Tag Archives: suicide

Bad News in Threes: Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain, and the CDC Suicide Report

Rainbow 2017

My mother always said, “Bad news comes in threes.” That concept, along with many of her other superstitions, never made much sense to me.

In truth, the bad news never stops. She knew that. I suppose that organizing bad news into groups of three offered hope that the suffering might soon end—at least until the next set of three bad things came round.

This week we’ve had bad news in waves, with three particular pieces distinctly linked to suicide. On Tuesday, there was fashion designer, Kate Spade. Yesterday, there was the release of a new CDC report on Suicide. And then this morning there was Anthony Bourdain.

When people like Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain die by suicide, it’s hard not to be mystified. By all measures, both Spade and Bourdain were highly successful. They were passionate and fully alive. The dynamics that may have led them to choose death are opaque. We can’t see these dynamics. They’re not obvious.

Another thing that’s not easily seen or especially obvious is the fact that, along with Spade and Bourdain, 865 other Americans will die by suicide this week. Let that number sink in. Many of these other American suicides will be military veterans. These 865 Americans may choose suicide for reasons similar or different than Spade and Bourdain. We can’t know the deeply personal reasons why individuals choose suicide.

In honor of my mother’s desire to manage bad news in groups of three, I’ve got some other threes to share:

Three Things to Remember About Suicide

  1. As Spade and Bourdain’s deaths illustrate, suicide is unpredictable. Many respected suicidologists have thrown suicide risk factors and warning signs into the trash bin. Because we may not know if someone is suicidal, our best strategy is to treat everyone with kindness, compassion, and respect. This approach is all about connecting with others in ways that are meaningful and authentic. Then, from the context of your interpersonal connection, if you suspect or intuit that suicide is possible, ask directly in a way that normalizes suicidal thinking. You might ask something like, “It’s not unusual for people to think about suicide. Has that been true for you?”
  2. As the CDC report highlights, a person’s mental health may or may not be linked to suicide. In the CDC’s analysis, about 54% of suicides were not associated with a known mental disorder or pre-suicide warning signs. This implies that thinking about suicide or acting on suicidal impulses may be something that arises from challenging life stresses or circumstances. This information also means that you shouldn’t blame yourself for suicide deaths. We imagine suicide to be a terrible tragedy for the person who dies, but it’s also a palpable tragedy for many survivors. Of course, if you knew a person who died by suicide you deeply wish you could have known the right thing to say or do to save that person’s life. But the reality is, suicide is unpredictable, and so you and I shouldn’t beat ourselves up over not being able to effectively intervene. If you feel guilty after a suicide, talk about your feelings with someone you trust. Although it’s natural to blame yourself, there’s no point in being alone with your guilt, so please reach out for support for yourself.
  3. The deaths of Spade and Bourdain bring suicide to the front and center of our national consciousness. Although it’s good to shine a light on suicide, the deaths of Spade and Bourdain overshadow the 865 other Americans who have or will die by suicide this week. Many of these Americans will not have sought help. The irony of not seeking help is that there are several excellent talk-therapies that specifically target suicide risk. These therapies can be highly effective. Hotlines are a fine first step and medications might help, but the interpersonal connection that comes with evidence-based talk therapies, is profoundly important to positive outcomes. Effective help is available. Let’s bring the evidence-based talk therapies front and center in our national consciousness also.

Three Evidence-Based Therapies

Here are links to the three top evidence-based therapies for suicide.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT): https://www.amazon.com/DBT%C2%AE-Skills-Training-Manual-Second/dp/1462516998/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1528498109&sr=1-1&keywords=linehan+suicide

Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicide (CAMS): https://www.amazon.com/Managing-Suicidal-Risk-Second-Collaborative/dp/146252690X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1528498077&sr=1-1&keywords=jobes

Cognitive Therapy for Suicide: https://www.amazon.com/Cognitive-Therapy-Suicidal-Patients-Applications/dp/1433804077/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1528497986&sr=1-4&keywords=cognitive+therapy+suicide

Three More Resources

The CDC Report, although depressing, includes excellent information. You can read it here: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/67/wr/mm6722a1.htm?s_cid=mm6722a1_w  You can also listen to or read an NPR interview with the report’s lead author, Deborah Stone, here: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/06/07/617897261/cdc-u-s-suicide-rates-have-climbed-dramatically

