Tag Archives: psychology

New Journal Article – Conversations about suicide: Strategies for detecting and assessing suicide risk

Hey Blog Readers.

For those of you who might be interested, I just published a new article on suicide assessment and interventions in the Journal of Health Service Psychology. The article title is, “Conversations about suicide: Strategies for detecting and assessing suicide risk.” The article is designed to help practitioners who work or may find themselves working with suicidal clients.

Here’s a link to the article: https://www.nationalregister.org/pub/the-national-register-report-pub/journal-of-health-service-psychology-winter-2018/conversations-about-suicide-strategies-for-detecting-and-assessing-suicide-risk/

John Semi Prof

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What My Card-Playing Genius Father Says About Donald Trump

There are so many things in the world that I just don’t understand.

One of the biggest mysteries to me is how my 90-year-old father can keep beating me at cards. It happens every time. Often it’s not even close. Yesterday he skunked me in two of three games of Gin. I’d switch to Poker, but I know from experience that it would just be worse.

What’s puzzling is that I have the younger brain. But somehow he still counts and remembers the cards better than I do. I’m also the one with the Ph.D. in psychology. He made it through one semester of college at the University of Portland. Mostly he spent his semester playing football. Despite my eight years of college and graduate school, nine published books, and over 50 professional articles in psychology, he reads me like I’m the book. He knows what’s in my hand better than I do. And then, when he obfuscates and complains that I’ve dealt him a bad hand, my ability to reason fogs over and I don’t know if he’s telling me the truth or setting me up. He’s like a card-playing mystic wrapped in an enigma.

All I can say is that must have been one damn good fall semester at the University of Portland way back in 1945.

When I need a break from repeated stinging defeats, our conversation naturally turns to politics. CNN is on in the background. We complain back and forth about various issues. I tell him that I’m disappointed and don’t understand how and why so many people are planning to vote for Donald Trump. I follow that with an over-analysis of socioeconomic disparities, racial dynamics, and voter motivation.

His eyes meet mine and I know it’s time for me to shut up and listen. As he begins speaking, his analysis—like his card-playing, is simple, incisive, and on-point.

“He’s a cheat and a con man,” my dad says, “and a very good one.”

His words are elegant and precise. As a professor and academic, I’d describe it as parsimonious.

“You can see him do it in every speech. He repeats himself. He says ‘crooked Hillary.’ Then he says it again and the media broadcasts it dozens of times every day. He says our economy is a disaster. He says he’ll make it beautiful. Then he repeats that message. It’s a disaster. It will be beautiful. Even though there’s no evidence for what he’s saying, he’s an actor, he’s convincing, and he’s repetitive. That’s what a good con man does. After a while, the truth doesn’t matter, people believe him. That’s how he’s made money. That’s how he gets votes. He says what some people want to hear. Then he says it again. Truth be damned, people believe him.”

In some ways, I still prefer my intellectual analysis. But part of me knows that my father’s explanation for Trump’s success is better than mine. How can you get people to believe the economy is bad when Obama has successfully cut unemployment in half? How can you get people to believe the country is less safe when overall, crime rates are down? How can you convince people you know more about ISIS than all the generals? How can you get away with saying that if you’re a star you can grab a woman by the pussy? How can you convince people that Hillary Clinton is corrupt and dishonest when your lies outnumber hers five-to-one?

“He’s a cheat and a con man . . . and a very good one.”

This is my father talking. He has 90 years of experience on this planet. I believe him.

Then again, maybe I only believe him because he just beat me in Gin again. If I think of him as a psychic superhero it helps comfort my aching ego.

There’s one other thing. My father is also the most honest man I know. He’s never cheated anyone of anything in his life. He’s a role model and card-playing genius. He reads people like I never could. And so when he says Donald Trump is a cheat and a con man. . . it’s simple.

I believe him.

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A New Journal Article on Suicide Assessment Interviewing

Article · Oct 2016 · Professional Psychology Research and Practice
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Writing about Writing . . . Feedback Please?

Over the past several days I’ve been inspired to pursue a new project that focuses on writing about professional writing. This is the sort of thing that happens to me when I’m facing a big list of imposing writing projects . . . I decide to add one more.

