Tag Archives: assessment

Suicide Assessment Should be Therapeutic Assessment

This morning (or afternoon, depending on your time zone), I’ll be participating on a panel discussion titled, “Treating and Preventing Suicide.” Although the event has reached maximum capacity, the link for more information is here: https://catalog.pesi.com/sq/pn_001386_essentialstreatingpreventingsuicide_panel_aca-139059?fbclid=IwAR2QYfDxVFjdnnDHV1JwKUYh54JqKzvhpneB98FF-yNrk5fcbFfPMdtyuWs

As a resource to complement the panel discussion, I’m posting some information on suicide assessment. Below is the opening from the suicide assessment chapter in our forthcoming book with the American Counseling Association. We emphasize that suicide assessment isn’t purely data collection. Instead, professionals need to simultaneously keep their eye on how to be therapeutic. Here’s the excerpt:

Suicide assessment integrates science and art. Assessment science helps practitioners determine what information is most important during a clinical interview and how to best obtain reliable and valid assessment data (Sommers-Flanagan et al., 2020; Wygant et al., 2020). The art of assessment includes how and when to ask questions, relational methods for offering empathy, and how clinicians can partner with clients to explore symptoms and strengths in ways that facilitate trust and stimulate honesty (Ganzini et al., 2013). Because suicide is a painful and provocative topic, advanced assessment skills are essential.

When clients or students experience suicidality, exposure to an assessment process can feel threatening. As a consequence, we believe counselors should embrace principles of therapeutic assessment (Fischer, 1970, 1985). Therapeutic assessment originated in the late 1960’s, when Constance Fischer began practicing and publishing about a radical new assessment approach. Unlike traditional objective and unilateral approaches to assessment, Fischer (1969, 1970) began viewing clients as “co-evaluators.” Stephen Finn has extended Fischer’s ideas; the approach is now called therapeutic assessment (Finn et al., 2012).

Therapeutic assessment principles are consistent with the professional counseling paradigm (Capuzzi & Stauffer, 2016); they include collaboration, compassion, openness, honesty, and a commitment to valuing clients as ultimate experts on their lived experiences. Although information gathering remains important, relationship connection during assessment interviews takes priority. Every assessment finding needs to be validated and understood within each client’s unique personal context. Collaboration is the cornerstone; assessments are done with clients, not on clients (Martin, 2020; Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2017). As Flemons and Gralnik (2013) wrote, when conducting suicide assessments, “Our goal is not to remain objectively removed but, rather, to become empathically connected” (p. 6).

There are several “therapeutic” strategies for suicide assessment interviewing. Jobes’s (2016) book is a great resources, as is Freedenthal’s (2018). You can also check out our Clinical Interviewing suicide assessment chapter, or read this free blog post on using a mood scaling method: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2018/05/25/suicide-assessment-mood-scaling-with-a-suicide-floor/

Obviously, there’s not enough time and space to go into great depth on suicide assessment in a little blog like this. And so, if you looking for depth, check out the video series I did with Victor Yalom and Psychotherapy.net. You can even watch a short demonstration video clip: https://www.psychotherapy.net/video/suicidal-clients-series

I wish you all the best as you face the challenge of engaging with and treating clients who are suicidal with the therapeutic respect they deserve.

Sweet Home Alabama — Suicide Workshop Handouts

See below for links to the handouts for the Alabama Counseling Association workshop on 8/21/20, titled, “Suicide Assessment and Treatment Planning: A Strength-Based Approach.” Although I wish I could be there in-person in Alabama, instead, we’ll get an exciting, live, and interactive Zoom workshop!

Powerpoint Slides are Here: Suicide Workshop Alabama

Extra Handouts are Here: Alabama Handouts 8 21 20

Suicide Education Resources . . . and Why is it so Easy to Experience Imposter Syndrome?

What’s Wrong with Suicide Assessment?

Rainbow 2020

I’ve been contemplating whether anyone likes to go for medical examinations. I’m thinking of colonoscopies, dental exams, mammograms, stress tests, blood draws, and other more or less routine examinations of physical functioning. I’m guessing most people don’t like these procedures much, even though medical examinations  provide important information and can contribute to our good health and well-being.

Why are medical and physical assessments so darn unpleasant? One part of the unpleasantness is probably the intrusiveness. Assessments are all about gathering information; medical assessments involve gathering information about things that trigger vulnerability. Sometimes we have to be naked while we let strangers look at us and poke and prod our bodies. Even worse, medical examinations generally focus on our flaws, our weaknesses, and potential illness or disease. Whether we’re stepping on the scale in front of the medical technician or being asked, “How much alcohol do you drink?” insecurities and defensiveness can get activated. Two weeks ago when I got weighed at the doctor’s office, I wanted to complain, “Hey. That’s not right. Your scales are off. At home I weigh at least 6 pounds less than that!” What stopped me? The realization that complaining about my weight might look and sound even worse than just accepting the number. . . and so I kept quiet about my opinion. Partly–as one of my former grad students would say–we’re all about impression management.

If physical examinations trigger insecurity and vulnerability, just imagine what gets triggered in the mental and emotional domains. While at the medical office I got asked items from the PHQ-9 and GAD-7. I said “No” to every symptom, explaining, “Hey. I know all about these assessments and have written articles about them.” My med tech person wasn’t especially interested. I suspect, given her devotional attention to the computer screen, that she might not have been super-interested even if I had complained of depression or anxiety symptoms. But that’s speculation. She might have turned to me and tuned in like an empathic laser.

