Tag Archives: clinical interviewing

Practicing Humility When Conducting Mental Status Examinations

Perhaps more than any other assessment task, conducting a balanced mental status examination requires that professionals resist the natural temptation to make sweeping judgments about clients on the basis of appearance, specific behaviors, or single symptoms. For example, in a recently published book titled The mental status examination and brief social history in clinical psychology, Smith {{5681 III 2011;}} stated:

A Fu-Manchu mustache suggests the wearer doesn’t mind being thought of as “bad,” whereas a handlebar mustache tells you the person may be somewhat of a dandy or narcissist. (p. 4)

After reading the preceding excerpt, I decided to conduct a small research study by surveying men in Montana with Fu-Manchu mustaches. Whenever I saw men sporting a Fu-Manchu, I asked them to rate (on a seven-point Likert scale) whether they minded being thought of as “bad.” In contrast to Smith’s (2011) observations, I found that most men with Fu-Manchu’s actually thought they looked good and reported wearing the mustache in an effort to look attractive. Of course I didn’t really conduct this survey, but the fact that I thought about doing it and imagined the results carries approximately the same validity as the wild assumption that a mental status examiner can quickly “get into the head of” all clients with Fu-Manchu (or handlebar) mustaches and interpret their underlying personal beliefs or intentions, or even worse, extrapolate from a physical feature to a personality disorder diagnosis.

Although I’m poking fun at the sweeping generalizations that Smith (2011) made in his text, my intent is to point out how easy it is to grow overconfident when conducting MSEs. Like Smith, I’ve sometimes found myself making wild and highly personalized assumptions about the psychopathological meaning of very specific behaviors (some years ago I had my own personal theory about “tanning” behaviors being linked to narcissism).

The key to dealing with this natural tendency towards overconfidence is to use Stanley Sue’s (2006) concept of scientific mindedness. A single symptom should be viewed as a sign that the sensitive and ethical mental status examiner considers a hypothesis to explore. Another example from Smith (2011) may be helpful as another caution of the dangers of over-interpreting single symptoms. He stated: “If the person is unshaven, this may be a sign of depression, alcoholism, or other poor ability at social adaptation” (p. 4).

Smith may be correct in his hypotheses about unshaven clients. In fact, if a research study were conducted on diagnoses or symptoms commonly associated with unshaven-ness, it might show a small correlation with depressive symptoms, partly because poor hygiene can be a feature of some depressive disorders. However, in the absence of additional confirming evidence, an unshaven client is just an unshaven client. And when it comes to social adaptation, I should note that I know many young men (as well as a variety of movie stars) who consider the unshaven look as either desirable, sexy, or both. This could lead to an equally likely hypothesis that an unshaven client is particularly cool or has an especially high level of social adaptation.

In your own MSE work I encourage you to adopt the following three guidelines to help you avoid what might be called the overconfident clinician syndrome:

  1. When you spot a single symptom or client feature of particular interest, you should begin the scientific mindedness process.
  2. Remember that hypotheses are hypotheses and not conclusions; this is why hypotheses require additional supporting evidence.
  3. Don’t make wild inferential leaps without first consulting with colleagues and/or supervisors; it’s often easier to become overconfident and subsequently make inappropriate judgments when working in isolation.

Keep these preceding guidelines in minds as you conduct mental status examinations. You can find my DVD with a clip of a mental status exam at: http://www.amazon.com/Clinical-Interviewing-Skills-John-Sommers-Flanagan/dp/1118390121

Respecting the Client’s Perspective – Even When We Think We Know Better

There are so many ways we can . . . as therapists . . . subtly (or less so) disrespect our client’s perspective. Here’s a small example from the revision of Clinical Interviewing (5th ed).

Interviewers can negatively judge or disrespect the client’s perspective in many ways. Very recently, I (John) became somewhat preoccupied about convincing a client that she wasn’t really “bipolar.” Despite my good intentions (it seemed to me that the young woman would be better off without the bipolar label), there was something useful or important for the client about holding onto her bipolar identity. Of course, as a “psychological expert” I thought it was ludicrous. I thought it obscured her many personal strengths with a label that diminished her personhood. Therefore, I tried my best to shove my opinion into her belief system. For better or worse, I was unsuccessful.

What’s clear about this example is that, despite our general expertise in mental health matters, as mental health professionals we need to work hard to respect our clients’ worldviews. In recent years practitioners from many theoretical perspectives have become more firm about the need for the expert therapist to take a back seat to the client’s personal lived experience. It’s now more important than ever for interviewers to acknowledge and embrace client expertness. This may be partly due to our increasing awareness (as mental health professionals and advocates) that clients may have very divergent views of themselves and the world.

