Rita and I are spending chunks of our social distancing time writing. In particular, we’ve signed a contract to write a professional book with American Counseling Association Publications on suicide assessment and treatment planning. We’ll be weaving a wellness and strength-oriented focus into strategies for assessing and treating suicidality.
Today, I’m working on Chapter 6, titled: The Cognitive Dimension. We open the chapter with a nice Aaron Beck quotation, and then discuss key cognitive issues to address with clients who are suicidal. These issues include: (a) hopelessness, (b) problem-solving impairments, (c) maladaptive thinking, and (d) negative core beliefs.
Then we shift to specific interventions that can be used to address the preceding cognitive issues. In the following excerpt, we focus on collaborative problem solving and illustrate the collaborative problem-solving process using a case example. As always, feel free to offer feedback on this draft content.
Though not a suicide-specific intervention, problem-solving therapy is an evidence-based approach to counseling and psychotherapy (Nezu, Nezu, & D’Zurilla, 2013). Components of problem-solving are useful for assessing and intervening with clients who are suicidal. As Reinecke (2006) noted, “From a problem-solving perspective, suicide reflects a breakdown in adaptive, rational problem solving. The suicidal individual is not able to generate, evaluate, and implement effective solutions and anticipates that his or her attempts will prove fruitless” (p. 240).
Extended Case Example: Sophia – Problem-Solving
In Chapter 5 we emphasized that clinicians should initially focus on and show empathy for clients’ excruciating distress and suicidal thoughts. However, there often comes a moment when a pivot toward the positive can occur. Questions that help with this pivot include:
- What helps, even a tiny bit?
- When you’ve felt bad in the past, what helped the most?
- How have you been able to cope with your suicidal thoughts?
In response to these questions, clients who are suicidal often display symptoms of hopelessness, mental constriction, problems with information processing, or selective memory retrieval. Statements like, “I’ve tried everything,” “Nothing helps,” and “I can’t remember ever feeling good,” represent cognitive impairments. Even though your clients may think they’ve tried everything, the truth is that no one could possibly try everything. Similarly, although it’s possible that “nothing” your client does helps very much, it’s doubtful that all their efforts to feel better have been equally ineffective. These statements indicate black-white or polarized thinking, as well as hopelessness and memory impairments (Beck et al., 1979; Reinecke, 2006; Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2018).
Pivoting to the Positive
Picking up from where we left off in Chapter 5, after exploring the distress linked to Sophia’s suicide ideation in the emotional dimension, the counselor (John) pivots to asking about the positive (“What helps?”) and then proceeds into a problem-solving assessment and intervention strategy. One clearly identified trigger for Sophia’s suicidal thinking is her parent’s fighting. She cannot directly do anything about their fights, but she can potentially do other things to shield herself from the downward cognitive and emotional spiral that parental fighting activates in her.
John: Let’s say your parents are fighting and you’re feeling suicidal. You’re in your room by yourself. What could you do that’s helpful in that moment? [The intent is to shift Sophia into active problem-solving.]
Sophia: I have a cat. His name is Douglas. Sometimes he makes me feel better. He’s diabetic, so I don’t think he’ll live much longer, but he’s comforting right now.
John: Nice. My memory’s not perfect, so is it okay with you if I write a list of all the things that help a little bit? Douglas helps you be in a better mood. What else is helpful?
Sophia: I like music. Blasting music makes me feel better. And I play the guitar, so sometimes that helps. And volleyball is a comfort, but I can’t play volleyball in my room.
John: Yeah. Great. Let me jot those down: music, guitar, volleyball, and being with your cat. And volleyball, but not in your room! I guess you can think about volleyball, right? And how about friends? Do you have friends who are positive supports in your life?
Although the fact that Douglas the cat has diabetes includes a depressive tone, the good news is that Sophia immediately engages in problem-solving. She’s able to identify Douglas and other things that help her feel better.
Throughout problem-solving, regularly repeating positive coping strategies back to the client is important. In this case, John summarizes Sophia’s positive ideas, and then asks about friends and social support—a very important dimension in overall suicide safety planning.
Sophia: Yeah, but we’re all busy. My friend Liz and I hang out quite a bit. I can walk into her house, and it will feel like my house. But we’re both in volleyball, so we’re both really busy. But our season will end soon. Hopefully that will help.
John: Ok, the list of things that seem to help, especially when you’re in a hard place with your parents fighting: Douglas the cat, music, guitar, and volleyball, and friends. Anything else to add?
Sophia: I don’t think so.
Often, the next step in collaborative problem-solving is to ask clients for permission to add to the list, thus turning the process into a shared brain-storming session. At no time during the brainstorming should you criticize any client-generated alternatives, even if they’re dangerous or destructive. In contrast, clients will sometimes criticize your ideas. When clients criticize, just agree with a statement like, “Yeah, you’re probably right, but we’re just brainstorming. We can rank and rate these as good or bad ideas later.”
Overall, the goal is to use brainstorming to assess for and intervene with mental constriction. During brainstorming, Sophia and John generated 13 things Sophia could do to make herself feel better. Sophia’s ability to brainstorm in session is a positive indicator of her responsiveness to treatment.