Nowadays, everybody is supposed to be on the alert and, if needed, ask about suicide. This idea, although theoretically great, doesn’t work all that well in reality. During a recent integrated behavioral health (IBH) training I learned of an IBH program that’s now devoting a whole three minutes to suicide assessment. Oh my. No wonder, based on a meta-analysis of 70 studies, about 60% of people who died by suicide, denied suicide ideation when asked by a general practitioner or psychiatrist (McHugh et al., 2019).

In an early version of the assessment chapter of our upcoming book on suicide assessment and treatment, I jumped headlong into the problems with suicide assessment. I figured, if answering questions about weight or alcohol consumption activate vulnerability and defensiveness, getting asked, “Have you thought about suicide?” likely stokes even greater insecurity and potentially stimulates even more evasiveness.

My early draft section on what’s wrong with suicide assessment, got substantially re-worked, maybe because some people thought I should be nicer, and maybe because I agreed with those people. However, right here on my very own blog I don’t necessarily have to be nicer. You all can tell me if I’m being too mean.

But before we get lost in my not-quite-ready-for-prime-time text below, here are my general conclusions.

1. Although questionnaires are fine for gathering information, if people are suicidal we need to rely on clinical interviews, rather than questionnaires.

2. We should ask about strengths, and not just problems (like the PHQ).

3. We should use normalizing questions (as I’ve written about before). We also need to train people how to use normalizing questions.

4. We should ask with kindness, compassion, and empathy . . . and be prepared to spend more than three minutes on the topic. We also need to train people on how to spend more than three minutes on the topic.

And finally . . . here’s the excerpt.

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Currently, in the United States, more professionals are conducting more suicide screenings and suicide assessments than ever before in the history of time. This fact begs the question: If we’re conducting more suicide screenings than ever, why are suicide rates continuing to rise? Could it be possible that suicide screenings increase suicidality?

Traditional responses to this question include:

  • We don’t know why suicide rates continue to rise despite prevention efforts
  • Asking about suicide doesn’t cause or increase suicidality.

For many years suicide researchers and practitioners have emphasized that asking about suicide doesn’t increase suicidality. Everyone in the suicidology field teaches that clinicians, paraprofessionals, and concerned non-professionals should ask directly about suicide ideation. We agree with this stance. The unanimous message is:

Clinicians should ask directly about suicide. Asking directly doesn’t increase risk or put the idea into the client’s head. Most clients either accept questions about suicide as a standard mental health practice, or feel relieved to be asked about suicide.

Despite our agreement with the philosophy of asking directly, all too often, when we’ve witnessed the question being asked, we’ve seen it asked badly. In one case, as a part of a mental status examination, we saw a social worker ask an elderly man, “Have you had thoughts about suicide?” The man responded, “I don’t know.” The social worker rephrased the question, “Do you think about death and dying?” Again, the man said, “I don’t know.” The social worker moved on. There was no follow up.

In another case, we listened as a nurse used a suicide assessment protocol during an initial interview. She asked a question from item 9 of the Patient Health Questionnaire-9 (PHQ-9): “Have you had thoughts that you would be better off dead, or of hurting yourself?” The patient said, “Yes.” Then, much to our surprise, the nurse simply asked another question. There was no empathy. There was no compassion. The nurse looked back at her clipboard, made a note, and continued asking questions from a script. Apparently the script didn’t include a box for checking off empathy or compassion.

Over the past decade we’ve repeatedly been asked to consult with schools on their suicide assessment and referral process. All too often we’ve heard from exasperated school counselors and school psychologists about how much they hate trying to interpersonally engage potentially suicidal students using a risk factor checklist or questionnaire items. School professionals complain about rigid procedures that result in referrals to the local hospital emergency department and end in ruptured therapeutic relationships.

Beyond these less-than-optimal scenarios, there’s empirical evidence indicating that suicide assessment procedures don’t always have neutral or positive effects. Harris and Goh (2017) conducted a randomized control trial evaluating the emotional effects of a suicide assessment protocol on Singapore residents. Although they reported no evidence for iatrogenic effects, 24% of participants experienced increased negative affect following administration of the Suicide Affect-Behavior-Cognition scale (Harris et al., 2015). Using a similar protocol, a Dutch research team reported similar results (de Beurs, Ghoncheh, Geraedts, & Kerkhof, 2016). After responding to 21 items from the Beck Scale for Suicide Ideation (BSSI, **), participants generally reported increased negative affect. In particular, about 15% of the BSSI group had substantially negative affective responses to the BSSI items.

We have no doubt that the social worker, the nurse, and the school districts featured in the preceding examples of poor suicide assessment were well-intended. For many reasons—including anxiety, lack of professional training, client hostility, fears of liability, or countertransference reactions—professionals often engage poorly with suicidal clients. We’re also certain that most of the time, clients view questions about suicide as necessary, and sometimes consider queries about suicide a welcome relief. However, we also believe, as in the two research examples, that repeated questioning about depression, suicide, anxiety, insomnia, and other aversive symptoms—without a skilled clinician to collaboratively explore depressive symptoms and reorient clients toward strengths and positive experiences—can activate negative affect. These reasons—and more—have convinced us that mental health and school professionals can do better than simply administering the PHQ-9, the BSSI items, and following a checklist when evaluating for suicide. Instead, professionals should balance their questioning, follow-up sensitively to clients’ responses, and validate that suicidal thoughts are a natural reaction to painful emotions and disturbing situations. All this points to the need to view suicide assessment differently; instead of adopting an authoritative assessment role, we encourage you to apply the principles of therapeutic assessment when conducting suicide assessment interviews.

