007)

Given this pattern it seems reasonable to conclude that when clients are experiencing greater depression severity and/or additional distressing symptoms, suicide risk increases. Van Orden and colleagues offered a similar conclusion:

. . . data indicate that depression is likely associated with the development of desire for suicide, whereas other disorders, marked by agitation or impulse control deficits, are associated with increased likelihood of acting on suicidal thoughts. (Van Orden et al., 2010, p. 577)

Bipolar Disorder

Research has repeatedly shown that individuals diagnosed with bipolar disorder at increased risk of suicide. Similar to schizophrenia and depression, there are many specific risk factors that predict increased suicidality among clients with bipolar disorder.

In a large-scale French study, eight risk factors were linked to lifetime suicide attempts (Azorin et al., 2009). These included:

1. Multiple hospitalizations
2. Depressive or mixed polarity of first episode
3. Presence of stressful life events before illness onset
4. Younger age at onset
5. No symptom-free intervals between episodes
6. Female sex
7. Greater number of previous episodes
8. Cyclothymic temperament (p. 115)

These findings are consistent with the research on unipolar depression; it appears that severity of bipolar disorder and accumulation of additional distressing experiences increase suicide risk. Another study identified (a) White race, (b) family suicide history, (c) history of cocaine abuse, and (d) history of benzodiazepine abuse were associated with increased suicide attempts (Cassidy, 2011)

Post-Traumatic Stress

In 2006, renowned psychologist Donald Meichenbaum reflected on his 35-plus years of working with suicidal clients. He wrote:

In reviewing my clinical notes from these several suicidal patients and the consultations that I have conducted over the course of my years of clinical work, the one thing that they all had in common was a history of victimization, including combat exposure (my first clinical case), sexual abuse, and surviving the Holocaust. (Meichenbaum, 2006, p. 334)

Clinical research supports Meichenbaum’s reflections. For example, in a file review of 200 outpatients, child sexual abuse was a better predictor of suicidality than depression (Read, Agar, Barker-Collo, Davies, & Moskowitz, 2001). Similarly, data from the National Comorbidity Survey (N = 5,877) showed that women who were sexually abused as children were 2 to 4 times more likely to attempt suicide, and men sexually abused as children were 4 to 11 times more likely to attempt suicide (Molnar, Berkman, & Buka, 2001). Overall, research over the past two decades points to several stress-related experiences as linked to suicide attempts and death by suicide (Wilcox & Fawcett, 2012). These include general trauma, stressful life events, and childhood abuse and neglect. Characteristics of these experiences that are most predictive of suicide are:

  • Assaultive abuse or trauma.
  • Chronicity of stress or trauma.
  • Severity of stress or trauma.
  • Earlier developmental stress or trauma. (Wilcox & Fawcett, 2012)

These particular life experiences appear related to suicidal behavior across a variety of populations—including military personnel, street youth, and female victims of sexual assault (Black, Gallaway, Bell, & Ritchie, 2011; Cox et al., 2011; Hadland et al., 2012; Snarr et al., 2010; Spokas, Wenzel, Stirman, Brown, & Beck, 2009).

Substance Abuse

Research is unequivocal in linking alcohol and drug use to increased suicide risk (Sher, 2006). Suicide risk increases even more substantially when substance abuse is associated with depression, social isolation, and other suicide risk factors.

One way that alcohol and drug use increases suicide risk is by decreasing inhibition. People act more impulsively when in chemically altered states and suicide is usually considered an impulsive act. No matter how much planning has preceded a suicide act, at the moment the pills are taken, the trigger is pulled, or the wrist is slit, some theorists believe that some form of disinhibition or dissociation has probably occurred (Shneidman, 1996). Mixing alcohol and prescription medications can further elevate suicide risk.

