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An Early Peek at the Suicide Assessment and Intervention Video Project

Helicopter CroppedBack in March, 2012, I settled into a Starbucks in Vancouver, Washington to reflect on my experiences at the annual American Counseling Association conference in San Francisco. Memories of Dr. Irvin Yalom’s keynote bubbled up in my mind, so that’s what ended up in my fingers, on my screen, and in my blog.

Several days later, I got an email from a “Dr. Yalom.” Seeing the name, I immediately felt anxiety and anticipation. First thoughts, “I meant to be positive. I hope I didn’t write anything offensive?”

The email was from Dr. Victor Yalom. It was nice . . . and supportive . . . and positive . . . and a big relief.

Victor is the owner/publisher/president or grand sultan of psychotherapy.net. Psychotherapy.net is a publisher of psychotherapy training and continuing education materials, mostly videos. Over the past 6 years Victor and I have struck up a collegial friendship. He is the biggest fan and proponent of our Clinical Interviewing video series (which he sells through psychotherapy.net). After viewing the Clinical Interviewing video, he has repeatedly asked Rita and I about doing a video for psychotherapy.net. Unfortunately, the timing never worked out, until this past fall, when we agreed to collaborate on a six-hour suicide assessment and intervention training video.

As they say in the film industry, everything is in the can. We’re down to final editing and other details. We filmed in Missoula and Mill Valley. Rather than working directly with imminently suicidal clients, we got volunteers to channel previous or potential suicide-related experiences. All this is just my way of introducing this sneak peek into this upcoming video.

Of course, reading isn’t the same as watching, but the next 2,000 words can give you a glimpse of one of the cases featured on the video. The client is a young Native American man and veteran. Many cultural issues emerge during the session, along with suicide ideation. Here’s the clip, along with my side “commentary” in bold:

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John:            Cory, I know a little bit about you, but not very much. And so maybe the best place to start is for you to tell me some things about yourself, some things about how you’ve been feeling in your life, some things about the situations that you’ve been in, and maybe help me get a sense of how I might be of help.

Cory:            Yeah, I come from a small reservation in Eastern Montana, and I was kind of – it was a comfortable life growing up. I didn’t know anything different. And I remember sitting there with my family watching the war and kind of spurred us to want to help bring honor to our tribe. So, I signed up at 17.

John:            Yeah, what tribe?

Cory:            I’m from the Lakota Sioux tribe from the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.

John:            Okay. Great, thank you. Sorry.

Cory:            So, I left at 17, and it was kind of a big deal. We had a big honor, big gathering for me, big sendoff, and it was pretty great and feeling pretty good. Deployed when I was 18 years old over to Iraq. It was going great. I felt like I was doing something. I didn’t get to talk to my family much, maybe every three months. And I didn’t know what was going on at home. Had a fiancée when I left. Life was great. Eventually time to come home and came home. And my family’s kind of in disarray. My grandma died. I didn’t get to go to her funeral. They didn’t tell me.

John:            Yeah.

Cory:            So, kind of tore me up. My fiancée left me for one of my best friends, so that was the shock of my life.

John:            Yeah. So, at least at this point I’m hearing that you were on kind of a high and feeling good at 17, get a big sendoff from your tribe, from your family, and you go, and you go to Iraq. And you get back, and things are a mess.

Cory:            Yeah. Meth kind of hit our reservation pretty hard. And family members on meth and prison and kind of whole world changed, I guess. Eventually, I didn’t – just came back and started drinking. Not sure who I was anymore. So, that was difficult, didn’t have very many people to turn to anymore. Never had a father growing up. My mom was always raising us with a couple jobs. And eventually her and her boyfriend got into drugs, so that’s kind of pretty difficult. And I didn’t know what to do anymore. And I was kind of feeling down and just kept drinking, and I kind of don’t know what to do anymore. For us it’s a honor to serve and kind of makes us who we are.

John:            Yeah.

Cory:            We view it as becoming a warrior man.

John:            Yeah.

Cory:            And I felt like I did that, and I’d bring honor back to my culture, my tribe. Yeah, just I came home. Everything’s in disarray, and I thought I was pretty stable. Eventually – and one thing, on the reservation we don’t – or culturally we don’t talk about our feelings or emotions. So, every time we do, feel pretty shame. A lot of shame comes from it. So, it’s kind of you just deal with it.