Despite our critique of how suicide assessment is practiced, we strongly recommend that you follow the usual guidance, and ask directly about suicide ideation. We just want to add, you should do it right. The rest of this chapter is all about how to weave in therapeutic assessment principles so you can do suicide assessment right.

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As always, let me know what you think. I promise to be nice.

 

 

A Strengths-Based Suicide Assessment and Treatment Model

Bikes Snow 3

Over the past couple years, with feedback from workshop participants, supervisees, clients, and people with lived experiences around suicide, we’ve continued to refine our strengths-based suicide assessment and treatment model. Below is a short excerpt from chapter 1 of our upcoming book. This excerpt gives you a glimpse at the strengths-based model. You can also check out this link for an alternative description: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2020/12/11/coming-in-january-the-strengths-based-approach-to-suicide-assessment-and-treatment-planning/

If you’re interested, the book is now available through the publisher, as well as through other booksellers: https://imis.counseling.org/store/detail.aspx?id=78174

You can get it in eBook format via Amazon.

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Seven Dimensions of Being Human: Where Does It Hurt and How Can I Help?

We began this chapter describing the case of Alina. Mostly likely, what you remember about Alina is that she displayed several frightening suicide risk factors and openly shared her suicidal thoughts. However, Alina is not just a suicidal person—she’s a unique individual who also exhibited a delightful array of idiosyncratic quirks, problems, and strengths. Even her reasons for considering suicide are unique to her.

When working with suicidal clients or students, it’s easy to over-focus on suicidality. Suicide is such a huge issue that it overshadows nearly everything else and consumes your attention. Nevertheless, all clients—suicidal or not—are richly complex and have a fascinating mix of strengths and weaknesses that deserve attention. To help keep practitioners focused on the whole person—and not just on weaknesses or pathology—we’ve developed a seven-dimension model for understanding suicidal clients.

Suicide Treatment Models

In the book, Brief cognitive-behavioral therapy for suicide prevention, Bryan and Rudd (2018) describe three distinct models for working with suicidal clients. The risk factor model emphasizes correlates and predictors of suicidal ideation and behavior. Practitioners following the risk factor model aim their treatments toward reducing known risk factors and increasing protective factors. Unfortunately, a dizzying array of risk factors exist, some are relatively unchangeable, and in a large, 50-year, meta-analytic study, the authors concluded that risk factors, protective factors, and warning signs are largely inaccurate and not useful (Franklin et al., 2017). Consequently, treatments based on the risk factor model are not in favor.

The psychiatric model focuses on treating psychiatric illnesses to reduce or prevent suicidality. The presumption is that clients experiencing suicidality should be treated for the symptoms linked to their diagnosis. Clients with depression should be treated for depression; clients diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder should be treated for trauma; and so on. Bryan and Rudd (2018) note that “accumulating evidence has failed to support the effectiveness of this conceptual framework” (p. 4).

The third model is the functional model. Bryan and Rudd (2018) wrote: “According to this model, suicidal thoughts and behaviors are conceptualized as the outcome of underlying psychopathological processes that specifically precipitate and maintain suicidal thoughts and behaviors over time” (p. 4). The functional model targets suicidal thoughts and behaviors within the context of the individual’s history and present circumstances. Bryan and Rudd (2018) emphasize that the superiority of the functional model is “well established” (p. 5-6).

Our approach differs from the functional model in several ways. Due to our wellness and strength-based orientation, we studiously avoid presuming that suicidality is a “psychopathological process.” Consistent with social constructionist philosophy, we believe that locating psychopathological processes within clients, risks exacerbation and perpetuation of the psychopathology as an internalized phenomenon (Hansen, 2015; Lyddon, 1995). In addition to our wellness, strength-based, social constructionist foundation, we rely on an integration of robust suicide theory (we rely on works from Shneidman, Joiner, Klonsky & May, Linehan, and O’Connor). We also embrace parts of the functional model, especially the emphasis on individualized contextual factors. Overall, our goal is to provide counseling practitioners with a practical and strength-based model for working effectively with suicidal clients and students.

The Seven Dimensions

Thinking about clients using the seven life dimensions can organize and guide your assessment and treatment planning. Many authorities in many disciplines have articulated life dimensions. Some argue for three, others for five, seven, or even nine dimensions. We settled on seven that we believe reflect common sense, science, philosophy, and convenience. Each dimension is multifaceted, overlapping, dynamic, and interactive. Each dimension includes at least three underlying factors that have theoretical and empirical support as drivers of suicide ideation or behavior. The dimensions and their underlying factors are in Table 1.1.