But the good news is that I’m having fun and producing lots of words on this topic. My latest method for generating words is to go for a long walk with my cell phone. Then, I dictate email messages to myself through my cell phone and send them. Pretty cool. Over the past two days I’ve “written” almost 8,000 words.

There are some problems with this system, however. In particular, if there’s any wind, or if I don’t enunciate perfectly, my phone is inclined to misquote me. The result: In the moment I feel exceptionally articulate and then I when I get home and read the emails I’ve sent myself, I sound somewhat less articulate. Here’s an example:

1 thing keep in mind is: your trickster is not my sister. What is means is that are in your obstacles 4 demons are unique to us as individuals. You wear the standard prescription for all riders. Beware the single strategy you overcome writers block. He wear even if we say it, love 1 message to manage your picture.

You can imagine my disappointment at receiving this message from myself, I’m sure. If that preceding paragraph wasn’t absolutely hilarious, I might be furious at having lost whatever profound message I was trying to communicate with myself. But I have to say that reading these emails from myself makes for excellent entertainment.

This reminds me of a dream I had back in grad school. It was amazingly profound . . . but I’ll skip that and get to the point of asking you for feedback.

If you’re a current or recent graduate student, please send me your answer to one or more of the following questions:

1. What emotions and thoughts do you experience when you turn in a paper to a professor (or, better yet, a thesis or dissertation committee)?

2. When you get lots of “constructive feedback” what thoughts and feelings do you experience? This might involve you receiving a paper back with a low grade and/or lots of “red ink.” Can you share an example of what you think or feel in response to that situation?

3. When you get positive feedback, what thoughts or feelings does that trigger? Can you share an example?

4. After you’ve gotten negative or constructive feedback, how do you find the strength or courage to send in another draft or turn in the next assignment?

If you’re currently a professor somewhere, consider answering one or more of the following:

1. What thoughts or feelings do you have to deal with to get yourself to write something?

2. How do you react to or deal with rejection? For example, if you have a manuscript or proposal rejected, what do you say, do, think, or feel? What do you do to “bounce back” from rejections of your written work?

3. How do you react to success? For example, when you have a paper accepted or get positive feedback, how does that affect you?

4. What helps you write well . . . or in what situations are you likely to write efficiently.

Thanks for thinking about this with me. I appreciate it. And I’ll even appreciate it more if you send me an email answering some of the preceding questions. Send it to: john.sf@mso.umt.edu

And . . . I’m confident that whatever you send me will arrive in better shape than the emails I’ve been sending myself.

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Neuro-counseling or Neuro-nonsense: You be the judge

This is a Book Review written by a current doctoral student, Tara Smart and John SF. It was published this past June in the online journal, The Professional Counselor: http://tpcjournal.nbcc.org/

As you may detect, Ms. Smart and I are circumspect about the neuroscience bandwagon.

Here’s the review:

In A Counselor’s Introduction to Neuroscience, the authors claim that “neurocounseling” is the fifth force in the history of psychology and counseling. Although a precise and detailed definition of neurocounseling is elusive (both in this book and in the professional literature), it is described as the marriage of counseling and neurobiology. They offer a crash course in brain anatomy, function, and development in order to lay the groundwork for how neurocounseling can be used effectively with clients. Several chapters focus on the ways the brain is affected by certain mental disorders, and how specific counseling approaches address various brain regions and functions. The remainder of the book focuses on assessment of brain function and fictional cases to illustrate neurocounseling techniques. The chapters include numerous tables, figures, cases and opportunities to stop and reflect. The overall intent of the book is to arm counselors “with yet another highly effective and efficient way to help clients cope with (overcome, etc.) their personal psychological distress.”

Although the authors are clearly enamored with the interaction between neurobiology and counseling, they purposefully offer honest words of caution regarding the nascent and speculative nature of contemporary brain science. However, on occasion, they also make promising statements without citing scientific evidence and generalize results from animal studies (including rodents) to humans without offering their reasoning for doing so. As with any other resource, practitioners are responsible for weighing information and evaluating whether it is accurate and whether it will be helpful in their work. It is important to note that this book bills itself as an “introduction”—readers should not expect concrete or realistic examples of how professional counselors can use their new neuroscience knowledge to understand and enhance client functioning.