John:            Yeah, yeah. Yeah, so a couple of cultural pieces. One is that sense of honor of serving, and you hooked onto that and were living that. And then another cultural thing is, it’s a little shameful to express emotions, sadness, that kind of emotion or others.

Cory:            Yeah, I mean, I guess I could just describe it as shame. Like I feel guilty talking about it because we’re supposed to be men.

John:            You’re warriors. You’re strong.

Cory:            Yeah.

John:            And so you keep it all –

Cory:            Yeah, it’s part of who we are, death, fighting, honor, celebrating together, just part of who we are.

John:            Yeah, yeah. And then as you get back, and you’re in this disarray, and the meth on your reservation is prevalent, and you start drinking, and it sounds like that could be connected with the emotional warrior. Is that one of the ways that you might cope?

Cory:            I guess I just – kind of just helped me feel nothing.

COMMENTARY: Cory has covered lots of ground quickly. He has articulated his collectivist identity. Knowing about his collectivist identity early in the session is a very good thing. He has also mentioned multiple stressors and losses; these stressors and losses are traditional risk factors and load onto the various risk dimensions. These include: coming back from war, being a veteran, loss and betrayal by his girlfriend, his grandmother’s death, the disarray of his tribal community from meth, and other issues. In addition, one immediate challenge that’s coming into my mind is how to address alcohol, because it’s a suicide desensitizer, but it’s also helping him “feel nothing” which is consistent with his cultural value of not expressing his feelings. At this point I’m choosing to build a relationship with Cory before jumping in and discussing alcohol directly.

John:            Okay.

Cory:            Just kind of, I guess, how I dealt with it because I couldn’t talk about stuff that happened over there, and I didn’t have no male role models in my life to kind of talk about culturally with or anything.

John:            Yeah. So, I’m aware of the fact that you’ve told me, and I really appreciate it, some cultural things about you, about being a Lakota Sioux, about the reservation that you grew up on and some of the things you experienced, about the honor, about the shame, about the warrior mentality. And I’m going to do my best to track all those things. Occasionally if you think I’m just not getting it from your cultural perspective, I would love it if you would tell me, but I don’t want to put all that responsibility on you. So, I will probably every once in a while just check in to see, am I getting this right? Is that okay with you if we –

Cory:            Yeah, that’s fine.

John:            Yeah, because I just don’t want to misunderstand things because of my lack of the same cultural experience as yours. And so as I’m imagining it, you’re back. You’re drinking. It’s part of being numb.

Cory:            Uh-huh.

John:            And getting rid of those emotions. And as you talk, one question that comes to mind to me, and my guess is that this would be a dishonorable thought to have, although not an abnormal thought because it’s not unusual when people come back and life is disappointing and hard, and you’re drinking, and you’re managing those emotions, it’s just not unusual to have a thought about suicide or about killing yourself. And my guess is that would be in opposition to your culture, too, but I don’t know.

Cory:            Yes and no. One way we look at is from we’ve had everything taken from us. That’s one thing you can’t take from us. Our life is ours to give to the Creator, to Wakan Tanka which is our God. So, when it’s our time, it’s kind of our choice.

John:            Okay.

Cory:            The sad thing about it is, I’m feeling down, and a lot of times like as I grew up I had – I was probably nine years old. My first friend committed suicide. And it brings the community together. We have big honoring, big feast for his family, for him, and just days of celebrating. It’s kind of like bring the family back together. I had another friend do it after that because he was – couldn’t graduate high school and didn’t have nobody there, and he wanted his family to come back together, so he committed suicide, just felt like it’s going to bring his family back together. And it did for a bit, but meth came in again, so it kind of tore it apart.

John:            Uh-huh.

John:            So, I’m hearing two suicides of people that you knew well around the time that you graduated high school?

Cory:            Oh, one was when I was 9, and a good friend was 16. And by the time I was 18, I probably lost maybe 7 friends from drinking and driving, drugs, stabbings. So, I guess to us, I mean, death is death, so it wasn’t really a big deal, kind of a celebration and we’ll see them again.

John:            Yeah. So, for each one the family celebrates, the community celebrates –

Cory:            Uh-huh.

John:            – the life. And sometimes it almost sounds like somebody might choose suicide as an effort, it sounds like, to pull the family together to get everybody closer.

Cory:            Yeah, I guess, too, they know people will care. Pretty big sense of hopelessness there. Not many people know where to turn.

