Rural Mental Health Symposium in Lewiston, ID

I'll be speaking in Lewiston Idaho next week at the St. Joseph's Region Medical Center's annual Rural Mental Health Symposium. I know from IP addresses that we have readers in the Northwest. If any are in the Lewiston area, please come.

 Click for full brochure

Click for full brochure

NY Times article based on Nock study causing a stir

The New York Times published an article this week that readers of this blog should be aware of. The article is titled, Study Questions Effectiveness of Therapy for Suicidal Teenagers. The article reports on results from a study published in JAMA Psychiatry (the new name for Archives of General Psychiatry) by Matthew Nock and a team of outstanding scientists. The NYT headline is based mostly on the finding that:

...suicidal adolescents typically enter treatment before rather than after the onset of suicidal behaviors. This means that mental health professionals are not simply meeting with adolescents in response to their suicidal thoughts or behaviors, but that adolescents who are clinically severe enough to become suicidal more typically enter treatment before the onset of suicidal behaviors. There is no way to know from the NCS-A data how often this early intervention prevents the occurrence of suicidal behaviors that would otherwise have occurred but were not observed in our data. It is clear, though, that treatment does not always succeed in this way because the adolescents in the NCS-A who received treatment prior to their first attempt went on to make an attempt anyway. This finding is consistent with recent data highlighting the difficulty of reducing suicidal thoughts and behaviors among adolescents.  (Nock et al, (2013) Prevalence, Correlates, and Treatment of Lifetime Suicidal Behavior Among Adolescents, JAMA Psychiatry, ePub ahead of print, p. E9)
The Nock article is hefty and I have not yet fully digested it. So I will withhold judgement about the article's conclusions, and about whether the NYT article reported them fairly and accurately. However, I am pleased about the discussions that this study and the Times article have the potential to stimulate. One conversation is about how to improve the quality and effectiveness of treatment for at-risk adolescents. This is not a new conversation, but continues to be an important one. Another conversation I hope this NYT article will stimulate relates to broadening our view of what suicide prevention is. With some important exceptions (including some here in New York State), the dominant strategy in suicide prevention has been to identify youth who are suicidal and get them into treatment. As my mentor, Peter Wyman has demonstrated (Wyman et al, 2008) and this Nock article brings to the surface, these 'identify and refer' strategies are limited by a number of factors, including availability and acceptability of services, the length of time adolescents remain in services, the effectiveness of therapy, and adolescents' tendency not to disclose suicide concerns to adults (Pisani et al 2012). While I am committed as ever to improving the quality of screening, assessment, and treatment for at-risk adolescents (and help to train hundreds of clinicians each year), I do not expect that treatment services alone will be sufficient for reducing suicide in the population. For this reason, in my research I am pursuing youth suicide prevention strategies aimed at addressing risk and protective processes further "upstream" (a term I learned from Dr. Wyman). In an article soon to be published, I argue that we need new interventions that can flexibly reach a broader population of adolescents further upstream and that these will require making use of new delivery systems, designs, and technologies.
I look forward to studying the Nock article and to participating a discussion that could help stimulate the field to re-examine what "prevention" really means. Substance abuse prevention does not start with finding kids who are already taking drugs. Fire prevention doesn't start with the fire department. We need great fire departments and well-trained fire fighters, but fire protection engineering and public education make major conflagrations rare. Likewise, youth suicide prevention must focus more broadly then on adolescents who are already suicidal.

Interesting qualitative study about military mental health professionals on deployment

A group of US and UK colleagues have published an interesting qualitative study about the challenges and resiliency of military mental health professionals (MMHPs). They had a small non-representative sample of British MMHPs who had completed a period of deployment in Iraq between 2003-2005. For the study, they participated in detailed interviews about their experiences practicing in a deployment setting. The authors did a nice job pulling together themes from the interviews in order to develop a conceptual model for the goals, challenges, and resources, and to draw out some recommendations about training and planning. Recommended:McCauley, M., Liebling-Kalifani, H., & Hughes, J. H. (2011). Military Mental Health Professionals On Operational Deployment: An Exploratory Study. Community Mental Health Journal. doi:10.1007/s10597-011-9407-8

New on the Web: Suicide Prevention News and Comment

Franklin Cook has started a suicide prevention news blog that looks very promising.   Suicide Prevention News and Comment (SPNAC) is still young-- less than a month old--but already has some valuable information and insights.  As the site's name suggests, most of the posts (several each week) are stimulated by news in the suicide prevention arena which Mr. Cook passes on, along with helpful and thoughtful commentary.   The webiste has a three-column newspaper-style format, which could be welcoming and familiar to readers who are less experienced with blogs.   I have added SPNAC to my blogroll, and look forward to reading more from this site.

