Tag Archives: suicide

Suicide Assessment and Intervention for the 21st Century

This past year, Alexander Street Press has been filming and producing a number of Ted-like talks focusing on counseling and psychotherapy. These are 15 minute talks, followed by a short Q & A on the topic. Below is a transcript from a talk I gave this summer in their studio at Governor’s State University in Chicago. I’m posting this talk in honor of National Suicide Prevention Day. This talk, and another couple dozen talks, should be available later this year or early next year from Alexander Street Press: http://search.alexanderstreet.com/counseling-therapy

Here’s the transcript:

Ironically I usually feel happy when I’m asked to do a talk on suicide and then I start with great confidence. I think it’s because suicide is such an extremely important and stressful issue for mental health professionals. But once I dive into the content, I remember how difficult this topic is. During one public presentation a therapist-friend of mine walked out because, as he told me later, the content was hitting too close to home. So please, as you listen, take care of yourself and talk to friends and colleagues for support.

To be perfectly honest, I DON’T REALLY LIKE to talk about suicide, but I think it’s VERY IMPORTANT that we do so directly . . . with each other and with our clients . . . and so here we go.

Death by suicide is pretty rare. Every year, only about 1 in 10,000 Americans commit suicide.

Despite its low frequency, suicide is still a major social problem that affects nearly everyone in one way or another. Over the years you’ve probably heard of many famous people who died by suicide. Marilyn Monroe and Kurt Cobain are two prime examples.

Perhaps even more important is the problem of suicide attempts. About 10% of the human population has attempted suicide and about 20% report struggling with suicidal thoughts and impulses. In surveys of high school students about 50% report “thinking about suicide.”

To summarize what we know about suicide base rates we can say:
I. Death by suicide is infrequent
II. Suicide attempts are NOT infrequent. In fact, many people attempt suicide and then go on to lead happy and meaningful lives
III. Suicide ideation (thoughts) are common
IV. And this is what makes suicide prediction very difficult, because it occurs so infrequently, but this is also what makes suicide prevention very necessary.

In 1991, I worked with a young man who ended up killing himself. This was a tragedy and I remember feeling that gut-wrenching guilt and regret that really stays with you a long time. Afterwards, my consultation group quizzed me and declared that I had done what I could, following all the standard and customary professional suicide assessment procedures. But in my mind and in my heart, then and now, I know I could have done better.

You see back in 1991, professionals (and the public) lived by a big suicide-related myth. We generally viewed suicidal thoughts as DEVIANCE. And so, when clients talked of suicide, it was our job to take action to assess and intervene to eliminate the suicidal thoughts.

This way of thinking about suicide is unhelpful. It creates distance between the professional therapist and his or her client; it also takes power away from clients. And so it’s NOW TIME FOR US TO BUST THE BIG SUICIDE MYTH.

NO LONGER should we consider suicidal thoughts and impulses simply as SIGNS OF DEVIANCE. Instead, we should view suicidal thoughts and impulses as normal signs of human distress. THIS IS THE NEW – and the more accurate – REALITY

Let’s take a minute now to contrast traditional and contemporary or post-modern suicide assessment and intervention approaches. The old Narrative is sort of a checklist approach where we emphasize risk factors, diagnostic interviewing, and no-suicide contracts. The New Narrative is different; it involves looking for protective factors, client strengths, normalizing suicide ideation, and initiating a collaborative safety plan.

This is what I wish I’d understood back in 1991. And so I’d like to be more specific about what I would have done differently and what all mental health professionals should be doing differently.
I wish I had asked more about his protective factors. Protective factors are things like reasons for living and so I wish I’d been more courageous in sitting with him and exploring the reasons why he wanted to live. I wish I’d asked him, over and over, what would or what could help him want to live.

I wish I had asked him more directly about what would help him control his suicide impulses. I would have asked him who he wanted around to help him. I would have lingered on this and asked, who else, what if that person can’t be there, who else would be your next choice to turn to for help.

One of the big changes in the suicide intervention field is that we no longer ask clients to sign No-Suicide contracts. Instead, we work to collaboratively develop a safety plan. As a part of this different focus, I wish I had clearly and unequivocally said to him: “I WANT YOU TO LIVE.” This is different than arguing with clients about their right or need to commit suicide. We should never argue against suicide because that can activate client resistance and make the act even more likely. But the language, “I WANT YOU TO LIVE” is just a self-disclosure and is therefore unarguable. It clearly communicates the intent to help.

