Presentation to Board of Wynne Center for Family Research


I presented at the Wynne Center for Family Research (WCFR) board meeting today. I presented about our clinical services and about my work in suicide risk assessment, including how it grew out of experiences with suicidal patients in couples and families. The Center board and the faculty of the WCFR were present.


The Board is unbelievable--a real dream team for family systems fans:



Barbara Fiese, Ph.D., Syracuse University
Nadine Kaslow, Ph.D., Emory University
William Pinsof, Ph.D., Northwestern University
Harry Reis, Ph.D., University of Rochester (Liaison)
Frederick S. Wamboldt, M.D., National Jewish Medical Center
Karen Weihs, M.D., University of Arizona

Given the stature and brilliance of this audience, I was both nervous and eager to get their feedback about our clinical service and about the work that has grown out of it. Here are my notes, and some reflections, from the discussion that followed my presentation:


-- One board member shared an experience she had many years ago working with a prominent family therapist as her supervisor. She recounted the following experience:
She worked with the family of an adolescent who had attempted suicide. She wanted to do a suicide risk assessment as part of her session with the family. Her supervisor, at first, discouraged her because it wasn't "systemic." She persisted and ultimately prevailed by offering to do a suicide assessment for each person present (not just the child) and to invite others present to provide input on the others' assessment! The supervisor allowed this as sufficiently systemic.

Reflection: This is a fascinating story that highlights the tension inherent in melding an activity that has traditionally been part of an individualistic medical model with a family systems view of people, their problems, and their strengths. I think few family therapy supervisors nowadays would advise against suicide risk assessment. Suicide risk assessment is taught (with a range of how much) in every family therapy training program. But I'm not sure if we've developed a lot further in terms of the actual how-to. My impression is that most of the time, there continues to be a one-dimensional linear approach to training suicide assessment that implicitly assumes individual therapy and interviewing.


-- Other thoughts:  One key to resolving the potential tension is to think about suicide as residing in a family system. This view goes beyond thinking about family members a "collateral informants", which is how family involvement is often described in the suicide literature. Instead, we need to develop conceptual AND CLINICAL models for assessing risk through the lens of interactions, relationships, roles, and family myths. For example, how does the hopeless that registers in the individual grow out of family roles and interactions...or from a strength-based approach how might shifts in the family give greater hope to the individual experiencing suicidality.  It is not that this is never talked about, it's just that the focus on individual psychopathology and personality often overshadows this dimension--and perhaps more so than with other behaviors we assess and intervene with because the act of suicide is ultimately unilateral and done when alone.


-- One member asked about me "sharing" what I'm working on. This is an important question to me on several levels:




  1. Blog. This blog is one mechanism I'm using to share thoughts and discoveries.

  2. Planned publications. I am on the cusp of conducting an evaluation of my risk assessment workshop and plan to publish the results. I am also working on another publication in which I'm collaborating with two faculty members of the Deaf-Wellness Center.

  3. Career Direction. If what I'm doing turns out to be helpful to clinicians and to families, I want to share it widely. That brings up interesting questions about how I spend my time professionally. Given the range of my interests (in terms of content (peds primary care, suicide) and professional activities (teaching, writing, clinical work), it is hard to know the right direction. A career in research is appealing in ways it hasn't been in the past. This is probably a dilemma many of my readers (especially those in academia) are familiar with. I'll be focusing on discerning this over the next year or so.


-- After I talked about this blog, a board member recommended using it as a way of helping to disseminate science to general audience. I have done this a little (such as here), but could probably do more.


-- A board member suggested that, in light of how heavy it is to focus on suicide (an adverse outcome), it would be advisable for our clinical service to also gather stories and data about positive outcomes of family therapy. This is a perceptive and appreciated comment because prevention of a bad outcome does have a peculiar emotional tone for an individual or group. I named this blog "Commitment to living" in part to cast this work in a positive direction. This comment is a good reminder to do that kind of thing in many ways also at a system level.


All of that in 30 minutes! I appreciated the opportunity to consult with such bright and experienced senior experts in our field.