Insert Table 1.1 About Here

Table 1.1: Brief Descriptions of the Seven Dimensions

  • The Emotional Dimension consists of all human emotions ranging from sadness to joy. Empirically supported suicide-related problems in the emotional dimension include:
    • Excruciating emotional distress
    • Specific disturbing emotions (i.e., guilt, shame, anger, or sadness)
    • Emotional dysregulation
  • The Cognitive Dimension consists of all forms of human thought. Empirically supported suicide-related problems in the cognitive dimension include:
    • Hopelessness
    • Problem-solving impairments
    • Maladaptive thoughts
    • Negative core beliefs and self-hatred
  • The Interpersonal Dimension consists of all human relationships. Empirically supported suicide-related problems in the interpersonal dimension include:
    • Social disconnection, alienation, and perceived burdensomeness
    • Interpersonal loss and grief
    • Social skill deficits
    • Repeating dysfunctional relationship patterns
  • The Physical Dimension consists of all human biogenetics and physiology. Empirically supported suicide-related problems in the physical dimension include:
    • Biogenetic predispositions and illness
    • Sedentary lifestyle (lack of movement)
    • Agitation, arousal, anxiety
    • Trauma, nightmares, insomnia
  • The Spiritual-Cultural Dimension consists of all religious, spiritual, or cultural values that provide meaning and purpose in life. Empirically supported suicide-related problems in the spiritual-cultural dimension include:
    • Religious or spiritual disconnection
    • Cultural disconnection or dislocation
    • Meaninglessness
  • The Behavioral Dimension consists of human action and activity. Empirically supported suicide-related problems in the behavioral dimension include:
    • Using substances or cutting for desensitization
    • Suicide planning, intent, and preparation
    • Impulsivity
  • The Contextual Dimension consists of all factors outside of the individual that influence human behavior. Empirically supported suicide-related problems in the contextual dimension include:
    • No connection to place or nature
    • Chronic exposure to unhealthy environmental conditions
    • Socioeconomic oppression or resource scarcity (e.g., Poverty)

End of Table 1.1

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This past week Rita and I submitted the final draft manuscript to the publisher. The next step is a peer review process. While the manuscript is out for review, there’s still time to make changes and so, as usual, please email me with feedback or post your thoughts here.

Thanks for reading!

John S-F

Our Upcoming ACA Book on Suicide Assessment and Treatment Planning: Sneak Peek #2

River Rising 2020

Hey,

I hope you’re all okay and social distancing and mask wearing and hand-washing and staying healthy and well.

Today I’m working on Chapter 6 – The Cognitive Dimension in Suicide Assessment and Treatment Planning (or something like that).

As always, please share your feedback. Or, if you have no feedback and like what you read, just share the post, because, as we all know, acts of kindness grow happiness.

Here’s an excerpt on working with hopelessness.

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Working with Hopelessness as it Emerges During Sessions

Clinicians can address hopelessness in two ways. First, when hopelessness emerges in the here-and-now, clinicians need to be ready to respond empathically and effectively. Client hopelessness manifests in different ways. Sometimes hopelessness statements have depressing content (e.g., “I’ve never been happy and I’ll never be happy”); other times hopelessness statements include irritability (e.g., “Counseling has never worked for me. I hate this charade. It won’t help.”). Either way, in-session hopelessness statements can be provocative and can trigger unhelpful responses from counselors. Preparing yourself to respond therapeutically is important.

Second, hopelessness among clients who are depressed and suicidal manifests as an ongoing, long-term cognitive style. As with most cognitive styles, hopelessness is linked to cognitive distortions wherein clients have difficulty (a) recalling past successes, (b) noticing signs of hope in the immediate moment, or (c) believing that their emotional state or life situation could ever improve. We address in-session hopelessness next and hopelessness as a longer-term cognitive distortion in the subsequent section.

Expressing Empathy

Imagine you’re working with a new client. You want to be encouraging, and so you make a statement about the potential for counseling to be helpful. Consider the following exchange:

Counselor: After getting to know you a bit, and hearing what’s been happening in your life, I want to share with you that I think counseling can help.

Client: I know you mean well, but this is a waste of time. My life sucks and I want to end it. Popping in to chat with you once a week won’t change that.

When clients make hopelessness statements, you may feel tempted to counter with a rational rebuttal. After all, if client hopelessness represents a pervasive depression-related cognitive distortion or impairment, then it makes sense to offer a contrasting rational and accurate way of thinking. Although instant rational rebuttals worked for Albert Ellis, for most counselors, immediately disputing your clients’ global, internal, and hopeless cognitions will create resistance. Instead, you should return to an empathic response.

Counselor: I hear you saying that, right now, you don’t think counseling can help. You feel completely hopeless, like your life sucks and is never going to change and you just want it to end.

Staying empathic—even though you know that later you’ll be targeting your client’s hopeless distorted thinking—requires accurately reflecting your clients’ hopelessness. You may even use a tiny bit of motivational interviewing amplification (i.e., using the phrase, “never going to change” could function as an amplification). What’s important to remember about this strategy is that mirroring your clients’ hopelessness will likely stand in stark contrast to what your clients have been experiencing in their lives. In most situations, if your clients have spoken about their depression and suicidality with friends or family, they will have heard responses that include reassurance or emotional minimization (e.g., “I’m sure things will get better” or “You’re a wonderful person, you shouldn’t think about suicide” or “Let’s talk about all the blessings you have in your life”).