Several other specific mental disorders have clear links to death by suicide. These include:

  • Anorexia nervosa
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Conduct disorder (see Van Orden et al., 2010)

Post-Hospital Discharge

For individuals admitted to hospitals because of a mental disorder, the period immediately following discharge carries increased suicide risk. This is particularly true of individuals who have additional risk factors such as previous suicide attempts, lack of social support, and chronic psychiatric disorders. Overall, suicide ideation and attempts are predictably high. In one study 3.3% completed suicide within 6 months of discharge, whereas 39.4% had self-harm behaviors or suicide attempts (Links et al., 2012). Another study reported “3% of patients categorized as being at high risk can be expected to commit suicide in the year after discharge” (Large, Sharma, Cannon, Ryan, & Nielssen, 2011, p. 619).

Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs)

Over the past two decades, empirical data linking SSRI medications to suicidal impulses has accumulated to the point that recent administration of SSRI medications should be considered a possible suicide risk factor (Breggin, 2010; Valenstein et al., 2012). This is true despite the fact that some research also shows that SSRI antidepressants reduce suicide rates (Kuba et al., 2011; Leon et al., 2011). Overall, it appears that in a minority of clients (2–5%) SSRI antidepressants may increase agitation in a way that contributes to increased risk for suicidal behaviors (J. Sommers-Flanagan & Campbell, 2009).

In September 2004, an expert panel of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) voted 25–0 in support of an SSRI-suicide link. Later, the panel voted 15–8 in favor of a “black box warning” on SSRI medication labels. The warning states:

Antidepressants increased the risk compared to placebo of suicidal thinking and behavior (suicidality) in children, adolescents, and young adults in short-term studies of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) and other psychiatric disorders. Patients of all ages who are started on antidepressant therapy should be monitored appropriately and observed closely for clinical worsening, suicidality, or unusual changes in behavior. Families and caregivers should be advised of the need for close observation and communication with the prescriber.

In 2006, the FDA extended its SSRI suicidality warning to adult patients aged 18–24 years (United States Food and Drug Administration, 2007).

There’s no doubt that debate about whether SSRI medications increase suicide risk will continue. In the meantime, prudent practice dictates that mental health providers be alert to the possibility of increased suicide risk among clients who have recently been prescribed antidepressant medications (Sommers-Flanagan & Campbell, 2009).

In the next post in this series I’ll be focusing on Personal and Social factors associated with suicide.

Suicide Assessment and Intervention for the 21st Century

This past year, Alexander Street Press has been filming and producing a number of Ted-like talks focusing on counseling and psychotherapy. These are 15 minute talks, followed by a short Q & A on the topic. Below is a transcript from a talk I gave this summer in their studio at Governor’s State University in Chicago. I’m posting this talk in honor of National Suicide Prevention Day. This talk, and another couple dozen talks, should be available later this year or early next year from Alexander Street Press: http://search.alexanderstreet.com/counseling-therapy

Here’s the transcript:

Ironically I usually feel happy when I’m asked to do a talk on suicide and then I start with great confidence. I think it’s because suicide is such an extremely important and stressful issue for mental health professionals. But once I dive into the content, I remember how difficult this topic is. During one public presentation a therapist-friend of mine walked out because, as he told me later, the content was hitting too close to home. So please, as you listen, take care of yourself and talk to friends and colleagues for support.

To be perfectly honest, I DON’T REALLY LIKE to talk about suicide, but I think it’s VERY IMPORTANT that we do so directly . . . with each other and with our clients . . . and so here we go.

Death by suicide is pretty rare. Every year, only about 1 in 10,000 Americans commit suicide.

Despite its low frequency, suicide is still a major social problem that affects nearly everyone in one way or another. Over the years you’ve probably heard of many famous people who died by suicide. Marilyn Monroe and Kurt Cobain are two prime examples.

Perhaps even more important is the problem of suicide attempts. About 10% of the human population has attempted suicide and about 20% report struggling with suicidal thoughts and impulses. In surveys of high school students about 50% report “thinking about suicide.”