In the end, who am I to tell my client that she is better off without a bipolar label? What if that label somehow, perhaps even in a twisted way, offers her solace. Perhaps she feels comfort in a label that helps explain her behavior to herself. Perhaps she is not ready—yet—to let go of the bipolar label. Perhaps she never will—and that may be the best outcome.

Whatever their theoretical orientation, effective interviewers respect their client’s personal expertise or perspective. We need that expertise. If the client is unwilling to collaborate with us by sharing her or his expertise and experience, we lose at least some of our potency as helpers.


John offers his brother-in-law some advice.

A Wiley Website with Info about our Brand New Counseling and Psychotherapy Videos

This spring and summer Rita and I have been working with John Wiley & Sons to produce DVDs to go with our textbooks Clinical Interviewing and Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice. The Clinical Interviewing DVD is out and the Theories DVD will be available soon. There’s a new website with information about this at: http://lp.wileypub.com/SommersFlanagan/


John reading the new textbooks to his twin grandchildren (who look quite excited about learning how to do psychotherapy).


Revising Clinical Interviewing — Who Wants to Help?

It’s time to put our Clinical Interviewing text into its 5th edition and so I’m just starting on my main and very exciting summer project (there’s some, but not complete sarcasm here). In the next four weeks I’ll be editing, updating, and transforming the 15 chapters with the latest thinking and research in the Clinical Interviewing domain.

That brings me to the purpose of today’s blog.

If any of you are familiar with this text and have thoughts about what needs to change and what needs to stay the same, I’d love to hear from you.

If any of you are aware of cutting edge research on clinical interviewing, I’d love it if you’d pass the information on to me.

And if any of you have special qualifications and might want to write a 1,000-1,500 word professional essay on a specific topic in one of the chapters . . . let me know and I’m open to hearing your ideas.

In the meantime, I’m hunkered down in a small cabin on the Stillwater River just West of Absarokee and will be diving into this project (and not the river) as I fend off the staggering winds (wishing for a wind turbine . . . darn it) and take breaks to weed the garden and catch skunks. I’ll try not to have too much fun and will be blogging more than usual in an effort to avoid real work:).

Differential Activation Theory and Suicide Assessment

In anticipation of my upcoming suicide assessment interviewing webinar, I’m posting this and other suicide assessment interviewing material.

Differential Activation Theory

Differential activation theory suggests that when previously depressed and suicidal individuals experience a negative mood, they are likely to have their negative information processing biases reactivated. The original theory:

. . . stated that during a person’s learning history—and particularly during episodes of depression—low mood becomes associated with patterns of negative information processing (biases in memory, interpretations, and attitudes). Any return of the mood reactivates the pattern, and if the content of what is reactivated is global, negative, and self-referent (e.g., “I am a failure; worthless and unlovable.”), then relapse and recurrence of depression is highly likely. (Lau, Segal, & Williams, 2004, p. 422)

This theory and supporting empirical research indicates that during the course of a clinical interview, certain questioning procedures may move a previously depressed client toward a more negative mood state with an accompanying increase in negative information processing and suicide ideation. In fact, there are many studies indicating that both depressed and non-depressed clients and non-clients can be quickly and powerfully affected by mood inductions (Lau et al., 2004; Mosak, 2000; Teasdale & Dent, 1987).

For example, in a recent study, participants were divided into three groups: (a) those previously depressed with suicide ideation; (b) those previously depressed without suicide ideation; and (c) those with no history of previous depression (Lau et al., 2004). Following a mood challenge in which participants spent eight minutes listening to a depressive Russian opera at ½ speed while reading 40 negative statements such as, “There are things about me that I do not like,” participants generally experienced a worsening of mood and performed more poorly on a cognitive problem-solving test than prior to the mood challenge. Additionally, the participant group with a history of depression and suicide ideation exhibited significantly greater impairment in problem solving than the comparison groups. The authors concluded: “. . . when mood has returned to normal, cognitive variables may return to normal, but those who have been depressed and suicidal in the past are vulnerable to react differentially to changes in mood—with greater deterioration in problem-solving ability” (p. 428). This deterioration in problem solving is consistent with Edwin Shneidman’s concept of mental constriction, which we address later in this chapter.