A Counselor’s Introduction to Neuroscience will help counselors begin to grapple with the implications of neuroscience for our profession. Although the neuroscience knowledge base that the authors provide is a good start, scientific rigor in terms of concrete application would be useful. Years from now, neurocounseling may well be a new force in counseling, but presenting it to the counseling community as an effective and efficient way to help clients today is premature. In the end, it is best to consider this book as a reasonable beginning and food for thought rather than a how-to guide for counselors seeking neurocounseling training. Hopefully in the ensuing years, there will be clearer guidance available to help professional counselors integrate neuroscience into their practice.

John using his Star Trek tricorder (cell phone) to do a quick selfie brain scan. The results were not promising.

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Why Evolution is a Bad Explanation for Human Behavior

Nearly every day I hear, read, or see the latest news story about how the human brain is hard-wired to make all humans act in one particular way or another. These stories annoy me because:

  1. They emphasize that all humans are the same and ignore the fact that we’re all unique and, to a large degree, unpredictable.
  2. They imply that humans are unlikely to change or deviate from one another.
  3. They repeatedly claim we’re all hard-wired despite the fact that the human brain has NO WIRES.

Even worse, at the bottom of most of these “Your brain is hard-wired” stories is a mythical evolutionary explanation. This annoys me even more . . . because when it comes to everyday human behavior, evolution makes for very bad explanations. But if you’re listening to what pundits and scientists say in the media, you’d be inclined to believe the opposite of what’s really true about humans.

For mysterious reasons, many scientists—especially evolutionary scientists—want to put humans in a box. They suggest and imply and assert that human behavior is predictable. But the truth is that—apart from breathing—there are very few predictable human behaviors. As decades of controlled psychological experiments have shown, even under laboratory conditions where little choice is possible, scientific predictions typically account for no more that 30-40% of the variation in human behavior. This means that humans are 60-70% unpredictable . . . even under highly controlled conditions.

Aside from being mostly wrong, simple evolutionary and biological explanations for human behavior also often are translated into messages that are generally unhealthy for society. Let’s take one big example.

An especially popular media and science topic is male sexual behavior. The argument usually goes like this: Over millions of years males have become hardwired to be attracted to fertility and novelty in sexual partners. This is because . . . the argument continues . . . males seek to perpetuate their gene-pool. This is why, they say, males are attracted to younger females who exhibit signs of reproductive health. This also explains why males—especially young males—are driven to have sex with multiple female partners.

Given current U.S. social problems—think sexual assault and high divorce rates—it makes little sense to promote the mostly false ideas that males seek sexual novelty to perpetuate their gene pool. This information is unhelpful to women who want safe and stable relationships with men and it’s unhelpful to the majority of men who—in contradiction to evolutionary theory—want safe and monogamous intimate relationships with women (or other men).

Most of the time, most males engage in sexual behavior that’s not at all designed to spread their seed or perpetuate their gene pool. Young men are often strongly motivated to NOT get their girlfriends pregnant. Recent data indicate that many young men are NOT especially interested in engaging in indiscriminate sexual behavior.

Even in a 2011 research study at Syracuse University, 333 undergraduate males apparently hadn’t gotten the memo about being hardwired to want sex with novel partners. When asked, whether they could “. . . imagine themselves enjoying casual sex” these young men showed an average response that was largely in the “undecided” range. Think about that: males from 18-22 years-old at Syracuse University couldn’t really decide if they might enjoy casual sex. This is good news. And it’s not consistent with evolutionary-based myths about contemporary young men.

In the same study, 300+ Syracuse University women reported—in direct contradiction to evolutionary theory—that they had been engaging in casual sexual encounters at approximately the same rate as the males.

And so next time you hear or read or view a media story about how millions of years of evolution explains why human males or females behave one way or another, remember that many immediate conditions can and do override evolutionary-based predictions. Evolution is a generality that may or may not apply to a single organism living in the 21st century. Evolution does not trump choice. And that’s the point: Your choices tomorrow will have much more to do with the situations you’re facing today (and that you’re anticipating tomorrow) than they’ll have to do with yesterday.

