Tag Archives: Suicide Assessment

More Methods for Discussing Suicide with Mental Health Clients

nick-nacksNearly everyone agrees that asking clients directly about suicide is the right thing. However, because every client situation is unique, there are also many different strategies for asking about suicide. In this short excerpt from Clinical Interviewing, we discuss how to bring up suicide using information from outside of the counseling or assessment session.

Using Outside Information to initiate Risk and Protective Factor Assessment

Outside of the formal suicide assessment interview, three main sources of information can be used to initiate a discussion with clients about suicide risk and protective factors:

  1. Client Records
  2. Assessment Instruments
  3. Collateral Informants

Client Records

If available, your client’s previous medical or mental health (med-psych) records are a quick and efficient source for client risk and protective factor information. Many risk factors listed in this chapter won’t be in your client’s records, but you should look closely for factors, such as: (a) previous suicide ideation and attempts; (b) a history of a depression diagnosis; and (c) familial suicide. After your standard intake interviewing opening and rapport building, you can use the records to broach these issues.

I saw in your records that you attempted suicide back in 2012. Could you tell me what was going on in your life back then to trigger that attempt? 

When exploring previous suicide attempts, it’s important to do so in a constructive manner that can contribute to treatment (see Case Example 10.2). Using psychoeducation to explain to clients why you’re asking about the past helps frame and facilitate the process.

The reason I’m asking about your previous suicide attempt is because the latest research indicates that the more we know about the specific stresses that triggered a past attempt, the better we can work together to help you cope with that stress now and in the future. 

Don’t forget to balance your questioning about previous suicide attempts with a focus on the positive.

Often, after a suicide attempt, people say they discovered some new strengths or resources or specific people who were especially helpful. How about for you? Did you have anything positive you discovered in the time after your suicide attempt.

It may be difficult to identify protective factors in your client’s med-psych records. However, if you find evidence of protective factors or personal strengths, you should bring them up in the appropriate context during a suicide assessment interview. For example, when interviewing a client who’s talking about despair associated with a current depressive episode, you might say something like:

I noticed in your records that you had a similar time a couple years ago when you were feeling very down and discouraged. And, according to your therapist back then, you worked very hard and managed to climb back up out of that depressing place. What worked for you back then?

Strive to use information from your clients’ records collaboratively. As illustrated, you can use the information to broach delicate issues (both positive and negative).

Traditionally, previous suicide attempts are considered one of the strongest predictors of future suicidal behaviors. However, as with all risk factors, previous attempts should be considered within the idiosyncratic context of each individual client. Case example 10.2 provides a glimpse of a case where a previous attempt ends up serving as a protective factor, rather than a risk factor.

Case Example 10.2

Exploring Previous Attempts as a Method for Understanding Client Stressors and Coping Strategies

Exploring previous suicide attempts is an assessment process. It can illuminate past stressors, but it’s equally useful for helping clients articulate past, present, and future coping responses.

Therapist: You wrote on your intake form that you attempted suicide about a year and a half ago. Can you tell me a bit about that?

Client: Right. I shot myself in the head. It’s obvious. You can see the scar right here.

Therapist: What was happening in your life that brought you to that point?

Client: I was getting bullied in school. I hated my step-father. Life was shit, so one day after school I took the pistol out of my mom’s room, aimed at my head and shot.

Therapist: What happened then?

Client: I woke up in the hospital with a bad fucking headache. And then there was rehab. It was a long road, but here I am.

Therapist: Right. Here you are. What do you make of that?

Client: I’m lucky. I’m bad at suicide. I don’t know. I suppose I took it to mean that I’m supposed to be alive.

Therapist: Have you had any thoughts about suicide recently?

Client: Nope. Nada. Not one.

Therapist: I guess from what you said that getting bullied or having family issues could still be hard for you. How do you cope with that now?

Client: I’ve got some friends. I’ve got my sister. I talk to them. You know, after you do what I did, you find out who really cares about you. Now I know.

 

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Talking with Clients about Suicidal Thoughts and Feelings

fortunes

Spring is coming to the Northern Hemisphere. Along with spring, there will also be a bump in death by suicide. To help prepare counselors and clinicians to talk directly with clients about suicide, I’m posting an excerpt from the Clinical Interviewing text. The purpose is to help everyone be more comfortable talking about suicidal thoughts and feelings because the more comfortable we are, the more likely clients are to openly share their suicidal thoughts and feelings and that gives us a chance to engage them as a collaborative helper.