John:            Yeah. Yeah, so that’s a lot of death that you saw even by the time you graduated high school. Have you had some thoughts of suicide yourself?

Cory:            Originally when I first came back, I did. I just didn’t know what to do anymore. Then I came to college, thought I was going to – wanted to do something honorable again. Again, big celebration and sent us off to college. And I get here, and things are going well at first. Then just the culture differences, like nobody understood me, didn’t know what to do. I was doing all right in classes, but I just kind of couldn’t fit in, didn’t feel like anybody understood me. I mean, they’re all pretty nice guys and gals. I could tell they were trying to, but just something I knew they didn’t.

And then now things are getting bad again. I’m trying to sleep at night. Yeah, just every time I go to sleep, I remember one time in Iraq we were sitting there, and they decided – well, I guess Al-Qaeda, they blew a whole street, whole city block, and it just – I mean, every building came down. And we were there trying to help, and you had kids with missing arms and missing eyes and moms with no legs and crying, screaming. We were trying help as best we can, and same time people shooting at us and just didn’t know what to do.

My friend’s crying. Like why the fuck are we here? Like what are we doing here? Like this isn’t what we – not what we’re here for. Yeah, I just remember a mom with no leg carrying her helpless child just in her arms, and the child was dead. I mean, just every time I go to sleep, I just remember that kid helpless laying there. And so I’m not sleeping much, a lot of drinking still. I guess I don’t know what to do anymore.

COMMENTARY: It’s not unusual for suicidal clients to present with a vast array of psychological pain. That can be overwhelming to the client and to the therapist. Cory has shared several layers of unresolved grief, traumatic war memories. The number of people whom he has known who have died by suicide is immense. Additionally, because of his cultural norms of stoicism, I’m wanting to address these parts of his experience, while not activating intense emotions. my strategy has been and will be to use reflection of content, to avoid reflecting back strong emotions like sadness or anger, to keep his collectivist perspective in mind, and to take notes in a way so that he and I can take a more intellectual and problem-solving approach to working with him on his experiences.

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If you made it this far, a big congratulations. Acquiring skills to work effectively with clients who are suicidal is challenging, but dealing with the emotions that come up is probably even more difficult. The purpose of this training video (when it becomes available) is to help practitioners obtain knowledge, learn skills, and refine their awareness of the inner and interpersonal dynamics associated with suicide assessment and intervention. When I have more information on the video’s availability, I’ll let you know.

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More Methods for Discussing Suicide with Mental Health Clients

nick-nacksNearly everyone agrees that asking clients directly about suicide is the right thing. However, because every client situation is unique, there are also many different strategies for asking about suicide. In this short excerpt from Clinical Interviewing, we discuss how to bring up suicide using information from outside of the counseling or assessment session.

Using Outside Information to initiate Risk and Protective Factor Assessment

Outside of the formal suicide assessment interview, three main sources of information can be used to initiate a discussion with clients about suicide risk and protective factors:

  1. Client Records
  2. Assessment Instruments
  3. Collateral Informants

Client Records

If available, your client’s previous medical or mental health (med-psych) records are a quick and efficient source for client risk and protective factor information. Many risk factors listed in this chapter won’t be in your client’s records, but you should look closely for factors, such as: (a) previous suicide ideation and attempts; (b) a history of a depression diagnosis; and (c) familial suicide. After your standard intake interviewing opening and rapport building, you can use the records to broach these issues.

I saw in your records that you attempted suicide back in 2012. Could you tell me what was going on in your life back then to trigger that attempt? 

When exploring previous suicide attempts, it’s important to do so in a constructive manner that can contribute to treatment (see Case Example 10.2). Using psychoeducation to explain to clients why you’re asking about the past helps frame and facilitate the process.

The reason I’m asking about your previous suicide attempt is because the latest research indicates that the more we know about the specific stresses that triggered a past attempt, the better we can work together to help you cope with that stress now and in the future. 

Don’t forget to balance your questioning about previous suicide attempts with a focus on the positive.

Often, after a suicide attempt, people say they discovered some new strengths or resources or specific people who were especially helpful. How about for you? Did you have anything positive you discovered in the time after your suicide attempt.