Remaining steadily empathic with clients as they express hopelessness is an intentionally different and courageous way to do counseling. Staying empathic means that you’re sticking with your clients in their despair. You’re not running from it; you’re not minimizing it; you’re not brushing it aside as insignificant. Instead, you’re resonating with your clients’ terribly depressive and suicidal cognitive and emotional experiences.

If you choose the courageous and empathic approach to counseling, you need to do so with the conscious intention of coming alongside your clients in their misery. Following the empathic path can take you deep into depressive ways of thinking and emoting. This can affect you personally; you may begin adopting your clients’ impaired depressive thinking and then feel depressed yourself. Part of being conscious and intentional means you’re choosing to temporarily step alongside and into your clients’ depressive mindset. You need to be clear with yourself: “I’m stepping into the pit of depression with my client, but even as I’m doing this, my intention is to initiate Socratic questioning or cognitive restructuring or collaborative problem-solving when the time is right.”

The next question is: “How long do you need to stay alongside your client in the depressive mindset?” The answer varies. Sometimes, just as soon as you step alongside your clients’ hopelessness, they will rally and say something like, “It’s not like I’m completely hopeless” or “Sometimes I feel a little hope here or there.” When your client makes a small, positive statement, your next job is to gently nurture the statement with a reflection (e.g., “I hear you saying that once in a while, a bit of hope comes into your mind”), and then explore (and possibly grow) the positive statement with a solution-focused question designed to facilitate elaboration of the exceptional thought (e.g., “What was different about a time when you were feeling hopeful?”). Then, for as long as you can manage, you should follow Murphy’s (2015) solution-focused model for working with client exceptions. This includes:

  1. Elicit exceptions. (You can do this be asking questions like “What was different. . .” and by using the motivational interviewing techniques of coming alongside or amplified reflection.)
  2. Elaborate exceptions. (You do this with questions like “What’s usually happening when you feel a bit of hope peek through the dark clouds?”)
  3. Expand exceptions. (You move exceptions to new contexts and try to increase frequency, “What might help you feel hope just a tiny bit more?”)
  4. Evaluate exceptions. (You do this by collaboratively monitoring the utility or positivity of the exception, “If you were able to create reminders for being hopeful to use throughout the day, would you find that a plus or minus in your life?”)
  5. Empowering exceptions. (You do this by giving clients credit for their exceptions and asking them what they did to make the exceptions happen, “How did you manage to get yourself to think a few positive thoughts when you were in that conflict with your supervisor?”).

In other cases, you’ll need to stick with your clients’ misery and hopelessness longer. However, because this is a strength-based model and because the evidence suggests that clients who are suicidal sometimes need their counselor to explicitly lead them toward positive solutions, you will need to watch for opportunities to turn or nudge or push your clients away from abject hopelessness.

 

Free Video Links for Online Teaching

JSF Travel

This past week I’ve been grateful for the many professionals and organizations (including my publisher, John Wiley & Sons) who are providing free guidance and materials to help with the transition from face-to-face teaching to online instruction. In an effort to contribute back in a small way, I’m posting 10 counseling- and psychotherapy-related videos that can be integrated into online teaching. These videos are free and posted on my YouTube channel. The links are all below with a brief description of the video content.

Some of these videos are rough cuts and all of them are far from perfect demonstrations; that’s partly the point. Although many of the videos show reasonably good counseling skills and interesting assessment processes and therapeutic interventions, none of the videos are scripted, and so there’s plenty of room for review, analysis, critique, and discussion. You can show them as efforts to do CBT, SFBT, Motivational Interviewing, administration of a mental status examination, etc., and prompt students to describe how they would do these sessions even better.

These videos are meant to stimulate learning. In an ideal world, I would include a list of discussion questions, but I’ll leave that to you. If you like, please feel free to use these videos for educational purposes. Here’s the annotated list with video links:

  1. Counseling demonstrations with a 12-year-old.
    1. Opening a counseling session: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rHHrMC8t6vY
    2. The three-step emotional change trick: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ITWhMYANC5c
    3. John SF demonstrates the What’s Good About You? informal assessment technique: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MUhmLQUg_g8
    4. Closing a session: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GpuH80tf2jM
  2. Demo of assessment for anger management with a solution-focused spin with a 20-year-old client: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=noE2wMMNLY4
  3. Demo of motivational interviewing with a 30-year-old client: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rtN7kEk0Sv4
  4. Demo of the affect bridge technique with an 18-year-old: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fEtiGuc914E
  5. Demo of CBT for social anxiety with a graduate student: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jfVeeGJHFjA
  6. Demo of an MSE with a 20-year-old: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=adwOxj1o7po
  7. A lecture vignette of a demonstration of psychoanalytic ego defense mechanisms: https://studio.youtube.com/video/E818UlgHMXY/edit
  8. The University of Montana Department of Counseling does a spoof video of The Office: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eM8-I8_1CqQ

Good luck with the transition to online teaching and stay healthy!

John S-F

A Sneak Peek at the Suicide Assessment and Treatment Planning Workshop Coming to Billings on November 8

IMG-1852

Anybody wondering what’s new in suicide assessment and treatment?