Introductions and Full Disclosure (at least in part)

When people ask me what I do for work, I often tell them I have the best job in the world; then I describe it to them: “Every spring our faculty intensely screens a group of about 50 applicants to our graduate programs in counseling down to about 20 students who are admitted. And then I have the summer off. And then the new group of students show up in the fall and they’re all smart and kind and compassionate and because they’re graduate students, they’re motivated and focused and they want to attend class and become the best darn counselors they can become. And then, when I have them in class I’m with this group of incredibly socially skilled and sensitive, nice people and they make eye contact, nod their heads, act like they’re listening to me, and laugh at my jokes and stories.” Pretty much after I describe this scenario whoever asked me the question has either walked away or has crumpled into a heap on the floor racked with pain and jealousy.

This past Friday I got to teach my first full-day class with our new students. And just like Mary Poppins, they were practically perfect in every way.

Students in our graduate programs school and mental health counseling have a plethora of opportunities to engage in role-plays. As you may guess, these opportunities may or may not be met with great enthusiasm. More often than not we suggest to our students that they think of a minor problem in their lives, exercise censorship, and actually play themselves in these role-play encounters. This is totally fun . . . at least for the faculty.

Because we ask so much from our students—we expect them to “bring it” every hour of every class—at the beginning we offer our first year graduate students an activity where they can come to the front of the room as ask faculty members any question they’d like. This is totally fun . . . at least for the students.

On Friday, I had the added joy of listening as our two newest faculty members, Dr. Kirsten Murray and Dr. Lindsey Nichols, got quizzed by the new students. It was fabulous. I was filled with pride and happiness over having colleagues who are amazing and cool. Then it was my turn.

Somehow, the very first question turned into an awkward explanation of my professional status. I’m pretty old and I’ve answered a gazillion student questions about myself over the years, but I still felt the inner warmth, the sudden presence of sweat on my skin, and that funny feeling of hearing my own voice from a distance (totally fun!).

The problem is that I’m trained as a clinical psychologist and I teach in a counselor education program. To some people, this is like blasphemy. It’s like I was born in the country of clinical psychology and immigrated to the country of counselor education. At some tiny level, I sense how it might feel to be in the marginalized category of acculturation. Sometimes, under stress, I start speaking the language of clinical psychology (one time at an editorial board meeting of the Journal of Counseling and Development I accidentally said “A-P-A” instead of “A-C-A” and thought for sure I might be stoned; but everyone acted like they didn’t notice; of course, they also acted like they didn’t notice me after the meeting—or maybe I was just imagining that and isolating myself?).

I love my country of origin—the country of clinical psychology. I could talk about Rorschach cards and what it means for me to have a spike 5 and subclinical 6-9 profile on my MMPI for days. Studying psychopathology was like the coolest thing ever.

But I also love the country I’ve immigrated to. I have pleasant flashbacks of my first ACA conference back in 1992 when I volunteered to participate in a group counseling demonstration with Jerry and Marianne Corey. They were fabulous and I was hooked. I still like going to APA conferences, but for me, ACA conferences are a little less anal and a little more fun. I mean like one time I got my photo taken with William Glasser and last year I got it taken with Robert Wubbolding. They’re starting to think of me like a Reality Therapy groupie. What’s not cool about that?

The problem is that some members of ACA and APA don’t really like each other all that well. And neither of them really like the NASW or that evil “other” APA. The turf issues around professional discipline strike me as silly and overdone. I’m pretty sure that at this point I’m completely unemployable as an academic anywhere but the University of Montana. Psychology departments wouldn’t touch me because of my counseling cooties and Counseling departments now have to abide by a rule where they can’t hire anyone who doesn’t have a doctorate in counselor education. This would be pretty funny stuff if it weren’t so ridiculous. Psychologists want prescription privileges, Counselors want to do psychological evaluations, Social Workers want to do everything and anything, and yet, in many ways, we’re all more alike than we are different. I’ve got no solutions here . . . just observations.

And so in the beginning I experienced only a mild dissociative episode as I squeezed out my full disclosure—admitting before God and the class and my fellow professors that I am, in fact, BOTH a clinical psychologist AND a counselor educator. And in the end, it felt good. We had more discussions and questions later and no one (at least while I was looking) made the sign of the cross and shrunk away. I was just part of an amazing group of people who want to help other people live happier and more fulfilling lives. It could have been a group of students studying psychology or social work or counseling or maybe even all three at once . . . . It was really very nice.

John Dancing at a Wedding Reception