It may be difficult to identify protective factors in your client’s med-psych records. However, if you find evidence of protective factors or personal strengths, you should bring them up in the appropriate context during a suicide assessment interview. For example, when interviewing a client who’s talking about despair associated with a current depressive episode, you might say something like:

I noticed in your records that you had a similar time a couple years ago when you were feeling very down and discouraged. And, according to your therapist back then, you worked very hard and managed to climb back up out of that depressing place. What worked for you back then?

Strive to use information from your clients’ records collaboratively. As illustrated, you can use the information to broach delicate issues (both positive and negative).

Traditionally, previous suicide attempts are considered one of the strongest predictors of future suicidal behaviors. However, as with all risk factors, previous attempts should be considered within the idiosyncratic context of each individual client. Case example 10.2 provides a glimpse of a case where a previous attempt ends up serving as a protective factor, rather than a risk factor.

Case Example 10.2

Exploring Previous Attempts as a Method for Understanding Client Stressors and Coping Strategies

Exploring previous suicide attempts is an assessment process. It can illuminate past stressors, but it’s equally useful for helping clients articulate past, present, and future coping responses.

Therapist: You wrote on your intake form that you attempted suicide about a year and a half ago. Can you tell me a bit about that?

Client: Right. I shot myself in the head. It’s obvious. You can see the scar right here.

Therapist: What was happening in your life that brought you to that point?

Client: I was getting bullied in school. I hated my step-father. Life was shit, so one day after school I took the pistol out of my mom’s room, aimed at my head and shot.

Therapist: What happened then?

Client: I woke up in the hospital with a bad fucking headache. And then there was rehab. It was a long road, but here I am.

Therapist: Right. Here you are. What do you make of that?

Client: I’m lucky. I’m bad at suicide. I don’t know. I suppose I took it to mean that I’m supposed to be alive.

Therapist: Have you had any thoughts about suicide recently?

Client: Nope. Nada. Not one.

Therapist: I guess from what you said that getting bullied or having family issues could still be hard for you. How do you cope with that now?

Client: I’ve got some friends. I’ve got my sister. I talk to them. You know, after you do what I did, you find out who really cares about you. Now I know.

 

Talking with Clients about Suicidal Thoughts and Feelings

fortunes

Spring is coming to the Northern Hemisphere. Along with spring, there will also be a bump in death by suicide. To help prepare counselors and clinicians to talk directly with clients about suicide, I’m posting an excerpt from the Clinical Interviewing text. The purpose is to help everyone be more comfortable talking about suicidal thoughts and feelings because the more comfortable we are, the more likely clients are to openly share their suicidal thoughts and feelings and that gives us a chance to engage them as a collaborative helper.

Here’s a link to the text https://www.amazon.com/Clinical-Interviewing-Video-Resource-Center/dp/1119084237/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

And here’s the excerpt:

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 se0em 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)

Three more examples of using a normalizing frame follow:

  • I’ve read that up to 50% of teenagers have thought about suicide. Is that true for you?
  • Sometimes when people are down or feeling miserable, they think about suicide and reject the idea or they think about suicide as a solution. Have you had either of these thoughts about suicide?
  • I have a practice of asking everyone I meet with about suicide and so I’m going to ask you: Have you had thoughts about death or suicide?

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 for you to sometimes think about suicide. 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.

 

A New Journal Article on Suicide Assessment Interviewing

Article · Oct 2016 · Professional Psychology Research and Practice
index

Making Memories in L.A.

I’ve never been the sort of person who can memorize a script or speech. My preference is to have an outline handy so I can speak to a coherent set of points and go free form from there. Memorizing or reading speeches always struck me as too lacking in spontaneity. This is probably pure rationalization. More likely, I either don’t have the self-discipline or cognitive ability to memorize speeches. But I’d just as soon forget that explanation.

Tomorrow I’ll be participating in an Alexander Street Press video recording session in L.A. It would be nice to have memorized at least some of my 2+ hours of content. I comfort myself with the unrealistic hope that—when the moment strikes—I’ll be locked in, spontaneous, and articulate, in a profound sort of way.

Last month I was in my first-ever theatrical performance. I had a bit role (or two) in Death by Dessert, put on by the Old Stone Players in Absarokee, MT. The crowds were immense (upwards of 90). Fortunately, my lines were short, and I memorized them all. The longest of my 14 lines (some of which included, “Okay” and “Yes sir.”) was: “What a shocking development. A set of twins. A boy and a girl.” I nailed those 13 words in four straight performances. Tomorrow, all I need to do is fill up about 130 minutes.

