Conversation with Michelle Lang, Ph.D. of RFMH

I had an interesting conversation a few weeks ago with Michelle Lang, PhD, a colleague with the New York State Research Foundation for Mental Hygiene. RFMH is essentially the research and program evaluation arm of the NYS Office of Mental Health. Dr. Lang has completed a pilot study on the feasibility of routine suicidality screening in community mental health, which she conducted in collaboration with the CSPS here at the University of Rochester.

Dr. Lang and her colleagues learned a great deal from their pilot. As someone developing clinician training in risk assessment, I was especially interested in what they discovered about the range of clinician reactions to the idea of screening for suicide risk:

  • Many clinicians shared the popular myth that asking about suicide might make it more likely.

  • There was more resistance to the screening than the implementation team anticipated.

  • Reactions, both positive and negative toward the program were strong.

There were many other lessons, and I look forward to reading the process papers that will come out of the experience.

Reflections: Many of the experiences Dr. Lang shared point to how difficult and loaded the topic of suicide is for clinicians--even the most experienced ones. As a trainer, this highlights to me the need to find predictable and replicable ways to create a safe learning environments, where clinicians feel understood and where their current practice patterns are honored. This can be hard to do when you are suggesting a change in practice. Dr. Lang and her colleagues made huge efforts to support clinicians, yet still encountered challenges.

Making clinicians feel safe enough in a training that they'll consider changing practice patterns involves the tone and stance, as well as the content of a training. In reviewing training curricula, I've discovered that tone, stance, and conceptual starting points are often not explicitly developed. Contrast this with the way people develop treatment interventions and manuals. For example, in the first chapters of Marsha Linehan's highly successful intervention manual, Linehan lays out an entire dialectical worldview that undergirds her intervention program. That kind of elaboration is rare in developing educational interventions. A recent conversation I had with DeQuincy Lezine, Ph.D. underscored this point for me--he advocated for using "logic models" to examine the assumptions and mechanisms behind any community or training program.

Here are a few ideas about tone, stance, and starting points that I'd like develop further:

  • Drawing on Marsha Linehan's work again, clinician training in suicide assessment requires a balance in the "dialectic" between unconditional acceptance and push for change. Why is this balance so important (and difficult) when it comes to suicide? Perhaps Linehan's concept of "invalidating environments" may apply more than we'd like here, as well. Many of the administrative and legal systems in which we work are invalidating and blaming! Furthermore, one's work vis-à-vis suicide is so personal and fundamental that the suggestion of need for improvement can be hard to take in.

  • Another way of considering the stance and tone needed for effective clinical training in this area from a stages of change (transtheoretical) perspective, i.e. that training needs to have a motivational interviewing stance. The trainer must have an awareness of the ambivalence toward change, and present change tentatively and in a way that draws upon the internal motivation clinicians have to improve their practice in this regard. In my trainings, I've found that one way to do that is to talk about the unspoken dissatisfaction I carried for years about the experience of working with suicidal patients--I share with participants that I always found the experience unrewarding and that I had a vague pre-verbal sense that the way I approached suicide was probably not that helpful to the individuals I worked with. In addition to being genuine, that kind of stance may stoke clinician motivation in a way that the public health arguments do not.

  • In addition to these considerations regarding the pedagogical stance, there are also content emphases that might reduce clinician resistance. As I have noted in almost every post on teaching and training, I feel training in this area should begin with what and how clinicians think and that many efforts in clinician training have the wrong starting point-i.e. they begin with the question: "what do experts say clinicians know about suicide or suicide risk assessment" rather than "what do clinicians want to know." In my experience, clinicians are most hungry for how to document their work and decisions so that they can feel less anxious and can focus on doing what is best for the patient. If that's the case (and this remains an empirical question), then documentation should be a starting point...through which other content (including what experts would say clinicians should know) can be delivered.

Thanks again to Dr. Lang for an informative, stimulating, and enjoyable conversation. She is doing good and interesting work with the State. I look forward to reading the papers that come out of her most recent project, and about the next stages of it development.