What follows is an excerpt from, Suicide Assessment and Treatment Planning: A Strengths-Based Approach (American Counseling Association, 2021). We address insomnia and nightmares in Chapter 7 (the Physical Dimension). This is just a glimpse into the cool content of this book.
Insomnia and nightmares directly contribute to client distress in general and suicidal distress in particular. In this section, we use a case example to illustrate how counselors can begin with a less personal issue (insomnia), use empathy, psychoeducation, and curiosity to track insomnia symptoms, eventually arrive at nightmares, and then inquire about trauma. Focusing first on insomnia, then on nightmares, and later on trauma can help counselors form an alliance with clients who are initially reluctant to talk about death images and trauma experiences.
Focusing on Insomnia
Miguel was a 19-year-old cisgender heterosexual Latino male working on vocational skills at a Job Corps program. He arrived for his first session in dusty work clothes, staring at the counselor through squinted eyes; it was difficult to tell if Miguel was squinting to protect his eyes from masonry dust or to communicate distrust. However, because the client was referred by a physician for insomnia, he also might have just been sleepy.
Counselor: Hey Miguel. Thanks for coming in. The doctor sent me a note. She said you’re having trouble sleeping.
Miguel: Yeah. I don’t sleep.
Counselor: That sucks. Working all day when you’re not sleeping well must be rough.
Miguel: Yeah. But I’m fine. That’s how it is.
To start, Miguel minimizes distress. Whether you’re working with Alzheimer’s patients covering their memory deficits or five-year-olds who get caught lying, minimizing is a common strategy. When clients say, “I’m fine” or “It is what it is” they may be minimizing.
But Miguel was not fine. For many reasons (e.g., pride, shame, or age and ethnicity differences), he was reluctant to open up. However, given Miguel’s history of being in a gang and his estranged relationship with his parents, the expectation that he should quickly trust and confide in a white male adult stranger is not appropriate.
Rather than pursuing anything personal, the counselor communicated empathy and interest in Miguel’s insomnia experiences.
Counselor: Not being able to sleep can make for very long nights. What do you think makes it so hard for you sleep?
Miguel: I don’t know. I just don’t sleep.
When asked directly, Miguel declines to describe his sleep problems. Rather than continue with questioning, the counselor fills the room with words (i.e., psychoeducation). Psychoeducation is a good option because sitting in silence is socially painful and because multicultural experts recommend that counselors speak openly when working with clients from historically oppressed cultural groups (Sue & Sue, 2016). The reasoning goes: If counselors are open and transparent, culturally diverse clients can evaluate their counselor before sharing more about themselves. As Miguel’s counselor talks, Miguel can decide, based on what he hears, whether his counselor is safe, trustworthy, and credible.
Counselor: Miguel, there are three main types of insomnia. There’s initial insomnia—that’s when it takes a long time, maybe an hour or more, to get to sleep. They call that difficulty falling asleep. There’s terminal insomnia—that’s when you fall asleep pretty well and sleep until maybe 3am and then wake up and can’t get back to sleep. They call that early morning awakening. Then there’s intermittent insomnia—that’s like being a light sleeper who wakes up over and over all night. They call that choppy sleep. Which of those fits for you?”
Miguel: I got all three. I can’t get to sleep. I can’t stay asleep. I can’t get back to sleep.
Counselor: That’s sounds terrible. It’s like a triple dose of bad sleep.
As Miguel begins opening up, he says “I haven’t slept in a week.” Although it’s obvious that zero minutes of sleep over a week isn’t accurate, for Miguel, it feels like he hasn’t slept in a week, and that’s what’s important.
After Miguel yawns, the counselor asks permission to share his thoughts.
Counselor: Miguel, if you don’t mind, I’d like to tell you what I’m thinking. Is that okay?
Miguel: Sure. Fine.
Counselor: When someone says they’re having as much trouble sleeping as you’re having, there are usually two main reasons. The first is nightmares. Have you been having nightmares?
Miguel: Shit yeah. Like every night. When I fall asleep, nightmares start.
Counselor: Okay. Thanks. I’m pretty sure I can help you with nightmares. We can probably make them happen less often and be less bad in just a few meetings.
The counselor’s confidence is based on previous successful experiences, including using a nightmare treatment protocol that has empirical support (Imagery Rehearsal Therapy; Krakow & Zadra, 2010). Although evidence-based treatments aren’t effective for all clients, they can establish credibility and instill hope. Nevertheless, Miguel doesn’t immediately experience hope.
Miguel: Yeah. But these aren’t normal nightmares.
Counselor: What’s been happening?
Miguel: I keep having this dream where I’m sticking a gun in my mouth. People are all around me with their voices and shit telling me, “pull the trigger.” Then I wake up, but I can’t get it out of my head all day? What the hell is that all about?”
Counselor: That’s a great question.
When the counselor says, “That’s a great question,” his goal is to start a discussion about all the reasons why someone (Miguel in this case), might have a “gun in the mouth” dream. If Miguel and his counselor can brainstorm different explanations and possible meanings for the dream images, it’s less likely for Miguel to interpret his dream as a sign that he should die by suicide. What’s important, we tell our clients, is to look at many different possible meanings the unconscious or God or the Great Spirit or the universe or indigestion might be sending to the dreamer. To help clients expand their thinking and loosen up on their conclusions about their dream’s meaning, we’ve used statements like the following:
You may be right. Your dream might be about you dying or killing yourself. But our goal is to listen to the message your brain sent you and be open to what it might mean. It’s perfectly normal to think your dream was about you dying by suicide—but that’s not necessarily true. That’s not the way the brain and dreams usually work. Some counselors use self-disclosure about dreams or nightmares they’ve had themselves. Others offer hypothetical or historical dream examples. Either way, normalizing nightmares helps clients become more comfortable talking about their bad dreams and nightmares.
To be continued . . . NEXT TIME . . . we ask about trauma.
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