If so, come listen to any or all of a very nice suicide prevention/intervention line-up on November 7 and 8 on the campus of Montana State University in Billings. Here’s a news link with detailed info: https://billingsgazette.com/news/local/let-s-talk-montana-suicide-prevention-workshops-coming-to-msub/article_9a6f04ff-376f-56b8-a6a8-9a0160ba1cbb.html

For my part, I’m presenting the latest iteration of the suicide assessment and treatment model Rita and I have been working on for the past couple years. To help make suicide assessment and treatment planning easier, we’ve started using six common sense life domains to organize, understand, and apply specific assessment and intervention tools.

Another unique component of our model is an emphasis on client strengths and wellness. Obviously, in the context of suicide, it’s impossible (and wrong) to ignore clients’ emotional pain and suffering. However, we also think it’s possible (and right) to intermittently recognize, nurture, and focus on clients’ strengths, well-being, and goals.

What follows is a sneak peek at what I’ll be covering on Friday, November 8.

Suicide Interventions and Treatment Planning: Foundational Principles

Two essential principles that cut across all modern evidence-based protocols and evidence-based interventions form the foundation of all contemporary suicide assessment and treatment models:

  • Collaboration – Working in partnership with clients
  • Compassion – Emotional attunement without judgment

Collaborative practitioners work with clients, not on clients. Clients experiencing suicidal thoughts and impulses typically know their struggles from the inside out. Their self-knowledge makes them an invaluable resource. Carl Rogers (1961) put it this way,

It is the client who knows what hurts, what directions to go, what problems are crucial, what experiences have been deeply buried. It began to occur to me that unless I had a need to demonstrate my own cleverness and learning, I would do better to rely upon the client for the direction of movement in the process. (p. 11)

Compassionate practitioners resonate with client emotions and engage in respectful and gentle emotional exploration. Although compassion involves an empathic emotional response, it also includes tuning into and respecting client cognitions, beliefs, and experiences. For example, some clients who are suicidal feel spiritually or culturally bereft or disconnected. Regardless of their own beliefs and cultural values, compassionate counselors show empathy for their clients’ particular spiritual or cultural distress.

Clients who are or who become suicidal are often observant, sensitive, and intelligent. If they feel you’re judging them, they’re likely to experience a relationship rupture (Safran, Muran, & Eubanks-Carter, 2011). When ruptures occur, clients typically become less open, less engaged, and less honest about their suicidal thoughts and impulses. They also may become angry, aggressive, and critical of your efforts to be of help. In both cases, relational ruptures signal a need to work on mending the therapeutic relationship.

[For a helpful meta-analysis with recommendations on repairing ruptures, check out this article from the Safran lab: http://www.safranlab.net/uploads/7/6/4/6/7646935/repairing_alliance_ruptures._psychotherapy_2011.pdf%5D

The Six Life Domains

Working with clients who are suicidal can be overwhelming. To help organize and streamline the assessment and treatment planning process, it’s helpful to consider six distinct, but overlapping life domains. These domains provide a holistic description of human functioning. When clients experience suicidal thoughts and impulses, you can be sure the suicidal state will manifest through one or more of these six domains (i.e., emotions, cognitions, interpersonal, physical, spiritual/cultural, and behavioral; see below for a brief description of the six domains). All case examples and content in the workshop use these six domains to focus and organize client problems, goals/strengths, and interventions.

Suicidality as Manifest through Six Life Domains             

The Emotional Domain. A driving force in the suicidal state is excruciating emotional distress. Shneidman called this “psychache” and toward the end of his career concluded: “Suicide is caused by psychache” (1993, p. 53). Extreme distress is experienced subjectively. This is one reason there are so many different suicide risk factors. When a specific experience triggers excruciating distress for a given individual (e.g., unemployment, insomnia, etc.), it may increase suicide risk. Reducing emotional distress and facilitating positive emotional experiences is usually goal #1 in your treatment plan. Treatment plans often target general distress as well as specific and problematic emotions like (a) sadness, (b) shame, (c) fear/anxiety, and (d) guilt/regret.
The Cognitive Domain. Suicidal distress interferes with cognitive functioning. The resulting constricted thinking impairs problem-solving and creativity. The emotional distress and depressed mood associated with suicidality decreases the ability to think of or value alternatives to suicide. Several other cognitive variables are also linked to suicidality, including hopelessness and self-hatred. Most treatment plans will include collaborative problem-solving, and gentle challenging of maladaptive thoughts. Specific interventions may be employed to support client problem-solving, increase client hopefulness, and decrease client self-hatred.
The Interpersonal Domain. Hundreds of studies link social problems to suicidality, suicide attempts, and suicide deaths. Joiner (2005) identified two interpersonal problems that are deeply linked to suicide: thwarted belongingness and perceived burdensomeness. Many risk factors (e.g., recent romantic break-up, family rejection of sexuality, health conditions that cause people to feel like a burden) can exacerbate thwarted belongingness and cause people to perceive themselves as a social burden. Improving interpersonal relationships is often a key part of treatment planning.
The Physical/Biogenetic Domain. Physiological factors can contribute to suicide risk. In particular, researchers have recently focused on agitation or physiological arousal; these physical states tend to push individuals toward suicidal action. Additionally, chronic illness or pain, insomnia, and other disturbing health situations (including addictions) contribute to suicide, especially when accompanied by hopelessness. When present, physical conditions and biogenetic predispositions should be integrated into suicide prevention, treatment planning, and risk management.
The Spiritual/Cultural Domain. Meaningful life experiences can be a protective influence against suicide. No doubt, a wide range of cultural or religious pressures, spiritual/religious exile, or other factors can decrease an individual’s sense of meaning and can contribute to suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Including spiritual or meaning-focused components in a treatment plan can improve outcomes, especially among clients who hold deep spiritual and cultural values.
The Behavioral Domain. All of the preceding life domains can contribute to suicide, but suicide doesn’t occur unless individuals act on suicidal thoughts and impulses. The behavioral domain focuses on suicide intentions and active suicide planning. When clients actively plan or rehearse suicide, they may be doing so to overcome natural fears and aversions to physical pain and death; natural fears and aversions stop many people from suicide. Joiner (2005) and Klonsky and May (2015) have written about how desensitization to physical pain and to ideas of death move people toward suicidal action. Several factors increase risk in this domain and may be relevant to treatment planning, (a) availability of lethal means (especially firearms), (b) using substances for emotional/physical numbing, and (c) repeated suicide rehearsal (e.g., increased cutting behaviors).