So I made up a pretend script for my L.A. recording. Most of which I’m fairly sure I’ll forget in the heat of the moment. I’ve also made up some personal notes, but because, when on camera, I’m too proud to want to let myself look down at my notes, they’ll probably go unused. This means I’ll achieve my goal of being spontaneous and being spontaneous usually works well if I’m not too anxious. The bad news is that because this will be video-recorded I will of course be anxious and Mr. Anxiety will exert his ugly head and super-funny sense of humor. The way it works for me is that Mr. Anxiety grabs a big eraser, causing all my profound thoughts to suddenly disappear, leaving me with the sort of blank mind that I wish for when trying to meditate. Then, I’m forced to fill in the blank, which makes me sound more like Sarah Palin than the silver-tongued sophisticate that I imagine myself to be.

The reassuring part of all this is that Dr. Matt Englar-Carlson (one of the nicest guys on the planet), son of Dr. Jon Carlson (one of the other nicest guys on the planet) will be interviewing me and facilitating the process. That’s good, because when I start sounding like Sarah Palin, it’s best to be around very nice and forgiving people.

Anyway, this brings me to my script, which I’m studying right now in one way or another. I’ve included a portion below. It seemed prudent to post this now, because by tomorrow at this time, the screen will be blank.

Matt E-C: Can you talk about your approach to counseling?

John S-F: I consider myself dogmatically eclectic. I believe, rather strongly, that we counselor-types need to shift our approach depending on the client, problem, goals, setting, and other factors. I think counselors should modify their theory to fit the client; clients shouldn’t be expected to adapt to their counselor’s theory.

That said, I think most of what we do requires a relational connection or working alliance. It’s important to establish credibility and trust. With this in mind I follow concrete steps linked to what Norcross has called “Evidence-Based Relationships.” There are several relational factors that appear to contribute substantially to positive counseling outcomes. A few examples include: (a) the working alliance (which includes the Adlerian concept of goal alignment); (b) Rogers’s core conditions; and (c) progress monitoring. Overall, I hope to establish a positive and collaborative working relationship and then use specific techniques, activities, and homework assignments that fit with clients and their problems/goals.

Matt E-C: If the counseling is effective what do you want to see happen?

John S-F: Early in the process of working with teenagers I use what I call an authentic purpose statement. This is a clear statement of MY PURPOSE in the room. It varies depending on the client, the referral situation, the setting, and other factors, but one example is: “My goal is to help you accomplish your goals, as long as they’re legal and healthy.” Occasionally I’ll add, “. . . and sometimes we might disagree on what’s legal and healthy and need to talk about it.”

Mostly I want clients to achieve their counseling goals. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I have my own thoughts and values about good counseling goals. For example, I value social interest, healthy egalitarian and respectful relationships, self-management, healthy habits, and psychological/emotional awareness. I think these are usually good goals for most clients. You may notice I didn’t include happiness or anxiety management in my list of good counseling goals. Although I value symptom reduction and often work directly on that, overall I think a life well-lived is a better way to alleviate depression and anxiety than providing treatments that are too circumscribed.

Matt E-C: Can you tell the viewers a little about your background and how you learned the skills of professional counseling?

John S-F: I have an early pivotal memory. I was a Junior at Oregon State University. Having just transferred from a Community College where I pretty much ONLY focused on athletics, I had only recently declared myself to be a psychology major. I remember the first time I “tried” to do counseling in a pre-practicum undergraduate psychology class. My professor was a man named Thomas Murphy. He was Native American. At that point I was fairly lost in terms of my potential professional career. He set us up to do “counseling” with each other in front of the class. My counseling partner had a bicycle accident on her way to class. She showed up; she wasn’t physically injured, but was very distressed and angry. All I did was use my best listening skills. The feedback I got from Dr. Murphy and the class was fabulously positive (you might say encouraging). I think that was the day I became a counselor.

Later, I got my Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Montana. At the time, the program was purposefully eclectic. We had cognitive, psychoanalytic/hypnoanalytic, person-centered, existential, and behavioral professors. While in that program, I volunteered to help with a dissertation and got training in Constance Fischer’s collaborative assessment approach, which was profound and enlightening.

I also did a year-long psychoanalytic internship in Syracuse, NY.

Looking back, none of my training experiences were perfect (and I wasn’t either), but in every situation I was able to learn and grow and develop myself as a person and professional.