Overall, I should have been MORE BALANCED and asked about what my client was doing when his depressive symptoms were gone. I should have asked about what he hoped for today and tomorrow and into the future. I should have asked him more about what brought a little light into his darkness. We should have brainstormed how to bring the light in when he was feeling down.
One problem with the old No-Suicide contracts is that clients sometimes viewed them as designed more to protect the counselor than the client. Obviously this is backward and not the sort of message we want to give clients who are suicidal. And so no-suicide contracts are out . . . and collaborative safety plans are in. What this requires is for counselors to dig in deeper and explore together specifically what the client is willing to do if the suicidal impulses come.

And now, because this talk is all about balancing negative and positive and I want to give an example of two suicide interventions, I’m going to share a positive story about suicide. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that, because now you already know there’s a happy ending. Oh well. Having a happy ending story is a good thing when you’re doing a suicide presentation.

About 5pm one evening I was about to head home and got a call from an alcohol and drug prevention organization across the street from where I was working. A suicidal 16-year-old had suddenly walked into their agency and they had no professional therapists on staff. They asked me to come over and help. I went right over and sat down with the girl in their lobby. We talked a while and she said she had left the local psychiatric unit and was planning to kill herself by jumping off a bridge about a quarter mile away. I listened and then began a specific suicide intervention developed by Edwin Shneidman, well-known as the father of suicidology. I said something like, “So you want to kill yourself. That’s one option, but let’s look at some others.” She said she wasn’t interested in any other options, but I got out a sheet of paper and wrote down “Kill myself” in the left hand column and asked her for other options. She said, “I don’t have any other options.” I said, how about going back to the hospital?” She said, “No way.” I said, that’s okay, we’re just making a list. Got any ideas? She said nothing. I said, “How about some family therapy?” She said, “No way.” I said, “Okay. I’ll write it down anyway because we’re just making a list. You don’t have to do any of these things.” Over time, I came up with about eight ideas of what she might do instead of kill herself, but she hadn’t come up with any. But the purpose of the intervention I was using was to address what Shneidman calls mental constriction. Mental constriction occurs when suicidal individuals are feeling so stressed and miserable that all they can consider is continued misery or death by suicide. With this intervention, I was working on opening up her mental blinders so she could see and consider alternatives to suicide. And so despite the fact that she didn’t generate or endorse any of the alternatives, I handed her the sheet of paper and asked her to rank order her preferences. And somewhat to my surprise, she ranked “Kill myself” as number three. There were two other options she preferred over suicide. I went for that and asked how I could help her get family therapy, which was her first choice. She re-escalated and headed out the door and down the street toward the bridge. I followed and walked with her and talked on and on about how “I want you to live.” She eventually got to the corner where we would cross the street to get on the bridge and I said I was stopping there. She stopped too and I reached out and grabbed her hand. She pulled back and yelled at me for touching her. Then I tried another specific suicide intervention, called Neodissociation. I said, “I know somewhere inside there’s a part of you that wants to live a happy and healthy life. Please, I want that part of you to just reach out and take my hand and walk with me back to the office so we can get you the help you deserve. She stared at me, reached out, took my hand, and then walked back to the office where I called the police and they took her back to the hospital.

[Insert big sigh here].

About two months later, I got a card from her that read, “The only bridges in my life now are bridges to health and happiness.” Now that’s a pretty good ending, but there’s more.

About six months later I asked her therapist if he thought it would be okay for me to interview her about what she thought was most helpful to her in choosing life over suicide. He asked her and then she came to my office for a short video interview. I remember asking her what was most helpful and she said she had a great student nurse at the hospital who was “Fresh” and genuine and that had helped a lot. Then I asked her what had helped her come with me on that first night we’d met. She said, “I’m not sure.” Eager for affirmation, I asked if it was when I used the neodissociation technique and she responded, “No way. That was really stupid.” Then she spontaneously said that she thought it was the look on my face, when I stopped and said I would go no further. She said that—in that moment—I looked like I really cared.

And so that’s the suicide story I prefer to remember.

Speaking of remembering, let’s review the main points.

In summary, there are three main modifications to the traditional approach, which I sometimes call the NEW MANTRA.
• There’s NO MORE BIG MYTH and so we normalize suicidal thoughts and impulses to counter our client’s feelings of deviance; they already feel deviant enough, we don’t need to add to that.
• Collaborate with clients. . . and be sure to do so from a place of genuine caring. It’s okay to say: “I WANT YOU TO LIVE” while collaboratively developing a safety plan.
• Use strength-based questioning, focusing on hope instead of hopelessness; meaning instead of meaninglessness.
• And of course, as always, like all good professionals, consult and document.

