This post is part 1 of a follow up to requests I’ve gotten following the MUS Suicide Prevention Summit in Bozeman. A number of people asked: What’s R-I-P-SC-I-P and how do I get more information about it? The answer is that it’s just an acronym to help practitioners recall key areas to cover in a comprehensive suicide assessment interview. But because I made it up in honor of Robert Wubbolding while doing a workshop in Cincinnati (he’s created several acronyms for Choice Theory and Reality Therapy), I’m pretty much the only source.
The following is a pre-published excerpt from the Suicide Assessment chapter in the forthcoming 6th edition of Clinical Interviewing. It includes some general information, a summary of R-I-P-SC-I-P, and some guidance on how to talk with clients about suicide ideation. Much more of this is in the whole chapter, but I can’t post it here.
Suicide Assessment Interviewing
A comprehensive and collaborative suicide assessment interview is the professional gold standard for assessing suicide risk. Suicide assessment scales and instruments can be a valuable supplement—but not a substitute—for suicide assessment interviewing (see Putting It in Practice 10.1).
A comprehensive suicide assessment interview includes the following components:
- Gathering information about suicide risk and protective factors: This should be done in a manner that emphasizes your desire to understand the client and not as a checklist to estimate risk
- Asking directly about possible suicidal thoughts
- Asking directly about possible suicide plans
- Gathering information about client self-control and agitation
- Gathering information about client suicide intent and reasons to live
- Consultation with one or more professionals
- Implementation of one or more suicide interventions, including, at the very least, collaborative work on developing an individualized safety plan
- Detailed documentation of your assessment and decision-making process (Table 10.3 includes an acronym to help you recall the components of a comprehensive suicide assessment interview)
Table 10.3: RIP SCIP – A Suicide Assessment Acronym
R = Risk and Protective Factors
I = Suicide Ideation
P = Suicide Plan
SC = Client Self-Control and Agitation
I = Suicide Intent and Reasons for Living
P = Safety Planning
These assessment domains or dimensions form the acronym R-I-P-SC-I-P (pronounced RIP SKIP).
Exploring Suicide Ideation
Unlike many other risk factors (e.g., demographic factors), suicide ideation is directly linked to potential suicide behavior. It’s difficult to imagine anyone ever dying by suicide without having first experienced suicide ideation.
Because of this, you may decide to systematically ask every client about suicide ideation during initial clinical interviews. This is a conservative approach and guarantees you won’t face a situation where you should have asked about suicide, but didn’t. Alternatively, you may decide to weave questions about suicide ideation into clinical interviews as appropriate. At least initially, for developing professionals, we recommend using the systematic approach. However, we recognize that this can seem rote. From our perspective, it is better to learn to ask artfully by doing it over and over than to fail to ask and regret it.
The nonverbal nature of communication has direct implications for how and when you ask about suicide ideation, depressive symptoms, previous attempts, and other emotionally laden issues. For example, it’s possible to ask: “Have you ever thought about suicide?” while nonverbally communicating to the client: “Please, please say no!” Therefore, before you decide how you’ll ask about suicide ideation, you need the right attitude about asking the question.
Individuals who have suicidal thoughts can be extremely sensitive to social judgment. They may have avoided sharing suicidal thoughts out of fear of being judged as “insane” or some other stigma. They’re likely monitoring you closely and gauging whether you’re someone to trust with this deeply intimate information. To pass this unspoken test of trust, it’s important to endorse, and directly or indirectly communicate the following beliefs:
- Suicide ideation is normal and natural and counseling is a good place for clients to share those thoughts.
- I can be of better help to clients if they tell me their emotional pain, distress, and suicidal thoughts.
- I want my clients to share their suicidal thoughts.
- If my clients share their suicidal thoughts and plans, I can handle it!
If you don’t embrace these beliefs, clients experiencing suicide ideation may choose to be less open.
Asking Directly about Suicide Ideation
Asking about suicide ideation may feel awkward. Learning to ask difficult questions in a deliberate, compassionate, professional, and calm manner requires practice. It also may help to know that, in a study by Hahn and Marks (1996), 97% of previously suicidal clients were either receptive or neutral about discussing suicide with their therapists during intake sessions. It also may help to know that you’re about to learn the three most effective approaches to asking about suicide that exist on this planet.
Use a normalizing frame. Most modern prevention and intervention programs recommend directly asking clients something like, “Have you been thinking about suicide recently?” This is an adequate approach if you’re in a situation with someone you know well and from whom you can expect an honest response.