A while back I wrote an Op-Ed piece for the Missoulian newspaper. This Op-Ed emphasized core factors or dimensions that often drive suicidal behavior. Reading the article can give you a better understanding of suicide dynamics and could help you help others, but in no way will it make you capable of successfully preventing suicide amongst all of your family and friends. This article is available through the Missoulian: https://missoulian.com/news/opinion/columnists/suicide-prevention-ignore-the-math/article_ce3c7f1e-ab86-587e-9505-310cc00b3355.html

In January I had a suicide assessment and intervention article published in the Journal of Health Service Psychology. This article is a good resource for professionals who work with suicidal clients. It’s an easy read and might also be of interest to non-professionals seeking to understand more about how professionals work with suicidal people. 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/

I wish you all a weekend of connection and healing.

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An Early Peek at the Suicide Assessment and Intervention Video Project

Helicopter CroppedBack in March, 2012, I settled into a Starbucks in Vancouver, Washington to reflect on my experiences at the annual American Counseling Association conference in San Francisco. Memories of Dr. Irvin Yalom’s keynote bubbled up in my mind, so that’s what ended up in my fingers, on my screen, and in my blog.

Several days later, I got an email from a “Dr. Yalom.” Seeing the name, I immediately felt anxiety and anticipation. First thoughts, “I meant to be positive. I hope I didn’t write anything offensive?”

The email was from Dr. Victor Yalom. It was nice . . . and supportive . . . and positive . . . and a big relief.

Victor is the owner/publisher/president or grand sultan of psychotherapy.net. Psychotherapy.net is a publisher of psychotherapy training and continuing education materials, mostly videos. Over the past 6 years Victor and I have struck up a collegial friendship. He is the biggest fan and proponent of our Clinical Interviewing video series (which he sells through psychotherapy.net). After viewing the Clinical Interviewing video, he has repeatedly asked Rita and I about doing a video for psychotherapy.net. Unfortunately, the timing never worked out, until this past fall, when we agreed to collaborate on a six-hour suicide assessment and intervention training video.

As they say in the film industry, everything is in the can. We’re down to final editing and other details. We filmed in Missoula and Mill Valley. Rather than working directly with imminently suicidal clients, we got volunteers to channel previous or potential suicide-related experiences. All this is just my way of introducing this sneak peek into this upcoming video.

Of course, reading isn’t the same as watching, but the next 2,000 words can give you a glimpse of one of the cases featured on the video. The client is a young Native American man and veteran. Many cultural issues emerge during the session, along with suicide ideation. Here’s the clip, along with my side “commentary” in bold:

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John:            Cory, I know a little bit about you, but not very much. And so maybe the best place to start is for you to tell me some things about yourself, some things about how you’ve been feeling in your life, some things about the situations that you’ve been in, and maybe help me get a sense of how I might be of help.

Cory:            Yeah, I come from a small reservation in Eastern Montana, and I was kind of – it was a comfortable life growing up. I didn’t know anything different. And I remember sitting there with my family watching the war and kind of spurred us to want to help bring honor to our tribe. So, I signed up at 17.

John:            Yeah, what tribe?

Cory:            I’m from the Lakota Sioux tribe from the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.

John:            Okay. Great, thank you. Sorry.

Cory:            So, I left at 17, and it was kind of a big deal. We had a big honor, big gathering for me, big sendoff, and it was pretty great and feeling pretty good. Deployed when I was 18 years old over to Iraq. It was going great. I felt like I was doing something. I didn’t get to talk to my family much, maybe every three months. And I didn’t know what was going on at home. Had a fiancée when I left. Life was great. Eventually time to come home and came home. And my family’s kind of in disarray. My grandma died. I didn’t get to go to her funeral. They didn’t tell me.

John:            Yeah.

Cory:            So, kind of tore me up. My fiancée left me for one of my best friends, so that was the shock of my life.

John:            Yeah. So, at least at this point I’m hearing that you were on kind of a high and feeling good at 17, get a big sendoff from your tribe, from your family, and you go, and you go to Iraq. And you get back, and things are a mess.