Clinical reflections on Army's approach in interactive suicide prevention video

A colleague pointed me to a Washington Post article describing an interactive suicide prevention video the Army has produced and will make mandatory for all soldiers.   I experimented with the online demo of Beyond the Front, which shows scenes from the life two soldiers and allows the viewer to make choices that either lead toward or away from help and survival.   The demo portion I reviewed focuses on the decision a distressed soldier faces in deciding to talk with the chaplain or not.   I was impressed with the quality of the video and interested by the approach.

I am not expert enough in public awareness and mass media approaches to prevention to comment or speculate about how effective this video might be in preventing suicide in the Army.  But I would like to comment on some intersections between the approach this video takes and some ideas about clinical practice.

To me, one of the most powerful aspects of this video is the way in which it leads the soldier-viewer to see him/herself as potentially at risk for suicide.   The video gives the message "If you don't get help, your life could be in danger."   Since the video is interactive, the viewer can actually make decisions (like keeping the distress or suicidal thoughts secret) that eventually lead to death.

From a clinical perspective, I have found that putting in front of a person--sometimes in a dramatic way--the danger he or she is in can actually help to kick in the person's survival instinct.   It sounds strange to warn someone of danger when the danger is from oneself.   But a question like this one can be sobering:  "If there were nothing we could do to move life be more livable, how likely would you be to die?"  I worked with someone who could not name a single reason why life could have worth or meaning and who could identify no chance for things to get better, but who, when asked that question, started talking about his son and two other people he wouldn't want to leave behind.   Recently, I was pleased to hear a similar question encouraged in the ASIST approach to suicide prevention and intervention.   An advanced variation of this question might even embed the prospect of hope within the danger question:  "If there were nothing we could to help life be more livable--I think there are things, but let's say we didn't pursue them--If things continue like this, how likely would you be to die?"

It is strange and surprising to some clinicans that most people who are suicidal (and I would venture to say some who actually kill themselves) don't want to die.   Many people who have survived near lethal suicide attempts have reported that.    A participant in a workshop I gave several months ago illustrated this for me in a compelling way.  This participant had, at an earlier point in her life, attempted suicide.  She had since recovered and pursued education in the mental health field.   In sharing her subjective experience of the suicidal wish, she said, "I never wanted to kill myself.  I just wanted to kill the pain."   What a gift.   Clinicians should be aware of this and look for ways to simultaneously connect with the suffering and activate the part of every person that desires life.

Description of Golden Gate Bridge Barrier

My last two posts focused on means restriction--the aim of preventing suicide by reducing a person's access to a quick and lethal suicide method.    The Golden Gate Bridge Physical Suicide Deterrent Project has been a highly publicized (and controversial) state effort to determine out the best way to balance the imperative of saving lives by erecting a physical barrier on the bridge and the desire to protect the beauty and touristic appeal of this national landmark.   On October 10, Board of Directors voted to pursue the construction of an steel net that would extend 20 feet on either side of the bridge.   Today I came across a post at PsychCentral by Dr. John M. Grohol describing how this proposed net would work.   I found the article interesting and thought I'd pass it on.

Other related post(s):  Reminder from the bridge: Suicidal individuals are full of ambivalence

Means restriction and impulsivity in fantastic NY Times piece

I have mentioned quite a few NY Times articles in this blog because I think they cover suicide really well.   Last month they published a piece in the NY Times Magazine that I keep recommending to people in informal and clinical discussions, so I thought I'd link to it here.   Many thanks to my colleague Bill Watson for first alerting me to the article.

The Urge To End It, by Scott Anderson, is a stunning piece.  Well-written, and well-researched, it challenges the stereotype that suicide is always well thought out, carefully planned, and the result of a conscious and un-ambivalent decision.   He focuses on the impulsivity and momentary desperation involved in many suicide attempts, and raises awareness about means restriction as a potent intervention.

For clinicians, there are several important take-home points and cautions:

  • Expressed suicidal ideation is only one part of an assessment of risk for suicide;  impulsivity, high intensity stressors, and agitated emotional pain signal as much about risk as suicidal ideation.

