Core principles in treating suicidal patients

James Fowler does it again. He has just published another terrific and useful paper, "Core principles in treating suicidal patients." This makes a terrific companion piece to his previous paper describing "guidelines for imperfect assessments" which I have raved about and recommend all the time. The current paper is elegant and straightforward. Dr. Fowler provides a rationale, evidence, and a treatment example for three core principles:

  • alliance building
  • enhancing curiosity about the function of suicidal thoughts and urge
  • enhancing experience and epxression of intense emotions

Voila! What more do you want? You have to put Dr. Fowler's name on your search engine alert list! I just added it to the reference list that I will distribute at my next Commitment to Living workshop.

Fowler, James Christopher. (2013). Core principles in treating suicidal patients. Psychotherapy, 50(3), 268-272. doi: 10.1037/a0032030

Suicidal High School Students’ Help-Seeking and Their Attitudes and Perceptions of Social Environment

Clinicians, school personnel, parents and other adults share at least one thing in common: none of us can read minds. The only way we're going to know if an adolescent is considering suicide is if they tell us. My colleagues and I conducted a study examining some key correlates of help-seeking among adolescents who had seriously considered suicide. The results have been published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence.

What matters to patients in an assessment interview

Assessments are human encounters, a chance to demonstrate compassion and instill hope. A small qualitative study by colleagues in Manchester, England illustrates the importance of caring assessments and of considering the social and family context of the individual in planning. Hunter et al conducted 13 initial interviews and 7 follow-up interviews with individuals who had been hospitalized related to some form of self-injurious behavior. Their findings are highly congruent with the hallmarks of patient and family-centered response to suicide risk that  I have proposed. The article (linked below) outlines a number of lessons about what matters to patients, which boils down to having meaningful interactions with clinicians who: convey empathy, understand problems from their perspective, inspire hope, and develop plans/referrals that match their preferences and social context. None of this is rocket science; it's harder than that. Hearing how much it matters to patients should encourage all of us with a commitment to living to continually refine our approach to assessment.

Hunter, C., et al., Service user perspectives on psychosocial assessment following self-harm and its impact on further help-seeking: A qualitative study. Journal of Affective Disorders (2012), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2012.08.009

Patient and Family-Centered Responses to Suicide Risk

Over the past few years, many mental health care systems have adopted useful strategies and technologies to reduce risk across their systems. In my consultations with health systems, I have seen enormous advances in terms of consistent nomenclature, universal screening, documentation standards, assessment procedures, and crisis response planning. A lot of interest has coalesced around certain helpful tools such as the Columbia Suicide Severity Rating Scale and Safety Planning, which help with key tasks that are part of the overall competent care of suicidal patients.

Competent implementation of suicide prevention technologies in clinical care depends on the attitudes and approach with which the professional applies them. Even as we make progress on systematic care for suicidal individuals, have we invested enough attention to fostering the attitudes and approaches that undergird effective care for suicidal individuals and their families? Evidence-based assessment and response to suicide risk includes forming cordial and collaborative relationships, conveying human compassion, building on natural strengths and supports, and promoting dignity and hope. Many major therapeutic interventions for suicidal individuals share common foundations in this regard--DBT and CAMS are good examples--and most clinicians are highly capable of forming bonds of caring with their patients and their families. However, the well-documented challenges (uncertainty, powerlessness, time burden, anxiety) of clinical work with suicidal individuals can interfere with authentic expressions of empathy, commitment, and respect, potentially reducing the yield from other measures taken to assess and reduce suicide risk, such as well-timed screening and safety planning. These challenges also tend to narrow clinicians’ focus on the patient alone, sometimes to the exclusion of interested family and friends. As a result, continuing professional education is needed to empower clinicians with a conceptual framework for understanding and responding to suicide risk that will promote desirable attitudes and behavior across treatment modalities, prevention technologies, and episodes of care.

Patient and family centered care (PFCC) provides a useful framework for developing attitudes and behaviors consistent with best-practices in the compassionate care of suicidal patients. PFCC is a movement that is re-centering healthcare on the experience of the patient and family as a key factor in health care quality and safety. PFCC encourages envisioning all aspects of a health-care system from the patient's perspective, from policies and facility lay-out down to specifics of the clinical encounter. PFCC is a major focus across  my home institution, with expertise coming from the Institute for the Family with which I am affiliated. I am not aware of any broad application of this term to the care of patients who present with suicide risk, but I have recently been thinking about CTL in these terms. I have been trying to boil down the PFCC approach I teach in CTL. This remains a work in progress. So far, I have generated these six hallmarks of patient and family-centered response to suicide risk:

  1. Elicit the experience and function of suicidal thinking from the perspective of the person at risk and their family members.
  2. Convey empathy for suffering, a desire to help relieve it, and confidence that recovery is possible.
  3. Invite individuals and their families to make decisions about addressing suicide risk based on their ideas, expectations, and preferences, providing informed consent about risks and benefits of various options. 
  4. Explore how plans and decisions for responding to suicide risk will affect and be affected by the person's family, social network, interests, and responsibilities.
  5. Express personal and institutional commitment to alleviating current distress and supporting  the life and happiness of the person and their family members.