Cory:            Yeah. Meth kind of hit our reservation pretty hard. And family members on meth and prison and kind of whole world changed, I guess. Eventually, I didn’t – just came back and started drinking. Not sure who I was anymore. So, that was difficult, didn’t have very many people to turn to anymore. Never had a father growing up. My mom was always raising us with a couple jobs. And eventually her and her boyfriend got into drugs, so that’s kind of pretty difficult. And I didn’t know what to do anymore. And I was kind of feeling down and just kept drinking, and I kind of don’t know what to do anymore. For us it’s a honor to serve and kind of makes us who we are.

John:            Yeah.

Cory:            We view it as becoming a warrior man.

John:            Yeah.

Cory:            And I felt like I did that, and I’d bring honor back to my culture, my tribe. Yeah, just I came home. Everything’s in disarray, and I thought I was pretty stable. Eventually – and one thing, on the reservation we don’t – or culturally we don’t talk about our feelings or emotions. So, every time we do, feel pretty shame. A lot of shame comes from it. So, it’s kind of you just deal with it.

John:            Yeah, yeah. Yeah, so a couple of cultural pieces. One is that sense of honor of serving, and you hooked onto that and were living that. And then another cultural thing is, it’s a little shameful to express emotions, sadness, that kind of emotion or others.

Cory:            Yeah, I mean, I guess I could just describe it as shame. Like I feel guilty talking about it because we’re supposed to be men.

John:            You’re warriors. You’re strong.

Cory:            Yeah.

John:            And so you keep it all –

Cory:            Yeah, it’s part of who we are, death, fighting, honor, celebrating together, just part of who we are.

John:            Yeah, yeah. And then as you get back, and you’re in this disarray, and the meth on your reservation is prevalent, and you start drinking, and it sounds like that could be connected with the emotional warrior. Is that one of the ways that you might cope?

Cory:            I guess I just – kind of just helped me feel nothing.

COMMENTARY: Cory has covered lots of ground quickly. He has articulated his collectivist identity. Knowing about his collectivist identity early in the session is a very good thing. He has also mentioned multiple stressors and losses; these stressors and losses are traditional risk factors and load onto the various risk dimensions. These include: coming back from war, being a veteran, loss and betrayal by his girlfriend, his grandmother’s death, the disarray of his tribal community from meth, and other issues. In addition, one immediate challenge that’s coming into my mind is how to address alcohol, because it’s a suicide desensitizer, but it’s also helping him “feel nothing” which is consistent with his cultural value of not expressing his feelings. At this point I’m choosing to build a relationship with Cory before jumping in and discussing alcohol directly.

John:            Okay.

Cory:            Just kind of, I guess, how I dealt with it because I couldn’t talk about stuff that happened over there, and I didn’t have no male role models in my life to kind of talk about culturally with or anything.

John:            Yeah. So, I’m aware of the fact that you’ve told me, and I really appreciate it, some cultural things about you, about being a Lakota Sioux, about the reservation that you grew up on and some of the things you experienced, about the honor, about the shame, about the warrior mentality. And I’m going to do my best to track all those things. Occasionally if you think I’m just not getting it from your cultural perspective, I would love it if you would tell me, but I don’t want to put all that responsibility on you. So, I will probably every once in a while just check in to see, am I getting this right? Is that okay with you if we –

Cory:            Yeah, that’s fine.

John:            Yeah, because I just don’t want to misunderstand things because of my lack of the same cultural experience as yours. And so as I’m imagining it, you’re back. You’re drinking. It’s part of being numb.

Cory:            Uh-huh.

John:            And getting rid of those emotions. And as you talk, one question that comes to mind to me, and my guess is that this would be a dishonorable thought to have, although not an abnormal thought because it’s not unusual when people come back and life is disappointing and hard, and you’re drinking, and you’re managing those emotions, it’s just not unusual to have a thought about suicide or about killing yourself. And my guess is that would be in opposition to your culture, too, but I don’t know.

Cory:            Yes and no. One way we look at is from we’ve had everything taken from us. That’s one thing you can’t take from us. Our life is ours to give to the Creator, to Wakan Tanka which is our God. So, when it’s our time, it’s kind of our choice.

John:            Okay.

Cory:            The sad thing about it is, I’m feeling down, and a lot of times like as I grew up I had – I was probably nine years old. My first friend committed suicide. And it brings the community together. We have big honoring, big feast for his family, for him, and just days of celebrating. It’s kind of like bring the family back together. I had another friend do it after that because he was – couldn’t graduate high school and didn’t have nobody there, and he wanted his family to come back together, so he committed suicide, just felt like it’s going to bring his family back together. And it did for a bit, but meth came in again, so it kind of tore it apart.