*Note: These domains will always overlap, but they can prove helpful as you collaboratively identify problem areas and goals with your client.

If you’re interested in learning more about this suicide assessment and treatment planning model, I hope to see you in Billings on November 8!

 

 

 

Happy Afternoon at ACES in Seattle: Now, Let’s Talk About Suicide Assessment and Treatment Planning

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In a few minutes, along with Kelley McHugh, I’ll be doing my second ACES presentation today. This one is titled, “A New Model for Teaching and Learning about Suicide Assessment and Intervention.” Hana Meshesha was scheduled to join in the fun, but she wasn’t able to come today.

Along with our other doc students, Kelley and Hana are fabulous, focused, smart, and they contribute to my learning.

In the following powerpoints, you’ll see how Kelley, Hana, and I are thinking about how counseling students and professionals should be trained in suicide assessment and intervention. As always, we’re interested in your feedback. Here’s a link to the ppts: ACES Suicide Seattle 2019 Final

And here are a couple suicide assessment/treatment journal articles that might be helpful: Conversations About Suicide by JSF 2018 and SF and Shaw Suicide 2017

Suicide Myths — Part Two

From M 2019 Spring

This is part two of my “Four Suicide Myths” blog post. If you read part one, you probably noticed that it ended abruptly. Apparently, that’s how I do two-part blog posts. Thinking back, I should have added something like, “end of part one.” 

And so, as an introduction, here’s the beginning of part two . . .

Myth #2: Suicide and suicidal thinking are signs of mental illness.

Philosophers and research scientists agree: nearly everyone on the planet thinks about suicide at one time or another—even if briefly. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche referred to suicidal thoughts as a coping strategy, writing, “The thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets through many a dark night.” Additionally, the rates of suicidal thinking among high school and college students is so high (estimates of 20-40% annual incidence) that it’s more appropriate to label suicidal thoughts as common, rather than a sign of deviance or illness.

Edwin Shneidman—the American “Father” of suicidology—denied a relationship between suicide and so-called mental illness in the 1973 Encyclopedia Britannica, stating succinctly:

“Suicide is not a disease (although there are those who think so); it is not, in the view of the most detached observers, an immorality (although . . . it has often been so treated in Western and other cultures).”

A recent report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) supported Shneidman’s perspective. The CDC noted that 54% of individuals who died by suicide did not have a documented mental disorder. Keep in mind that the CDC wasn’t focusing on people who think about or attempt suicide; their study focused only on individuals who died by suicide. If most individuals who die by suicide don’t have a mental disorder, it’s even more unlikely that people who think about suicide (but don’t act on their thoughts), meet diagnostic criteria for a mental disorder.  As one of my mentors used to say, “Having the thought of suicide is not dangerous and is not the problem.”

Truth #2: Suicidal thoughts are not—in and of themselves—a sign of illness. Instead, suicidal thoughts arise naturally, especially during times of excruciating distress.

Myth #3: Scientific knowledge about suicide risk factors and warning signs allows for the prediction and prevention of suicide.

In 1995, renowned suicidologist, Robert Litman wrote:

At present it is impossible to predict accurately any person’s suicide. Sophisticated statistical models . . . and experienced clinical judgments are equally unsuccessful. When I am asked why one depressed and suicidal patient commits suicide while nine other equally depressed and equally suicidal patients do not, I answer, “I don’t know.” (p. 135)

Litman’s comments remain true today. Part of the problem stems from the fact that suicide is what is referred to as a low base rate event. When something occurs at a low base rate, it becomes mathematically very difficult to predict. Suicide is a prime example of a low base rate event. According to the CDC, in 2017, only about 14 of every 100,000 citizens died by suicide.

Imagine you’re at the Neyland football stadium at the University of Tennessee. The stadium is filled with 100,000 fans. Your job is to figure out which 14 of the 100,000 fans will die by suicide over the next 365 days.

A good first step would be to ask everyone in the stadium the question that many suicide prevention specialists ask, “Have you been thinking about suicide?” Assuming the usual base rates and assuming that every one of the 100,000 fans answer you honestly, you might rule out 85,000 people (because they say they haven’t been thinking about suicide) and ask them to leave the stadium. Now you’re down to identifying which 14 of 15,000 will die by suicide.

For your next step you decide to do a quick screen for the diagnosis of clinical depression. Let’s say you’re highly efficient, taking only 20 minutes to screen and diagnose each of the 15,000 remaining fans. Only 50% of the 15,000 fans meet the diagnostic criteria for clinical depression.