  • We need to ask about available means and seek to disable lethal means whenever possible.

  • We need to advocate for public policy that promotes means restriction--this may save the life of someone in our care (or in our lives).

  • Ambivelance runs deep.   Even in the moment of jumping, survivors report feeling regret, not wanting to die.  We are built for living, and those who help distressed individuals have a powerful force on our side.

  • We need to ask about how bad the pain is and how intense the desire for escape, even (especially) with individuals who have not previously expressed suicidal ideation.


There are probably other lessons from Anderson's excellent article, including understanding more about the subjective experience of someone who attempts suicide.   The article is not short, but you'll be rewarded for the time spent to read it all the way through.

Possible contagion effect in Nantucket

The small island of Nantucket, MA has seen 3 teen suicides in a short period of time, according to the New York Times.  Very sad.   Statistically, three suicides in a high school of 400 represents a meaningful cluster, and a possible contagion effect.   Whether it is or it isn't contagion in Nantucket (it is impossible to know for sure and the article suggests some disagreement in this case), the key thing for clinicians to know is that vulnerability to contagion has been documented in adolescents.  Clinicians working with adolescents at risk at the time of a public or peer suicide should consider reassessing their clients' risk for suicide when news of a peer death becomes public.

Newsmap illustrates power of mapping/visualization

This is a bit far afield from suicide, but I think worth mentioning here because it illustrates how maps and visualization can present a different, more contextually-sensitive view of a phenomenon, as compared to that which lists and other linear formats can achieve.

I recently became aware of a project called Newsmap, which takes a traditional news feed (Google News) and maps it so that you can see the news landscape in a different way.   The program purports to "to divide information into quickly recognizable bands which, when presented together, reveal underlying patterns in news reporting across cultures and within news segments in constant change around the globe."   In the quick scans I've done, I've been impressed with how much information can be presented this way, and with how much more context one apprehends from this visual view.

NY Times: Short but Troubled Life Ended in Shooting and Suicide

This NYT article about 14 year-old boy who died on Wednesday after critically wounding a teacher and classmates, is a case study in risk for adolescent suicide.  Abuse/neglect history, legal trouble, access to weapons, social misfit, recent disciplinary action at school.    The temporal proximity of his older brother's arrest is also striking...again pointing to the systemic properties of suicide.

Reminder from the bridge: Suicidal individuals are full of ambivalence

Sign on NYS BridgesToday Mike Hogan, Ph.D., the Commissioner of the New York State Office of Mental Health honored RNN-TV and the NYS Bridge authority for their work in suicide prevention. The bridge authority put up signs and installed lifeline phones with direct link to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

For clinicians assessing and managing suicide risk, the fact that phones installed on a bridge have been used by individuals who went on to live is testimony to just how much ambivalence remains, even in people who have gone very far toward resolved plans and preparatory behavior.

Understanding that ambivalence is key to clinical work with suicidal individuals. When I train clinicians about assessment and response to suicide risk, I often get questions about whether it is useful or even right to assess suicide risk. I'm also asked, "What about people who have good reasons for killing themselves or who rationally decide they want to end their lives?" My answer goes something like this:

Thankfully, for health care professionals there is no practical dilemma here. If you find out about a person's suicidal thinking, then there is some degree of ambivalence. Everyone knows that psychotherapy or primary care are about health...that is life. We're not about suicide and death. So if someone is coming to us, at least some small part of them is aligned in that direction. And it's our job to understand that ambivalence and work toward health and life until such time as the ambivalence is resolved in one direction or the other.

That line of thinking can apply to any person, really--not just healthcare professionals. Except in some rare circumstance that you'd have to work hard to construct, the fact that someone is still alive and letting someone know by words or action about suicidality reflects ambivalence.

The fact that people read signs and use phones on bridges also discourages a fatalistic stance on the part of clinicians. We can't simplify the matter by saying "If someone really wants to kill themselves they will, so what's the point of screening or assessing?" That question misses the point. We assess because people don't want to kill themselves. Some just don't see options for life and, under the wrong circumstances (like under the influence of substances or after a particularly deep emotional wound), they overcome their ambivalence just long enough to do the unthinkable. We need to have deep compassion for the amount of pain that must be, and nurture the life-embracing side of the ambivalence until the person can see options again.