To summarize what we know about suicide base rates we can say:
I. Death by suicide is infrequent
II. Suicide attempts are NOT infrequent. In fact, many people attempt suicide and then go on to lead happy and meaningful lives
III. Suicide ideation (thoughts) are common
IV. And this is what makes suicide prediction very difficult, because it occurs so infrequently, but this is also what makes suicide prevention very necessary.

In 1991, I worked with a young man who ended up killing himself. This was a tragedy and I remember feeling that gut-wrenching guilt and regret that really stays with you a long time. Afterwards, my consultation group quizzed me and declared that I had done what I could, following all the standard and customary professional suicide assessment procedures. But in my mind and in my heart, then and now, I know I could have done better.

You see back in 1991, professionals (and the public) lived by a big suicide-related myth. We generally viewed suicidal thoughts as DEVIANCE. And so, when clients talked of suicide, it was our job to take action to assess and intervene to eliminate the suicidal thoughts.

This way of thinking about suicide is unhelpful. It creates distance between the professional therapist and his or her client; it also takes power away from clients. And so it’s NOW TIME FOR US TO BUST THE BIG SUICIDE MYTH.

NO LONGER should we consider suicidal thoughts and impulses simply as SIGNS OF DEVIANCE. Instead, we should view suicidal thoughts and impulses as normal signs of human distress. THIS IS THE NEW – and the more accurate – REALITY

Let’s take a minute now to contrast traditional and contemporary or post-modern suicide assessment and intervention approaches. The old Narrative is sort of a checklist approach where we emphasize risk factors, diagnostic interviewing, and no-suicide contracts. The New Narrative is different; it involves looking for protective factors, client strengths, normalizing suicide ideation, and initiating a collaborative safety plan.

This is what I wish I’d understood back in 1991. And so I’d like to be more specific about what I would have done differently and what all mental health professionals should be doing differently.
I wish I had asked more about his protective factors. Protective factors are things like reasons for living and so I wish I’d been more courageous in sitting with him and exploring the reasons why he wanted to live. I wish I’d asked him, over and over, what would or what could help him want to live.

I wish I had asked him more directly about what would help him control his suicide impulses. I would have asked him who he wanted around to help him. I would have lingered on this and asked, who else, what if that person can’t be there, who else would be your next choice to turn to for help.

One of the big changes in the suicide intervention field is that we no longer ask clients to sign No-Suicide contracts. Instead, we work to collaboratively develop a safety plan. As a part of this different focus, I wish I had clearly and unequivocally said to him: “I WANT YOU TO LIVE.” This is different than arguing with clients about their right or need to commit suicide. We should never argue against suicide because that can activate client resistance and make the act even more likely. But the language, “I WANT YOU TO LIVE” is just a self-disclosure and is therefore unarguable. It clearly communicates the intent to help.

Overall, I should have been MORE BALANCED and asked about what my client was doing when his depressive symptoms were gone. I should have asked about what he hoped for today and tomorrow and into the future. I should have asked him more about what brought a little light into his darkness. We should have brainstormed how to bring the light in when he was feeling down.
One problem with the old No-Suicide contracts is that clients sometimes viewed them as designed more to protect the counselor than the client. Obviously this is backward and not the sort of message we want to give clients who are suicidal. And so no-suicide contracts are out . . . and collaborative safety plans are in. What this requires is for counselors to dig in deeper and explore together specifically what the client is willing to do if the suicidal impulses come.

And now, because this talk is all about balancing negative and positive and I want to give an example of two suicide interventions, I’m going to share a positive story about suicide. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that, because now you already know there’s a happy ending. Oh well. Having a happy ending story is a good thing when you’re doing a suicide presentation.