I’d like to end with a comment on self-care. As you can see in the final photo, my two daughters are engaged in what appears to be rather bizarre human behavior. I like to think of this as the one daughter performing a helpful “Pit-Check” for the other. We all need that and we especially need that when we’re working with clients who are suicidal. We need to keep talking and asking, “How am I doing?” We need to check up and check in with our colleagues and take very good care of ourselves because although the work we’re doing is essential . . . it can also be terribly stressful to face alone.

This reminds me of what another client once said to me. He said: The mind is a terrible place to go . . . alone . . . which is why we should keep on talking—directly to each other and to our clients—about suicide and suicide prevention.

Thanks for listening.

IS PATH WARM – An Acronym to Guide Suicide Risk Assessment

Suicide Risk Factors, Acronyms, and the Evidence Base

[This is adapted from our forthcoming 5th edition of Clinical Interviewing]

In 2003, the American Association of Suicidology brought together a group of suicidologists to examine existing research and develop an evidence-based set of near-term signs or signals of immediate suicide intent and risk. These suicidologists came up with an acronym to help professionals and the public better anticipate and address heightened suicide risk. The acronym is: IS PATH WARM and it’s outlined below:

I = Ideation

S = Substance Use

P = Purposelessness

A = Anxiety

T = Trapped

H = Hopelessness

W = Withdrawal

A = Anger

R = Recklessness

M = Mood Change

        IS PATH WARM is typically referred to as evidence-based and, in fact, it was developed based on known risk factors and warning signs. Unfortunately, reminiscent of other acronyms used to help providers identify clients at high risk for suicide, in the only published study we could find that tested this acronym, IS PATH WARM failed to differentiate between genuine and simulated suicide notes (Lester, McSwain, & Gunn, 2011). Although this is hardly convincing evidence against the use of this acronym, it illustrates the inevitably humbling process of trying to predict or anticipate suicidal behavior. In conclusion, we encourage you to use the acronym in conjunction with the comprehensive and collaborative suicide assessment interviewing process described in our chapter in the Clinical Interviewing textbook. See: http://www.amazon.com/Clinical-Interviewing-2012-2013-John-Sommers-Flanagan/dp/1118390113/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1373655813&sr=1-1

After talking about IS PATH WARM in workshops over the past year or so, it seems important to emphasize that these “risk” factors are near-term risk factors. Other, very important longer-term risk factors, are not included. For example, previous attempts and clinical depression aren’t even on the list. And, although they include withdrawal, it seems that words like isolation or loneliness capture this dimension of risk at least as well.

The point of my criticism is to emphasize that even the best suicidologists on the planet struggle in their efforts to identify the most important immediate and longer-term suicide risk factors. This is primarily because suicide is nearly always unpredictable and one of the reasons that it’s unpredictable is because it occurs, on average in the U.S. in 13 people per 100,000. The other side of this dialectical coin is that, of course, we need to try to predict it and prevent it anyway.

You can check out more details about IS PATH WARM on many different internet sites, including a description of its origin provided by the American Association of Suicidology: http://www.suicidology.org/c/document_library/get_file?folderId=231&name=DLFE-598.pdf

Information on Suicide Interventions for Counselors

The following information is excerpted from the soon-to-be-forthcoming 5th edition of Clinical Interviewing, published by John Wiley & Sons. This includes information that I didn’t get a chance to cover during my ACA pre-conference Learning Institute yesterday. For information on the Clinical Interviewing text, see:  http://www.amazon.com/Clinical-Interviewing-John-Sommers-Flanagan/dp/1118270045/ref=dp_ob_title_bk

Safety Planning

The primary thought disorder in suicide is that of a pathological narrowing of the mind’s focus, called constriction, which takes the form of seeing only two choices; either something painfully unsatisfactory or cessation of life. (Shneidman, 1984, pp. 320–321)

Helping clients develop a thoughtful and practical plan for coping with and reducing psychological pain is a central component in suicide interventions. This plan can include relaxation, mindfulness, traditional meditation practices, cognitive restructuring, social outreach, and other strategies that increase self-soothing, decrease social isolation, and decrease the sense of being a social burden (Joiner, 2005).

Instead of the traditional approach of implementing no-suicide contracts, contemporary approaches emphasize obtaining a commitment to treatment statement from the client (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); they’re more comprehensive and positive in that they describe activities that clients will do to address their 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 1(800) 273-TALK or a similar emergency crisis number; Doreen Marshall, personal communication, September 30, 2012).

As a specific safety planning example, Stanley and Brown (2005) developed a brief treatment for suicidal clients, called the Safety Planning Intervention (SPI). This intervention was developed from evidence-based 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.