Matt E-C: When you train counselors what are some of the most important areas that you want to make sure they learn or develop?

John S-F: If students aren’t able to listen non-directively, then I think they should find a different profession. When I hear myself say that, it sounds too bIunt and narrow minded, but I mean it. I don’t expect students to be constantly person-centered, but if they can’t ever become person-centered and do so intentionally, that’s a big problem and they’ll need to address it in their professional development. It scares them when they hear this, but I want them to understand my expectations.

Students should be open to supervision; that’s another expectation. When they’re not, it drastically limits their professional development. It’s not so much that I want them to be open to me, but they should be open to the possibility that there’s a better way to do counseling than what they’re doing; and they should keep trying to improve themselves.

I also want students to learn theory AND techniques and to understand how the two are related. One of my old supervisors used to talk about how it was unacceptable to “fly by the seat of your pants.” I still don’t really get the metaphor, but when I’m supervising, I want to be able to pause the recording and get a solid answer when I ask, “What are you doing and where are you going?” I tell students that we may not agree on what’s best at any specific point, but I want them to be able to articulate their rationale.

Students should respect scientific research and not be woo-woo. On the other hand, I want them to be open to intuition and to the fact that much of the variation that contributes to positive counseling outcomes is simply unknown. Minuchin used to say, “Don’t be too sure” and I like that attitude very much. When students act too sure, I usually try to teach them a constructive lesson about letting go of some of their certainty.

OKAY. THAT’S IT FOR NOW. THANKS FOR READING. I HOPE MR. ANXIETY TAKES A DAY OFF TOMORROW.

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Can Mental Health Professionals Predict Violent Behavior in Schools and Agencies?

Not surprisingly, violence has been on my mind lately. And so when I reached the Violence Risk Assessment section of the Clinical Interviewing text revision, I decided to cut and paste it here. It doesn’t immediately answer the question of whether mental health professionals can predict violence and so if you’re impatient and prefer to stop reading now, the answer to that question is, more or less, “No.”

Assessment and Prediction of Violence and Dangerousness

During an assessment interview, John had the following exchange with a 16-year-old client.

John: I hear you’ve been pretty mad at your shop teacher.

Client: I totally hate Mr. Smith. He’s a jerk. He puts us down just to make us feel bad. He deserves to be punished.

John: You sound a little pissed off at him.

Client: We get along fine some days.

John: What do you mean when you say he “deserves to be punished”?

Client: I believe in revenge. Really, I feel sorry for him. But if I kill him, I’ll be doing him a favor. It would end his miserable life and stop him from making other people feel like shit.

John: So you’ve thought about killing him?

Client: I’ve thought about walking up behind him and slitting his throat.

John: How often have you thought about that?

Client: Just about every day. Whenever he talks shit in class.

John: And exactly what images go through your mind?

Client: I just slip up behind him while he’s talking with Cassie [fellow student] and then slit his throat with a welding rod. Then I see blood gushing out of his neck and Cassie starts screaming. But the world will be a better place without his sorry ass tormenting everybody.

John: Then what happens?

Client: Then I guess they’ll just take me away, but things will be better.

John: Where will they take you?

Client: To jail. But I’ll get sympathy because everyone knows what a dick he is.

During an initial interview or ongoing therapy, clients may describe aggressive thoughts and images. Some clients, as in the preceding example, will be concise about their thoughts, feelings, and images. Others will be less clear. Still others will be evasive and will avoid telling you anything about violent thoughts or intentions.

Assessing for violence potential is similar to assessing for suicide potential; it’s a stressful responsibility and predicting violence is extremely difficult. However, similar to suicide assessment, we still have a legal and ethical responsibility to conduct violence or dangerousness assessments that meet professional standards.

Over the years, there have been arguments about how to most accurately predict violence (Hilton, Harris, & Rice, 2006). Essentially, there are three perspectives.

1. Some researchers contend that actuarial prediction based on specific, predetermined statistical risk factors is consistently the most accurate procedure (Quinsey, Harris, Rice, & Cormier, 2006).

2. Some clinicians believe that because actuarial variables are dimensional and interactive with individual and situational characteristics, prediction based on the clinician’s experience and intuition is most accurate (Cooke, 2012).

3. Others take a moderate position, believing that combining actuarial and clinical approaches is best (Campbell, French, & Gendreau, 2009).