John:            Uh-huh.

John:            So, I’m hearing two suicides of people that you knew well around the time that you graduated high school?

Cory:            Oh, one was when I was 9, and a good friend was 16. And by the time I was 18, I probably lost maybe 7 friends from drinking and driving, drugs, stabbings. So, I guess to us, I mean, death is death, so it wasn’t really a big deal, kind of a celebration and we’ll see them again.

John:            Yeah. So, for each one the family celebrates, the community celebrates –

Cory:            Uh-huh.

John:            – the life. And sometimes it almost sounds like somebody might choose suicide as an effort, it sounds like, to pull the family together to get everybody closer.

Cory:            Yeah, I guess, too, they know people will care. Pretty big sense of hopelessness there. Not many people know where to turn.

John:            Yeah. Yeah, so that’s a lot of death that you saw even by the time you graduated high school. Have you had some thoughts of suicide yourself?

Cory:            Originally when I first came back, I did. I just didn’t know what to do anymore. Then I came to college, thought I was going to – wanted to do something honorable again. Again, big celebration and sent us off to college. And I get here, and things are going well at first. Then just the culture differences, like nobody understood me, didn’t know what to do. I was doing all right in classes, but I just kind of couldn’t fit in, didn’t feel like anybody understood me. I mean, they’re all pretty nice guys and gals. I could tell they were trying to, but just something I knew they didn’t.

And then now things are getting bad again. I’m trying to sleep at night. Yeah, just every time I go to sleep, I remember one time in Iraq we were sitting there, and they decided – well, I guess Al-Qaeda, they blew a whole street, whole city block, and it just – I mean, every building came down. And we were there trying to help, and you had kids with missing arms and missing eyes and moms with no legs and crying, screaming. We were trying help as best we can, and same time people shooting at us and just didn’t know what to do.

My friend’s crying. Like why the fuck are we here? Like what are we doing here? Like this isn’t what we – not what we’re here for. Yeah, I just remember a mom with no leg carrying her helpless child just in her arms, and the child was dead. I mean, just every time I go to sleep, I just remember that kid helpless laying there. And so I’m not sleeping much, a lot of drinking still. I guess I don’t know what to do anymore.

COMMENTARY: It’s not unusual for suicidal clients to present with a vast array of psychological pain. That can be overwhelming to the client and to the therapist. Cory has shared several layers of unresolved grief, traumatic war memories. The number of people whom he has known who have died by suicide is immense. Additionally, because of his cultural norms of stoicism, I’m wanting to address these parts of his experience, while not activating intense emotions. my strategy has been and will be to use reflection of content, to avoid reflecting back strong emotions like sadness or anger, to keep his collectivist perspective in mind, and to take notes in a way so that he and I can take a more intellectual and problem-solving approach to working with him on his experiences.

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If you made it this far, a big congratulations. Acquiring skills to work effectively with clients who are suicidal is challenging, but dealing with the emotions that come up is probably even more difficult. The purpose of this training video (when it becomes available) is to help practitioners obtain knowledge, learn skills, and refine their awareness of the inner and interpersonal dynamics associated with suicide assessment and intervention. When I have more information on the video’s availability, I’ll let you know.

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

Eight Core Conditions that Often Contribute to Suicide

Rainbow 2017Many professionals and media sources have proclaimed that suicide is a 100% preventable problem. Although I completely disagree with that message—and find it terribly offensive—I also believe that we should do what we can to prevent suicide.

Recently I was asked to write a journal article summarizing the conditions or dimensions that commonly contribute to suicide. To give you a flavor of these dimensions, below I’ve included brief descriptions of each one. However, I also want to emphasize that suicidologists and suicide researchers agree that death by suicide is nearly always unpredictable. Suicide is unpredictable despite the fact that, afterwards, many people and professionals will feel as though they should have “seen the signs” and done something more to prevent the death.

Knowing the following eight dimensions is useful when they’re used to enhance your compassion and capacity to collaborate with individual clients and persons. They’re not designed to be used as suicide risk factors or predictors.

Here are the eight dimensions.