Identifying Alternatives to Suicide

Suicide is a possible alternative to life. Engaging in a debate about the acceptability of suicide or whether with clients with suicidal impulses “should” seek death by suicide can backfire. Sometimes suicidal individuals feel so disempowered that the threat or possibility to take their own life is perceived as one of their few sources of control. Consequently, our main job is to help identify methods for coping with suicidal impulses and to identify life alternatives that are more desirable than death by suicide—rather than taking away clients’ rights to consider death by suicide.

Suicidal clients often suffer from mental constriction and problem-solving deficits; they’re unable to identify options to suicide. As Shneidman (1980) suggested, clients need help to improve their mood, regain hope, take off their constricting mental blinders, and “widen” their view of life’s options.

Shneidman (1980) wrote of a situation where a pregnant suicidal teenager came to see him in a suicidal crisis. She said she had a gun in her purse. He conceded to her that suicide was an option, while pulling out paper and a pen to write down other life options. Together, they generated 8-10 alternatives to suicide. Even though Shneidman generated most of the options and she rejected them, he continued writing them down, noting they were only options. Eventually, he handed the list over to her and asked her to rank order her preferences. It was surprising to both of them that she selected death by suicide as her third preferred option. As a consequence, together they worked to implement options one and two and happily, she never needed to choose option three.

This is a practical approach that you can practice with your peers and implement with suicidal clients. Of course, there’s always the possibility that clients will decide suicide is the best choice (at which point you’ve obtained important assessment information). However, it is surprising how often suicidal clients, once they’ve experienced this intervention designed to address their mental constriction symptoms, discover other, more preferable options that involve embracing life.

Separating the Psychic Pain From the Self

Rosenberg (1999; 2000) described a helpful cognitive reframe intervention for use with suicidal clients. She 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 much needed empathy for the clients’ psychic pain, while at the same time helping them see that their wish is for the pain to stop existing, not for the self to stop existing.

Similarly, Rosenberg (1999) recommended that therapists help 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 an “actual intent to take action” (p. 86). Once again, this approach to intervening with suicidal clients can decrease clients’ needs to act, partly because of the elegant cognitive reframe and partly because of the therapist’s empathic message.

And here’s a photo of the cover of the Tough Kids, Cool Counseling book. You can get this through ACA or on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Tough-Kids-Cool-Counseling-User-Friendly/dp/1556202741/ref=la_B0030LK6NM_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1363881381&sr=1-3

Tough Kids Image

Webinar Reflections and a Suicide Myth Quiz

Last week I had the privilege of doing a Wiley Faculty Network Webinar on Teaching Suicide Assessment to graduate students in counseling and psychology. It was a first webinar experience for me and I have a few reflections and a suicide myth quiz from the webinar.

Observation #1: When doing Webinars, keep your eyes on your content (and not the “news feed” with names of friends and colleagues making interesting comments). If you watch the comments you will sound dull and slow – sort of like people sound when they’re talking to you on the phone while watching an engaging television show or surfing the internet.

Observation #2: There are lots of faculty and graduate students out there who want to do their best to help others through suicidal crises. This is very cool. I am always a little verklempt (sp) about how many kind and helpful people there are out there in the world.

Now . . . here’s the suicide quiz. Let’s see how you do. Answer the following True or False. The answers are at the bottom.

  1. Suicide rates are typically highest in rainy and cloudy climates, like Seattle, the Northeast, and the United Kingdom.
  2. Suicide rates are typically highest in the Winter months, especially around the holidays. 
  3. Antidepressant medications (i.e., SSRIs like prozac and celexa) can REDUCE a client’s suicidal impulses.
  4. Antidepressant medications (i.e., SSRIs like prozac and celexa) can INCREASE a client’s suicidal impulses.
  5. Suicide rates in the U.S. are usually higher than homicide rates.
  6. The most common means of suicide among females is firearms.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Answers

 

  1. False.  In the U.S., every year the highest rates are nearly always in Montana, Alaska, Wyoming, and Nevada – and the lowest rates are in the cloudy Northeast
  2. False:  U.S. Suicide rates are nearly always highest in the Spring (April and May, in particular; Mondays have highest rates and Saturdays lowest and, surprisingly, December has the lowest rates).
  3. True:  Yes, there is evidence that antidepressant medications can REDUCE a client’s suicidal impulses.
  4. True:  Yes, there is evidence that antidepressant medications can INCREASE and even CREATE suicidal impulses. [Increased akathisia and violent thoughts]
  5. True:  U.S. Suicide rates (about 30K per year) are typically higher than U.S. homicide rates (about 20K per year).
  6. True:  Firearms constitute the most common method for completed suicides for both females and males.