Overall, the research clearly indicates that all individuals, depressed or not and suicidal or not, can have their mood quickly and adversely affected through rather simple experimental means. Additionally, it appears that previously depressed individuals may experience differential activation and therefore also have increases in negative cognitive biases about the self, others, and the future. Further, it appears that previously suicidal individuals may be particularly vulnerable to having their problem-solving abilities adversely affected when they experience a negative mood state.

Depressogenic Social, Cultural, and Interview Factors

In addition to the preceding research findings, there are a number of contemporary social and cultural factors that may predispose or orient individuals toward depressive and suicidal states. More than ever the United States media is involved in defining depressive states and promoting medical explanations for depression and suicidality. There are many books, magazine articles, and Internet sites encouraging individuals to examine themselves to determine if they might be suffering from depression, bipolar disorder, an anxiety disorder, AD/HD or other mental disorders. In particular, pharmaceutical advertisings encourage individuals to consult with their doctor to determine whether they might benefit from a medication designed to treat their emotional and behavioral symptoms. Unfortunately, as most of us know from personal experience and common sense, it is very easy to move into a negative mood in response to suggestions of personal defectiveness (which, over time, certainly may be as potent as eight minutes of a slow Russian opera). Consequently, it would not be surprising to find that continually rising depression rates and accompanying pharmaceutical treatments are, in part, related to increased awareness of depressive conditions.

Even more relevant to the suicide assessment interviewing process, it may be that interviewers who focus predominantly or exclusively on the presence or absence of negative mood states inadvertently increase such states. This possibility is consistent with constructive theory in that whatever we consciously focus on, be it relaxation or anxiety or depression or happiness, tends to grow. It is also consistent with anecdotal data from our students who report feeling surprisingly down and depressed after conducting and role-playing suicide assessment interviews.

Our concern is that traditional medically oriented depression and suicide assessment interviewing may sometimes inadvertently contribute to, rather than alleviate, underlying depressive cognitive and emotional processes. Consequently, in the following sections on suicide assessment interviewing, we guide you toward balancing negatively oriented depression and suicidality questions with an equal or greater number of questions and prompts designed to increase the focus on more positive client experiences and emotional states. This serves two functions. First, including positive questions and prompts may help clients focus on positive experiences and therefore improve their current mood state and problem-solving skills. Second, if clients are unable to focus on positive personal experiences or display positive affect, it may indicate a more chronic or severe depressive and suicidal condition. Overall, our primary message is that we should always pay close attention to the manner in which we use words, questions, and language when conducting depression and suicide assessment interviews.

Adopting a New Client and Suicide-Friendly Interviewer Attitude

Consistent with the CAMS approach as well as other more recent treatment perspectives (Action and Commitment Therapy (ACT); and Dialectal Behavior Therapy (DBT); we want to encourage you to adopt a fresh new attitude toward clients who may present with depressive and suicidal symptoms. Specifically, consider these attitudinal statements:

Depression and suicidality are natural conditions that arise, in part, from normal human suffering. Consequently, just because a client arrives in your office with depressive symptoms and suicidal features, this does not necessarily indicate deviance—or even a mental disorder.

Given that depressive and suicidal symptoms are natural and normal, it is acceptable for you, as an interviewer, to validate and normalize these feelings if they arise. This is especially important because many suicidal individuals feel socially disconnected, emotionally invalidated, and as if they are a burden to others (Joiner, 2005). There is no danger in accepting and validating client emotions—even self-destructive emotions.

In the spirit of the CAMS approach, we encourage you to listen to your clients’ suicidal thoughts and impulses nonjudgmentally; these thoughts and impulses represent your clients’ unique efforts to cope with their interpersonal and life problems.

Rather than continually drilling down into your clients’ depressive and suicidal symptoms, be sure to balance your clinical interview with questions that focus on the positive and your clients’ unique reasons for living. Forgetting to ask your client about positive experiences is like forgetting to go outside and breathe fresh air.

Fortunately, most people who experience depression recover, with or without treatment. Additionally, most people at least briefly consider suicide as an alternative to life, and of those who seriously contemplate—or even attempt—suicide, most end up choosing life instead of suicide.

A note of caution is in order. People often hesitate to ask directly about suicidal ideation out of a fear that they will somehow cause a sad person to suddenly think of suicide as an option. Asking about suicidal thoughts or impulses is not the same as dwelling on negative and depressing thoughts and feelings. Balancing the focus between negative and more positive, solution-focused material can be both wise and helpful. Failing to ask about suicide is neither.