Unbearable Psychological/Emotional Distress (Shneidman’s Psychache)

Shneidman (1985) originally identified “psychache” as the central psychological force leading to suicide. He defined psychache as negative emotions and psychological pain, referring to it as “the dark heart of suicide; no psychache, no suicide” (p. 200). In more modern patient-oriented language, psychache is aptly described as unbearable emotional distress. Unbearable distress can involve many factors, or center around one main trauma, loss, or other psychologically activating experiences; it may be accompanied by distinct cognitive, emotional, or physical symptoms.

Problem-Solving Impairment (Shneidman’s Mental Constriction)

Depression or low mood is commonly associated with problem-solving impairments. Originally, Shneidman called these impairments mental constriction, and defined them as “a pathological narrowing of the mind’s focus . . . which takes the form of seeing only two choices: either something painfully unsatisfactory or cessation” (1984, pp. 320–321). Researchers have reported support for Shneidman’s original ideas about mental constriction (Ghahramanlou-Holloway et al., 2012; Lau, Haigh, Christensen, Segal, & Taube-Schiff, 2012).

Agitation or Arousal (Shneidman’s Perturbation)

Agitation or arousal is consistently associated with death by suicide (Ribeiro, Silva, & Joiner, 2014). Shneidman (1985) originally used the term perturbation to refer to internal agitation that moves patients toward suicidal acts. When combined with high psychological distress and impaired problem-solving, agitation or arousal seems to push patients toward acting on suicide as a solution to their distress. Trauma, insomnia, drug use (including starting on a trial of serotonin-reuptake inhibitors), and many other factors can elevate agitation (Healy, 2009).

Thwarted Belongingness and Perceived Burdensomeness

Joiner (2005) developed an interpersonal theory of suicide. Part of his theory includes thwarted belongingness and perceived burdensomeness as contextual interpersonal factors linked to suicide. Thwarted belongingness involves unmet wishes for social connection. Perceived burdensomeness occurs when patients see themselves as flawed in ways that make them a burden to others.

Hopelessness

Hopelessness is a broad cognitive variable related to problem-solving impairment and linked to elevated suicide risk (Hagan, Podlogar, Chu, & Joiner, 2015; Strosahl, Chiles, & Linehan, 1992). Hopelessness is the belief that whatever distressing life conditions might be present will never improve. In many cases, patients hold a hopeless view—even when a rational justification for hope exists.

Suicide Desensitization

Joiner (2005) and Klonsky and May (2015) have described how fear of death or aversion to physical pain is a natural suicide deterrent present in most individuals. However, at least two situations or patterns can desensitize patients to suicide and reduce natural suicide deterrence. First, some patients may be predisposed to high pain tolerance. This predisposition is likely biogenetic, as in blood-injury phobias (Klonsky & May, 2015). Second, patients may acquire, through desensitization, a numbness that reduces natural fears of pain and suicide. Chronic pain, self-mutilation, and other experiences can be desensitizing.

Suicide Plan or Intent

In and of itself, suicide ideation is a poor predictor of suicide. Nevertheless, ideation is an important marker to explore with patients; exploring ideation can lead to asking directly about whether patients have a suicide plan. Suicide plans may or may not be associated with suicide intent. Some patients will keep a potential suicide plan on reserve, just in case their psychological pain grows unbearable. These patients do not intend to die by suicide, but they want the option and sometimes they have thought through the method(s) they might employ.

Lethal Means

Access to a lethal means is a situational dimension that substantially contributes to suicide risk. Firearms are far and away the most lethal suicide method. Specifically, Swanson, Bonnie, and Appelbaum (2015) reported that firearms result in an 84% case fatality rate. Although firearms can quickly become a politicized issue in the U.S., researchers have repeatedly found that access to firearms greatly magnifies suicide risk (Anestis & Houtsma, 2017).

 

Straight Talk About Suicide Prevention

Gorge Chairs

From 13 Reasons Why, to Chris Cornell’s recent death, issues pertaining to suicide have been in our face this month. This is no surprise. May (late spring in the Northern hemisphere) is nearly always the month with the highest suicide rates.

That’s why right now is an excellent time for some straight talk about suicide.

Suicide is an emotionally triggering topic that’s notoriously difficult to talk or write about. Most of us know people who have been suicidal. Some of us know people who have died by suicide. Still others who read this may be having suicidal thoughts in this moment, or may have made suicide attempts in the past. Talking and writing about suicide is unpleasant, but necessary.