At this point, you’ve reduced your population to 7,500 University of Tennessee fans, all of whom are depressed and thinking about suicide. How will you accurately identify the 14 fans who will die by suicide? Mostly, based on mathematics and statistics, you won’t. Every effort to do this in the past has failed. Your best bet might be to provide aggressive psychological treatment for the remaining 7,500 people. However, many of the fans will refuse treatment, including some of whom will later die by suicide. Further, as the year goes by, you’ll discover that several of the 85,000 fans who denied having suicidal thoughts, and whom you immediately ruled out as low risk, will confound your efforts at prediction and die by suicide.

To gain a broader perspective, imagine there are 3,270 stadiums across the U.S., each with 100,000 people, and each with 14 individuals who will die by suicide over the next year. All this points to the magnitude of the problem. Most professionals who try to predict and prevent suicide realize that, at best, they will help some of the people some of the time.

Truth #4: Although there’s always the chance that future research will enable us to predict suicide, decades of scientific research doesn’t support suicide as a predictable event. Even if you know all the salient suicide predictors and warning signs, odds are, in the vast majority of cases, you won’t be able to efficiently predict or prevent suicide attempts or suicide deaths.

Myth #4: Suicide prevention and intervention should focus on eliminating suicidal thoughts.

Logical analysis implies that if suicidal thoughts within an individual are eliminated, then suicide will be prevented. Why then, do the most knowledgeable psychotherapists in the U.S. advise against directly targeting suicidal thoughts in psychotherapy? The first reason is because most people who think about suicide never make a suicide attempt. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

After his son died by suicide, Rick Warren, a famous pastor and author, created a Youtube video titled, “Rick Warren’s Message for Those Considering Suicide.” The video summary reads, “If you have ever struggled with depression or suicide, Pastor Rick has a message for you. The pain you are experiencing will not last forever. There is hope!”

Although over 1,000 viewers clicked on the “thumbs up” sign for the video, there were 535 comments; these comments mostly pushed back on Pastor Warren’s well-intended message. Examples included:

  • Are you kidding me??? You’ve clearly never been suicidal or really depressed.
  • To say “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem” is like saying: “You couldn’t possibly have suffered long enough, even if you’ve suffered your entire life from many, many issues.”
  • This is extremely disheartening. With all due respect. Pastor, you just don’t get it.

Pastor Rick isn’t alone in not getting it. Most of us don’t really get the excruciating distress, deep self-hatred, and chronic shame linked to suicidal thoughts and impulses. And because we don’t get it, most of us try to use rational persuasion to encourage individuals with suicidal thoughts to regain hope and embrace life. Unfortunately, a nearly universal phenomenon called psychological reactance helps explain why rational persuasion—even when well-intended—rarely makes for an effective intervention.

While working with chronically suicidal patients for over two decades, Dr. Marsha Linehan of the University of Washington made an important discovery: when psychotherapists try to get their patients to stop thinking about suicide, the opposite usually happens—the patients become more suicidal.

Linehan’s discovery has played out in my clinical practice. Nearly every time I’ve actively pushed clients to stop thinking about suicide—using various psychological ploys and techniques—my efforts have backfired.

Truth #4: Most individuals who struggle with thoughts of suicide resist outside efforts to make them stop thinking about suicide. Using direct persuasion to convince people they should cheer up, have hope, and embrace life is rarely effective.

Starting Over

Individuals who are suicidal are complex, unique, and in deep distress. Judging them as ill is unhelpful. Believing that we can successfully predict and prevent suicide borders on delusional. Direct persuasion usually backfires. Letting go of the four common suicide myths might make you feel nervous. At least they provided guidance for action, right? But just like having the female on top to prevent pregnancy, clinging to unhelpful myths won’t, in the end, be effective. How do we start over? Where do we go from here?

All solutions—or at least most of them—begin with a clear understanding of the problem. As someone who has worked directly with suicidal individuals for decades, there’s no better person to start us on the journey toward a deeper understanding of suicide than Dr. Marsha Linehan.

Dr. Linehan is the developer of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT for short). DBT is widely hailed as the most effective evidence-based approach for working with chronically suicidal patients. To help her students at the University of Washington better understand the dynamics of suicide, Dr. Linehan begins her teaching with this story:

The suicidal person [is] trapped in a small, dark room with no windows and high walls (in my mind always with stark white walls reaching very, very high). The room is excruciatingly painful. The person searches for a door out to a life worth living but, alas, cannot find it. Scratching and clawing on the walls does no good. Screaming and banging brings no help. Falling to the floor and trying to shut down and feel nothing gives no relief. Praying to God and all the saints one knows brings no salvation. The only door out the individual can find is the door to death. The task of the therapist in this situation, as I always tell my clients also, is to somehow find a way to get into the room with the person, to see the person’s world from his or her point of view; to get inside the person, so to speak, and then together search again for that door to life that the therapist knows must be there.

Efforts to understand someone else’s reality are destined to fall short. You can’t always get it right, but that’s okay, because empathy is more about being with and feeling with others, than it is about perfectly understanding them. Trying to understand the inner world of others is an act of courage and compassion. Thus, our next step is to suspend judgment and begin our descent into that small, dark room with no windows.