Researchers have consistently reported that actuarial approaches to violence prediction are more accurate than clinical judgment (Monahan, 2013). However, actuarial violence prediction is not without its flaws (Szmukler, 2012; Tardiff & Hughes, 2011).

Narrowing in on Particular Violent Behaviors

Researchers who investigate actuarial assessment protocols have reported that different violent behaviors are associated with unique predictor variables. Below, we provide three examples of violence predictors for three different specific violent behaviors or populations. The goal is to sensitize you to different violent behavior patterns.

Fire-setting. Fire-setting is a particular dangerous behavior that may or may not be associated with interpersonal violence. Nonetheless, depending on your work setting and the clinical population you serve, you may find yourself in a situation in which you need to decide whether to warn a family or potential victim about possible fire-setting behavior.

Mackay and colleagues (2006) reported on specific behaviors included on a fire-setting prediction assessment. They identified the following variables—in decreasing order—as predictive of fire setting:

  •  Younger age at the time of the first fire-setting behavior.
  • A higher total number of fire-setting offenses.
  • Lower IQ.
  • Additional criminal activities associated with the index (initial) fire.
  • An offender acting alone in setting the initial fire.
  • A lower offender’s aggression score. (Interestingly, offenders with higher aggression scores were more likely to be violent, but less likely to set fires.)

We focus first on fire setting here because fire-setting predictors illustrate a general violence-prediction principle. Past violence is a reasonably good predictor of future violence only with regard to specific past and future violence. For example, future fire-setting potential is best predicted by past fire-setting behavior. Similarly, future physical aggression is best predicted by past physical aggression. But a history of physical aggression is not a good predictor of fire setting.

Homicide Among Young Men. Loeber and associates (2005) conducted a large-scale landmark study of homicide among young men living in Pittsburgh. This study is notable because it was both prospective and comprehensive; the authors tracked 63 risk factor (predictor) variables in 1,517 inner-city youth. Obviously, even this large-scale study is limited in scope, and technically the results cannot be generalized beyond inner-city Pittsburgh youth. Nevertheless, the outcome data are interesting and lend insight into risk factors that might contribute to homicidal violence in other populations.
Results from the study indicated that violent offenders scored significantly higher than nonviolent offenders on 49 of 63 risk factors across domains associated with child, family, school, and demographic risk factors. The range and nature of these predictors were daunting. The authors reported:

. . . predictors included factors evident early in life, such as the mother’s cigarette or alcohol use during pregnancy, onset of delinquency prior to 10 years of age, physical aggression, cruelty, and callous/unemotional behavior. In addition, cognitive factors, such as having low expectations of being caught, predicted violence. Poor and unstable child-rearing factors contributed to the prediction of violence, including two or more caretaker changes prior to 10 years of age, physical punishment, poor supervision, and poor communication. Undesirable or delinquent peer behavior, based either on parent report or self-report, predicted violence. Poor school performance and truancy were also among the predictors of violence. Finally, demographic factors indicative of family disadvantage (low family SES, welfare, teenage motherhood) and residence in a disadvantaged neighborhood also predicted violence. Among the proximal correlates associated with violence were weapon carrying, weapon use, gang membership, drug selling, and persistent drug use. (p. 1084)

Homicidal violence was best predicted by a subset of general violence predictor variables. Specifically, homicide was predicted by “the presence or absence of nine significant risk factors:

• Screening risk score
• Positive attitude to substance use
• Conduct disorder
• Carrying a weapon
• Gang fight
• Selling hard drugs
• Peer delinquency
• Being held back in school
• Family on welfare (p. 1086).

In particular, boys who had at least four of these nine risk factors were 14 times more likely to have a future homicide conviction than violent offenders with a risk score less than four.

Violence and schizophrenia. In and of itself, a diagnosis of schizophrenia doesn’t confer increased violence risk. Instead, research indicates there are specific symptoms—when seen among individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia—associated with increased risk. These symptoms include severe manifestations of:

  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Excitement
  • Thinking disturbances. (Fresán, Apiquian, & Nicolini, 2006)

This research suggests that clinicians should be especially concerned about violence when clients diagnosed with schizophrenia have acute increases in the intensity and frequency of their psychotic symptoms.

Research versus Practice

For a short guide to predicting violence, see a previous post: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2013/02/25/guidelines-for-violence-risk-assessment/

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