Because suicide is difficult to talk about, myths and misconceptions flourish. Not talking (or writing) about suicide also makes it harder to keep tabs on the latest research. Sometimes, leading professional journals neglect publishing new articles on suicide for a decade or more. This brings me to my purpose. To bust a few stubborn suicide-related myths and provide a glimpse at recent research on suicide prevention.

Let’s begin with now.

It’s a beautiful green spring in Montana with brilliant white snow in the mountains. Despite this beauty and brilliance, suicide rates rise in the spring and early summer and drop in fall and winter. Most people think the opposite is true, but every year, late spring and early summer bring the highest rates. Why? There are theories, but unfortunately, “we don’t know” is the answer to this and many questions related to suicide. I’m starting with this misconception to illustrate how easy it is to get the even the simplest facts related to suicide completely wrong.

One of the most insidious and unhealthy myths about suicide is the promotion of the idea that suicidal thoughts and impulses represent deviance or indicate the presence of a mental disorder. Once again, although many think it so, this idea is also untrue. Suicidal thoughts are a normal and natural response to psychological distress and misery. Social disconnection (relationship break-ups, death of a loved one, or other relationship problems) also can trigger suicidal thoughts in so-called “normal” people.

Our entire culture needs to stop classifying suicidal thoughts as automatic deviance. At one point or another, most people contemplate suicide, at least briefly. That fact pretty much blows the whole idea of suicidal thoughts as deviance right out of the metaphorical water.

Suicidal thoughts can be associated with specific mental disorders, but they are not, in and of themselves, signs of a mental disorder. In a recent large scale study, it was reported that mental disorders and suicidal thoughts weren’t useful in determining which individuals would eventually make suicide attempts.

Believing that suicidal thoughts represent a mental disorder isn’t just untrue, it’s also unhelpful. People who are suicidal, don’t need the public or professionals to make them feel worse by implying that their suicidal thoughts represent some form of illness.

Another surprising research finding is that, in general, suicide warning signs and suicide risk factors are  unhelpful. This is true despite the fact that following a death by suicide, one of the first messages you’ll hear in the media is how important it is to watch for specific suicide warning signs. Unfortunately, like many things related to suicide, this is both good and bad advice. It’s good advice in that it’s always important to notice when friends, family, coworkers, and strangers are in distress and to do what we can to be comforting. But it’s also bad advice. Pointing the public or professionals toward warning signs implies that scientifically-based warning signs exist. They don’t.

There’s no science that supports the usefulness of warning signs or risk factors. This may seem discouraging, but it shouldn’t, because it leads to ONE BIG EXCELLENT CONCLUSION. That is, we should all try to offer support, empathy, and compassion to everyone. The take-home message is, don’t wait to encounter a suicidal person to unleash your kind and compassionate side. You should be leading with that. All. The. Time.

Chew on this idea for a moment. We’re stuck. If we’re interested in suicide prevention (or in having healthy relationships), our best default response is to treat everyone with kindness, respect, and empathy. I understand that’s impossible and I understand that you may think there are some exceptions to universal compassion. But we should try to lead with kindness, respect, and empathy anyway.

A good thing about having a general philosophy of kindness and compassion is that it helps suicidal people trust you. It will be harder for them to conclude, “This person is just being nice because I’m suicidal.” Instead, you’ll be treating everyone with kindness and empathy simply because that’s the sort of world you’re creating around you.

Another common suicide myth is that asking about suicide might somehow put the idea of suicide into someone’s head. Not true. Most people who are suicidal feel relieved and appreciative if you ask them about it in a nonjudgmental way. And, if you ask someone and they aren’t suicidal, well, the point is that people are highly resilient. They’re not so fragile that posing a short inquiry about suicide suddenly becomes life threatening. The other point is that you should ask with kindness and compassion. Even better, you should normalize the question by saying something like, “It’s not unusual for someone in your situation to have thoughts about suicide. I’m wondering if you’ve been having suicidal thoughts?” Making a statement that normalizes (rather than pathologizes) suicidal thoughts can make it easier to for people to talk more openly . . . and when people who are suicidal are talking openly, it will be easier for you to be helpful.