These clinical principles are not unique or original to CTL. The SPRC/AAS Core Competencies (pdf) include these skills from a different vantage point and vernacular. There are also a host of constituent skills and attitudes that are part of specific treatment modalities. Nevertheless, I have seen a clear need for a direct and transtheoretical focus on these core points.

Because these five points are at the heart of CTL education and consultation, I have been considering re-wording the subtitle of the CTL workshop, and of this blog. For some time, the tagline for CTL has been "Understanding and Responding to Suicide Risk." I settled on that broad moniker at the advice of colleagues who thought the original title was too cumbersome: "Assessment and Decision-making for Competent and Caring Clinicians." They were right; however, as my thinking has evolved and my assessment of needs in the field has sharpened, I may want CTL to reflect the patient-centered focus more directly, perhaps with the title, “Commitment to Living: Patient and Family-Centered Response to Suicide Risk.”

Whatever the title of CTL, the time has certainly come to incorporate the helpful and empowering concepts from the PFCC movement into the way we work with individuals at risk for suicide.

Thanks to Susan H McDaniel, PhD, Dr. Laurie Sands Distinguished Prof. of Families & Health at the University of Rochester Institute for the Family, for her input on this article.

Reminder from the headlines: Suicide not just about depression

The Washington Post reported yesterday that the Virginia Tech shooter had an anxiety disorder as a child.   I don't want to say much more about that, and I don't know enough about Seung Hui Cho to know whether this did or did not play a role in his actions in April.

But such news can provide a useful reminder to review the prototypes and heuristics clinicians have in our heads about suicide.  Specifically, we need to resist the temptation to only think or ask about suicide in cases of depression.  Although depression is present in a large proportion of  people who die by suicide, suicide is by no means synonymous with depression.   Anxiety disorders, personality disorders, and psychotic disorders are all associated with risk for suicide.  This begins to make sense when you think about suicide often being a response to hopelessness, despair, agitation, and a feeling of being trapped (often with an overlay of substance abuse disinhibiting the person's symptoms and behavior).   When put that way, it's not hard to see how chronic intense anxiety could lead to suicidal thinking (or action).

I think this is something many clinicians know, but old prototypes can be stubborn and often get in the way of us accessing what we know.   When we refresh our thinking, we  can more effectively remember to to ask about suicidal ideation in every case, not just when depression is prominent.

Related posts:
Murder-Suicide, Domestic Violence…Common threads in violence against self and others

Suicide turned outward: Times of London Article by Dewey Cornell

Erratum on previous post: Cornell not author, just interviewed

Where's the Family?

I was just looking at the post counts on my categories and seeing few posts I have (only 2) family therapy category.   I think that reflects the state of the field right now, as well as my own internal conceptual development which is not yet entirely integrated.  Two things for sure:

1.  Almost everything I've read in the clinical suicide assessment literature assumes a one-on-one context.   Family therapy is usually not mentioned.  Families are sometimes mentioned, usually as potential sources of information when things get really risky, but without much attention to how to do that.

2. Family therapists tend to get pretty individualistic when they teach or write about suicide prevention.   This tendency was unmistakable in a recent Family Therapy Magazine, a publication of AAMFT that is distributed free to all members.   The July/Aug 2006 issues was titled "Suicide in the Family."   Yet if you look at the articles there is almost no content related to family therapy.  In fact, if you removed the cover and took out a couple of intro paragraphs, the articles would be indistinguishable as a family therapy publication.   Remarkable.

I think this state of affairs reflects that fact that it's not easy to bring the two together in practice.   How, when and of whom do you ask about suicidality in a room full of family members of different ages?  How do you bring up a topic that is hard enough to bring up with one person in front of you?   How much history about self-harm do you gather in front of children?  I don't think anyone has really spelled out how to translate the relatively linear risk assessment principles to skillful systems work. If there is work in this area, I'd be interested to learn more about it.That said, I think it's hard and we don't have good models, but it is not impossible.  I see our trainees doing it exceptionally well.   It is demanding, but do it well because they are talented and devoted--and because we emphasize it, in part, because of my developing expertise in the area.  But I don't think any of us yet has a clearly-enough articulated model to present as the standard of care.

I feel obligated to add here, that there are some equally hard questions that a family therapist could ask an individual therapist too.  Like...how can you possibly get a complete risk assessment picture without talking with family members, seeing the patient interact with them, understanding the family pathology and strengths?  How do you monitor warning signs without inside players?   I've lately been reading extensive case reports of people who died by suicide.  In each of the cases I read, it would have been impossible to understand the risk picture without extensive information from family members.  Many of those truly at risk of killing themselves just do not disclose enough and the right kind of information.

This is an area in much need of development.

"How bad has it gotten?"

When I teach about clinical interviewing, I often recommend this phrase (or some variation) as an entry point to questions about suicidal ideation. This accomplishes a couple of things:

1. Frames the discussion about suicidal ideation as one that is exploring the person's subjective experience and suffering, avoiding the impression of ticking through the required elements of a clinical interview.

2. It begins a sequential approach where it then feels logical to ask about the extremes of desperation.

3. Signals to the person that you want to hear the full extent of the pain.

The exact words don't matter, of course, but it is probably helpful for each clinician to develop a few standard ways he or she enters in to the conversation. This could be one of them.