Here’s a link to the text https://www.amazon.com/Clinical-Interviewing-Video-Resource-Center/dp/1119084237/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

And here’s the excerpt:

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 se0em 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)

Three more examples of using a normalizing frame follow:

  • I’ve read that up to 50% of teenagers have thought about suicide. Is that true for you?
  • Sometimes when people are down or feeling miserable, they think about suicide and reject the idea or they think about suicide as a solution. Have you had either of these thoughts about suicide?
  • I have a practice of asking everyone I meet with about suicide and so I’m going to ask you: Have you had thoughts about death or suicide?

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 for you to sometimes think about suicide. 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.

 

The 6th Edition of Clinical Interviewing is Now Available

Way back in 1990, a university book salesman came by my faculty office at the University of Portland. He was trying to sell me some textbooks. When I balked at what he was offering, he asked, “Do you have any textbook ideas of your own?” I said something like, “Sure” or “As a matter of fact, I do.” He handed me his card and a paper copy of Allyn & Bacon’s proposal guidelines.

Not having ever written a book, I never thought they’d accept my proposal.

They did. But after three years, A & B dropped our text.

Lucky for us.

Two  years later, Rita and I decided to try to resurrect our Clinical Interviewing text. We polished up a proposal, sent it out to three excellent publishers, and immediately got contract offers from W. W. Norton, Guilford, and John Wiley & Sons.

We went with Wiley.

Here we are 18 years later in the 6th edition. It’s been fun and a ton of work. Over the past five years we’ve started recording video clips and interviewing demonstrations to go along with the text. For the 6th edition, we got some pretty fantastic reviews from some pretty fancy (and fantastic) people. Here they are:

“I’m a huge admirer of the authors’ excellent work.  This book reflects their considerable clinical experience and provides great content, engaging writing, and enduring wisdom.”
John C. Norcross, Ph.D., ABPP, Distinguished Professor of Psychology, University of Scranton

“The most recent edition of Clinical Interviewing is simply outstanding.  It not only provides a complete skeletal outline of the interview process in sequential fashion, but fleshes out numerous suggestions, examples, and guidelines in conducting successful and therapeutic interviews.  Well-grounded in the theory, research and practice of clinical relationships, John and Rita Sommers-Flanagan bring to life for readers the real clinical challenges confronting beginning mental health trainees and professionals.  Not only do the authors provide a clear and conceptual description of the interview process from beginning to end, but they identify important areas of required mastery (suicide assessment, mental status exams, diagnosis and treatment electronic interviewing, and work with special populations).  Especially impressive is the authors’ ability to integrate cultural competence and cultural humility in the interview process.  Few texts on interview skills cover so thoroughly the need to attend to cultural dimensions of work with diverse clients.  This is an awesome book written in an engaging and interesting manner.  I plan to use this text in my own course on advanced professional issues.  Kudos to the authors for producing such a valuable text.”
—Derald Wing Sue, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology and Education, Teachers College, Columbia University

“This 6th edition of Clinical Interviewing is everything we’ve come to expect from the Sommers-Flanagan team, and more!  Readers will find all the essential information needed to conduct a clinical interview, presented in a clear, straightforward, and engaging style.  The infusion of multicultural sensitivity and humility prepares the budding clinician not only for contemporary practice, but well into the future.  Notable strengths of the book are its careful attention to ethical practice and counselor self-care. The case studies obviously are grounded in the authors’ extensive experience and bring to life the complexities of clinical interviewing.  This is a ‘must-have’ resource that belongs on the bookshelf of every mental health counselor trainee and practitioner.”
Barbara Herlihy, PhD. NCC, LPC-S, University Research Professor, Counselor Education Program, University of New Orleans

You can check out the text on Amazon https://www.amazon.com/Clinical-Interviewing-John-Sommers-Flanagan/dp/1119215587/ref=dp_ob_title_bk  or Wiley http://www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-1119215587.html  or other major (and minor) booksellers.