As if it weren’t already hard enough, another thing that’s especially complex is that when people are contemplating suicide, they often have strong negative reactions to infringements on their personal freedoms. This is partly why telling someone, you shouldn’t or can’t choose suicide, is a bad idea. Well-meaning helpers who push people too hard away from suicidal thoughts and toward embracing life can come across as “not understanding.” This could trigger an oppositional response. The person you want to help might either stop talking about it (but keep thinking about it) or feel an urge to oppose all suicide prevention or intervention efforts.

It’s not unusual for suicidal people to feel interpersonally isolated, disconnected, or as if they’re a burden to family, friends, and society. This makes connecting with them all the more important. It’s unfortunate, but people experiencing depression can be rather irritable or unappreciative of your efforts to listen and help. When you express concern, they might say something nasty in response. If so, let go of your needs for feeling appreciated; listen and be supportive anyway.

People who are suicidal can have difficulty problem-solving in a way that reflects hopefulness. Who wouldn’t have trouble being optimistic after experiencing repeated misery? This is why it’s important to problem-solve WITH people who are suicidal. Don’t usurp their control; lend another perspective. Part of this perspective might be the simple message that suicide is always an alternative, but that it’s important to wait and try as many other alternatives as possible.

Often, the response to your problem-solving efforts will be something like, “I’ve tried everything and nothing helps.” Again, we need to understand that when someone is suicidal, this is how it feels! At this point, acknowledge that right now it feels like nothing could possibly help. But at the same time, it’s okay to say things like, “I want you to live.”

If you’re problem-solving with someone who is suicidal, it’s also important to be persistent. Try saying something like, “Let’s make a list of everything you’ve tried, starting with whatever was the worst and most unhelpful idea ever.” Starting with what was unhelpful can resonate with the person’s pessimistic mood and help you identify something that’s at least not the worst option on the planet.

Chris Cornell’s recent death by suicide is a reminder of how specific medications can sometimes increase an individual’s agitation and/or suicidal thoughts. He was taking Ativan (Lorazepam). Ativan is a benzodiazepine (like Xanax and Valium). IMHO (and the science supports this), benzos are very bad medications to use for anything other than very short-term treatment. The bottom line is that sometimes (not always) psychiatric medications are not a part of the suicide solution and can become part of the suicide problem.

Among other things, Thirteen Reasons Why is a reminder of how easy it is for people to feel tremendously guilty when someone dies by suicide. Twenty-six years later, I still feel guilt over the death of a boy with whom I was working. Was it my fault? Absolutely not. Do I still feel bad? Absolutely yes.

Death by suicide is a tragedy. I’m tempted to say that it’s always a tragedy, but I recognize that when it comes to humans and humanity, using the terms always and never is dicey.

Some individuals are living with what they experience as intolerable physical, psychological, or emotional suffering. For their loved ones it’s likely still a tragedy when they die by suicide, but is it a tragedy for them? It’s hard to rule out the possibility that death by suicide may represent solace for them.

Suicide is a very personal option on the palette of human choice. For example, I want people to live. I want to help them reduce their psychological pain, make positive relationship connections, and re-engage in activities they find meaningful. But even so, sometimes suicide happens anyway. This is deeply painful and the guilt can be enormous. If someone close to you dies by suicide or you’re feeling affected by any suicide-related event, please find someone to talk with. One of my former clients once said, “The mind is a terrible place . . . to go alone.” Find someone you can trust and share any dark thoughts you might be having. Deal with it. Don’t let your guilt and angst simmer.

To summarize, suicide rates are highest right now. Does that mean we can relax later? Of course not. Suicide risk factors and warning signs are mostly useless and so we should treat people with respect and compassion all the time. When needed, we should ask the suicide question directly and with a spirit of non-judgmental normality. When possible, we should help people with suicidal thoughts identify options that might move them toward feeling better, while acknowledging that suicide is an option. We need to remember that sometimes medications can make suicidality worse. Perfect prevention is impossible. Suicide may happen despite our best efforts. Dealing with guilt over a suicide takes time and requires support.

No one will be completely happy with the ideas I’ve written here. That’s good. Individual reactions to suicide issues are unique. If you want to argue with or improve on these ideas, feel free to engage in the conversation. Using an attitude of kindness and respect, let’s keep talking about suicide. Right now, that’s the best solution we have to our suicide problem. In fact, it may be the best solution we’ll ever have.

To check out my recent professional journal article in Professional Psychology, click here: SF and Shaw Suicide 2017

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.