About 5pm one evening I was about to head home and got a call from an alcohol and drug prevention organization across the street from where I was working. A suicidal 16-year-old had suddenly walked into their agency and they had no professional therapists on staff. They asked me to come over and help. I went right over and sat down with the girl in their lobby. We talked a while and she said she had left the local psychiatric unit and was planning to kill herself by jumping off a bridge about a quarter mile away. I listened and then began a specific suicide intervention developed by Edwin Shneidman, well-known as the father of suicidology. I said something like, “So you want to kill yourself. That’s one option, but let’s look at some others.” She said she wasn’t interested in any other options, but I got out a sheet of paper and wrote down “Kill myself” in the left hand column and asked her for other options. She said, “I don’t have any other options.” I said, how about going back to the hospital?” She said, “No way.” I said, that’s okay, we’re just making a list. Got any ideas? She said nothing. I said, “How about some family therapy?” She said, “No way.” I said, “Okay. I’ll write it down anyway because we’re just making a list. You don’t have to do any of these things.” Over time, I came up with about eight ideas of what she might do instead of kill herself, but she hadn’t come up with any. But the purpose of the intervention I was using was to address what Shneidman calls mental constriction. Mental constriction occurs when suicidal individuals are feeling so stressed and miserable that all they can consider is continued misery or death by suicide. With this intervention, I was working on opening up her mental blinders so she could see and consider alternatives to suicide. And so despite the fact that she didn’t generate or endorse any of the alternatives, I handed her the sheet of paper and asked her to rank order her preferences. And somewhat to my surprise, she ranked “Kill myself” as number three. There were two other options she preferred over suicide. I went for that and asked how I could help her get family therapy, which was her first choice. She re-escalated and headed out the door and down the street toward the bridge. I followed and walked with her and talked on and on about how “I want you to live.” She eventually got to the corner where we would cross the street to get on the bridge and I said I was stopping there. She stopped too and I reached out and grabbed her hand. She pulled back and yelled at me for touching her. Then I tried another specific suicide intervention, called Neodissociation. I said, “I know somewhere inside there’s a part of you that wants to live a happy and healthy life. Please, I want that part of you to just reach out and take my hand and walk with me back to the office so we can get you the help you deserve. She stared at me, reached out, took my hand, and then walked back to the office where I called the police and they took her back to the hospital.

[Insert big sigh here].

About two months later, I got a card from her that read, “The only bridges in my life now are bridges to health and happiness.” Now that’s a pretty good ending, but there’s more.

About six months later I asked her therapist if he thought it would be okay for me to interview her about what she thought was most helpful to her in choosing life over suicide. He asked her and then she came to my office for a short video interview. I remember asking her what was most helpful and she said she had a great student nurse at the hospital who was “Fresh” and genuine and that had helped a lot. Then I asked her what had helped her come with me on that first night we’d met. She said, “I’m not sure.” Eager for affirmation, I asked if it was when I used the neodissociation technique and she responded, “No way. That was really stupid.” Then she spontaneously said that she thought it was the look on my face, when I stopped and said I would go no further. She said that—in that moment—I looked like I really cared.

And so that’s the suicide story I prefer to remember.

Speaking of remembering, let’s review the main points.

In summary, there are three main modifications to the traditional approach, which I sometimes call the NEW MANTRA.
• There’s NO MORE BIG MYTH and so we normalize suicidal thoughts and impulses to counter our client’s feelings of deviance; they already feel deviant enough, we don’t need to add to that.
• Collaborate with clients. . . and be sure to do so from a place of genuine caring. It’s okay to say: “I WANT YOU TO LIVE” while collaboratively developing a safety plan.
• Use strength-based questioning, focusing on hope instead of hopelessness; meaning instead of meaninglessness.
• And of course, as always, like all good professionals, consult and document.

I’d like to end with a comment on self-care. As you can see in the final photo, my two daughters are engaged in what appears to be rather bizarre human behavior. I like to think of this as the one daughter performing a helpful “Pit-Check” for the other. We all need that and we especially need that when we’re working with clients who are suicidal. We need to keep talking and asking, “How am I doing?” We need to check up and check in with our colleagues and take very good care of ourselves because although the work we’re doing is essential . . . it can also be terribly stressful to face alone.

This reminds me of what another client once said to me. He said: The mind is a terrible place to go . . . alone . . . which is why we should keep on talking—directly to each other and to our clients—about suicide and suicide prevention.

Thanks for listening.