 

 

A New Journal Article on Suicide Assessment Interviewing

Article · Oct 2016 · Professional Psychology Research and Practice
index

Suicide Assessment Powerpoints for MSU-Billings

I had a nice time today with the Student Health and Student Support staff of Montana State University Billings. Not only were they awesome, they were also awesomely dedicated to suicide prevention on their campus. Given that Spring is coming, that’s an excellent thing.

A link to the powerpoint for today’s talk is below:

MSU Billings Suicide Talk

Suicide Interventions for Mental Health Professionals

This is the second follow up post to the MUS Suicide Summit in Bozeman this past week. It focuses on specific suicide interventions. As I looked through this and the material in the previous post, it reminded me that Dr. Janet P. Wollersheim was a huge influential force in my understanding of suicide assessment. Thanks Dr. Wollersheim!

Suicide Interventions

The following sections consist of basic ideas about suicide intervention options during a suicide crisis. These guidelines are consistent with Shneidman’s (1996) excellent advice for therapists working with suicidal clients: “Reduce the pain; remove the blinders; lighten the pressure—all three, even just a little bit” (p. 139).

Listening and Being Empathic

The first rule of working therapeutically with suicidal clients is to listen empathically. Your clients may have never openly discussed their suicidal thoughts and feelings with another person. Use basic attending behaviors and listening responses (e.g., paraphrasing and reflection of feeling) to show your empathy for the depth of your clients’ emotional pain is a solid foundation.

Establishing a Therapeutic Relationship

A positive therapy relationship is important to successful suicide assessment and effective treatment. In crisis situations (e.g., suicide telephone hotline) there’s less time for establishing therapeutic relationships and more focus on applying interventions. However, whether you’re working in a crisis or therapy setting, you should still use relationship-building counseling responses as much as possible given the constraints of your setting.

Within the CAMS approach, assessment is used to help therapists understand “the idiosyncratic nature of the client’s suicidality, so that both parties can intimately appreciate the client’s suicidal pain and suffering” (Jobes et al., 2007, p. 287). At some point after you’ve “intimately appreciated” your client’s suicidality, you may then make an empathic statement to facilitate hope:

I hear you saying you’re terribly depressed. Despite those feelings, it’s important for you to know that most people who get depressed get over it and eventually feel better. The fact that we’re meeting today and developing a plan to help you deal with your emotional pain is a big step in the right direction.

Clients who are depressed or emotionally distressed may have difficulty remembering positive events or emotions (Lau et al., 2004). Therefore, although you can help clients focus on positive events and past positive emotional experiences, you also need empathy with the fact that it isn’t easy for most clients who are suicidal to recall anything positive.

Clinician: Can you think of a time when you were feeling better and tell me what was happening then?
Client: (in a barely audible voice) No. I don’t remember feeling better.
Clinician: That’s okay. It’s perfectly natural for people who are feeling depressed to not be able to remember positive times.

Suicidal clients also may have difficulty attending to what you’re saying. It’s important to speak slowly and clearly, occasionally repeating key messages.

Safety Planning

Helping clients develop practical plans for coping with and reducing psychological pain is central to suicide intervention. This plan can include relaxation, mindfulness, traditional meditation practices, cognitive restructuring, social outreach, and other strategies that increase self-soothing, decrease social isolation, improve problem-solving, and decrease feelings of being a social burden.
Instead of traditional no-suicide contracts, contemporary approaches emphasize obtaining a commitment to treatment statement from clients (Rudd et al., 2006). These treatment statements or plans go by various names including, “Commitment to Intervention,” “Crisis Response Plan,” “Safety Plan,” and “Safety Planning Intervention” (Jobes et al., 2008; Stanley & Brown, 2012). These statements describe activities that clients will do to address depressive and suicidal symptoms, rather than focusing narrowly on what the client will not do (i.e., commit suicide). These plans also include ways for clients to access emergency support after hours (such as the national suicide prevention lifeline (800) 273-TALK or a similar emergency crisis number.