A more nuanced approach is to ask about suicide along with a normalizing or universalizing statement about suicide ideation. Here’s the classic example:
Well, I asked this question since almost all people at one time or another during their lives have thought about suicide. There is nothing abnormal about the thought. In fact it is very normal when one feels so down in the dumps. The thought itself is not harmful. (Wollersheim, 1974, p. 223)
A common fear is that asking about suicide will put suicidal ideas in clients’ heads. There’s no evidence to support this (Jobes, 2006). More likely, your invitation to share suicidal thoughts will reassure clients that you’re comfortable with the subject, in control of the situation, and capable of dealing with the problem.
Use gentle assumption. Based on over two decades of clinical experience with suicide assessment Shawn Shea (2002/ 2004/2015) recommends using a framing strategy referred to as gentle assumption. To use gentle assumption, the interviewer presumes that certain illegal or embarrassing behaviors are already occurring in the client’s life, and gently structures questions accordingly. For example, instead of asking “Have you been thinking about suicide?” you would ask: “When was the last time when you had thoughts about suicide?” Gentle assumption can make it easier for clients to disclose suicide ideation.
Use mood ratings with a suicidal floor. It can be helpful to ask about suicide in the context of a mood assessment (as in a mental status examination). Scaling questions such as those that follow can be used to empathically assess mood levels.
1. Is it okay if I ask some questions about your mood? (This is an invitation for collaboration; clients can say “no,” but rarely do.)
2. Please rate your mood right now, using a zero to 10 scale. Zero is the worst mood possible. In fact, zero would mean you’re totally depressed and so you’re just going to kill yourself. At the top, 10 is your best possible mood. A 10 would mean you’re as happy as you could possibly be. Maybe you would be dancing or singing or doing whatever you do when you’re extremely happy. Using that zero to 10 scale, what rating would you give your mood right now? (Each end of the scale must be anchored for mutual understanding.)
3. What’s happening now that makes you give your mood that rating? (This links the mood rating to the external situation.)
4. What’s the worst or lowest mood rating you’ve ever had? (This informs the interviewer about the lowest lows.)
5. What was happening back then to make you feel so down? (This links the lowest rating to the external situation and may lead to discussing previous attempts.)
6. For you, what would be a normal mood rating on a normal day? (Clients define their normal.)
7. Now tell me, what’s the best mood rating you think you’ve ever had? (The process ends with a positive mood rating.)
8. What was happening that helped you have such a high mood rating? (The positive rating is linked to an external situation.)
The preceding protocol assumes clients are minimally cooperative. More advanced interviewing procedures can be added when clients are resistant (see Chapter 12). The process facilitates a deeper understanding of life events linked to negative moods and suicide ideation. This can lead to formal counseling or psychotherapy, as well as safety planning.
Responding to Suicide Ideation
Let’s say you broach the question and your client openly discloses the presence of suicide ideation. What next?
First, remember that hearing about your client’s suicide ideation is good news. It reflects trust. Also remember that depressive and suicidal symptoms are part of a normal response to distress. Validate and normalize:
Given the stress you’re experiencing, it’s not unusual that you think about suicide sometimes. It sounds like things have been really hard lately.
This validation is important because many suicidal individuals feel socially disconnected, emotionally invalidated, and as if they’re a social burden (Joiner, 2005). Your empathic reflection may be more or less specific, depending on how much detailed information your client has given you.
As you continue the assessment, collaboratively explore the frequency, triggers, duration, and intensity of your client’s suicidal thoughts.
- Frequency: How often do you find yourself thinking about suicide?
- Triggers: What seems to trigger your suicidal thoughts? What gets them started?
- Duration: How long do these thoughts stay with you once they start?
- Intensity: How intense are your thoughts about suicide? Do they gently pop into your head or do they have lots of power and sort of smack you down?
As you explore the suicide ideation, strive to emanate calmness, and curiosity, rather than judgment. Instead of thinking, “We need to get rid of these thoughts,” engage in collaborative and empathic exploration.
Some clients will deny suicidal thoughts. If this happens, and it feels genuine, acknowledge and accept the denial, while noting that you were just using your standard practice.
Okay. Thanks. Asking about suicidal thoughts is just something I think is important to do with everyone.
On the other hand, if the denial seems forced, or is combined with depressive symptoms or other risk factors, you’ll still want to use acknowledgement and acceptance, but then find a way to return to the topic later in the session.