Stanley and Brown (2005) developed a brief treatment for suicidal clients, called the Safety Planning Intervention (SPI). This intervention was developed from cognitive-therapy principles and can be used in hospital emergency rooms as well as inpatient and outpatient settings (Brown et al., 2005). The SPI includes six treatment components:

1. Recognizing warning signs of an impending suicidal crisis.
2. Employing internal coping strategies.
3. Utilizing social contacts as a means of distraction from suicidal thoughts.
4. Contacting family members or friends who may help to resolve the crisis.
5. Contacting mental health professionals or agencies.
6. Reducing the potential use of lethal means. (Stanley & Brown, 2012, p. 257)

Stanley and Brown (2012) noted that the sixth treatment component, reducing lethal means, isn’t addressed until the other five safety-plan components have been completed. Component six also may require assistance from family members or a friend, depending on the situation. All six of these components should be included in your documentation, including firearms management.

Identifying Alternatives to Suicide

Engaging in a debate about the acceptability of suicide or whether with clients with suicidal impulses “should” attempt suicide can backfire. Sometimes suicidal individuals feel so disempowered that they perceive the possibility of killing themselves as one of their few sources of control. Rather than argue, your focus is on helping clients identify methods for coping with suicidal impulses and find more desirable life alternatives. .

Suicidal clients may be unable to identify options to suicide. As Shneidman (1980) suggested, clients need help to “widen” their view of life’s options.

Shneidman (1980) wrote of a situation in which a pregnant teenager came to see him in suicidal crisis. She had a gun in her purse. He agreed with her that suicide was an option, while pulling out paper and a pen to write down alternatives to suicide. Shneidman generated most of the options (e.g., “You could have the baby and give it up for adoption”), while she systematically rejected them (“I can’t do that”). He wrote them down anyway, noting they were only making a list of options. Eventually, he handed her a list of options and asked her to rank her preferences. To both of their surprise, she indicated death by suicide was her third preferred option. They worked together to implement options one and two. Happily, she never needed to choose option three.

This is a straightforward intervention. You can practice it with your peers and implement it with suicidal clients. There’s always the possibility that clients will decide suicide is their #1 choice (at which point you’ve obtained important assessment information). However, it’s surprising how often suicidal clients, once they’ve had help expanding their mental constriction symptoms, discover more preferable options; options that involve embracing life.

Separating the Psychic Pain From the Self

Rosenberg (1999; 2000) wrote, “The therapist can help the client understand that what she or he really desires is to eradicate the feelings of intolerable pain rather than to eradicate the self” (p. 86). This technique can help suicidal clients because it provides empathy for their pain, while helping them see that their wish is for the pain, rather than the self, to stop existing.

Rosenberg (1999) also recommended helping clients reframe what’s usually meant by the phrase feeling suicidal. She noted that clients benefit from seeing their suicidal thoughts and impulses as a communication about their depth of feeling, rather than as an “actual intent to take action” (p. 86). Again, this approach can decrease clients’ needs to act on suicidal impulses, partly because of the cognitive reframe and partly because of the therapist’s empathic connection.

Becoming Directive and Responsible

Both ethically and legally, when clients are a clear danger to themselves, it’s the therapist’s responsibility to intervene and provide protection. This mandate means taking a directive role. You may have to tell the client what to do, where to go, and whom to call. It also may involve prescriptive therapeutic interventions, such as urging clients to get involved in daily exercise, recreational activities, church activities, or whatever is preventative based on their unique individual needs.

Clients who are acutely suicidal may require hospitalization. Many professionals view hospitalization as less than optimal, but if you have a client with acute suicide ideation, hospitalization may be your best alternative. If so, be positive and direct. Clients may have negative views of life inside a psychiatric hospital. Statements similar to the following can aid in beginning the discussion.

  • I wonder how you feel (or what you think) about staying in a hospital until you feel safer and more in control?
  • I think being in the hospital may be just the right thing for you. It’s a safe place. You can work on coping skills and on any medication adjustments you may need or want.

Linehan (1993) discussed several directive approaches for reducing suicide behaviors based on dialectical behavior therapy. She advocated:

  • Emphatically instructing the client not to commit suicide.
  • Repeatedly informing the client that suicide isn’t a good solution and that a better one will be found.
  • Giving advice and telling the client what to do when/if he or she is frozen and unable to construct a positive action plan.

These suggestions can give you a sense of how directive you may need to be when working with clients who are suicidal.

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R-I-P-SC-I-P: An Acronym for Remembering the Essential Components of a Suicide Assessment Interview

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.