Health Affairs: Dr. Ashley Clayton reflects on care she received as a teenager

If my recent post on Patient and Family Centered Responses to Suicide Risk interested you–or if it didn't–I highly recommend an article by Dr. Ashley Clayton published this month in Health Affairs:  How ‘Person-Centered’ Care Helped Guide Me Toward Recovery From Mental Illness.

Thanks to Dr. Yeates Conwell for pointing me to the article.

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.

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.

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

Resource re: means restriction in practice

I've had a nice response to the brief commentary I posted in conjunction with a link to the NY Times article about means restriction.  In light of that, I thought I'd post a link to the a site called Means Matter, which is published by the Harvard Injury Control Research Center.   The site has summary pages called "Taking Action" for families, communities, and clinicians.

The talking action page for clinicians is worth reading for any clinician, and could be especially useful to primary care providers.  I'm thinking a lot about primary care right now because (a) primary care psychology has beeen a focus of my career and I have a deep respect for the breadth of responsibility primary care providers carry, including in suicide prevention (b) I'm still pondering the recent question I considered about self-trasport and (c) I'm presenting a talk titled "Tips for Suicide Risk Assessment and Response in Primary Care" next month at the Highland Family Medicine center here in Rochester.

Warning: Non-family Tx may be hazardous to your (family’s) health

A clever article in the September 2007 issue of the Journal of Family Psychology by Jose Szapocznik and Guillermo Prado suggests that "psychosocial treatments with vulnerable populations have the potential to produce negative side effects on families."

The authors reported unexpected findings from three separate studies that compared the efficacy of a family and non-family treatment. In brief, they found that family-level outcomes measured after applying non-family treatments didn't just remain static (as they had expected), they actually declined. This relationship is correlational and does not necessarily mean that the treatments in question caused the decline, but the authors argue that the findings are striking enough to raise the question about whether unintended side effects psychosocial treatments should be subject to "safety monitoring" along the lines that biomedical products are. Something like a black box label: "Warning: This treatment manual may be hazardous to your family."

In the discussion section, Szapocznik and Prado hypothesize about the systemic mechanism for the results they found:

"The family is a system that must be viewed as composed of interdependent or interrelated members.... Family members tend to develop habitual patterns of behavior over time such that each individual in the family is accustomed to act in a certain way that in turn elicits specific predictable behaviors from others. One possible hypothesis is that if an individual is changed by an intervention that is design to change individual and not help the family adjust to these changes....the family may be negatively affected...."

Nothing in these studies relate directly to suicide. But I think there are implications for how we think about intervention, especially in light of what I've been reflecting on lately about suicide as a family issue (see posts related to family therapy)

  • Need for more systemic work on suicide. With respect to suicide, this article emphasized to me the need for greater conceptual clarity among systems thinkers about suicide in the context of the family system. We need to articulate in what ways suicidality might be a property of the system in which it resides, and what are the mechanisms by which family relationships might reduce the likelihood of suicide.

  • The complexity of defining "evidence-based practice." I've posted before (vis-à-vis the ambulatory redesign aspirations in our department) about my concerns that "evidence-based" can get too narrowly defined. What is evidence-based depends a lot on what evidence you look at, and, more to the point here, on what outcomes are measured in the studies that provide supporting evidence for an intervention. Given the documented importance of family functioning for long-term outcomes of many kinds, perhaps one of the criteria we should consider in evaluating the utility of a given treatment approach is its ability to promote family functioning.

  • This relates to suicide because of the ways in which I have heard distressed individuals conceptualize their presenting problem. When people seek help it is usually with a functional outcome in mind, often one that has to do with their relationships. Research studies measure symptom reduction, people care about love, work, and play. In delivering a human service, we should organize ourselves in congruence with human concerns. If we organize ourselves around "reducing depression" we run the risk that our language will become reified in our practice-the result of which could be a less connected stance toward a suicidal individual who sees his relationships, finances, or health as the primary problem, not his "symptoms." As one person I worked with paradoxically stated, "I don't care about feeling better, I just want all of these problems to go away."

Ideas around evidence-based practice are evolving. In our department, a vibrant conversation is underway. Simplistic views of what is evidence-based seem to be disappearing, as everyone realizes that "evidence-based" is a much broader and trickier term than we might like. Ultimately, I suspect that the way out of the dilemmas inherent in the term is for clinicians to collect evidence (in informal and formal ways) about change in their own cases. This kind of internal monitoring process will probably promote effectiveness more than selecting the right branded treatment, which may have aggregate data that allows it to be certified as "evidence based," but which may or may not be helping the particular individual and family we're working with.


Szapocznik, J. & Prado, G. (2007) Negative effects on family functioning from psychosocial treatments: A recommendation for expanded safety monitoring. Journal of Family Psychology. Vol 21, p. 468-478.

Thoughts about SAD PERSONS Screen

I've gotten a few questions from colleagues and trainees lately about using the SADPERSONS screen. Most recently, a colleague pointed me to an article in Psychiatric Times titled, "APA: Simple Screen Improves Suicide Risk Assessment." The topic seems worthy of a post to think through both the appeal and risks of the SADPERSONS scale.

For those who are not aware of SAD PERSONS, it is a 10-item scale to purports to screen for suicide risk. An individual is given one point for each item for which he or she screens positive:

  • Sex (male)

  • Age less than 19 or greater than 45 years

  • Depression (patient admits to depression or decreased concentration, sleep, appetite and/or libido

  • Previous suicide attempt or psychiatric care

  • Excessive alcohol or drug use

  • Rational thinking loss: psychosis, organic brain syndrome

  • Separated, divorced, or widowed

  • Organized plan or serious attempt

  • No social support

  • Sickness, chronic disease

The word "simple" in headline of this Psychiatric Times article linked above captures what makes the tool sound appealing, especially for the thousands of health care systems that need a quick way to respond to the JCAHO patient safety goal 15 and 15A: "The organization identifies safety risk inherent in its client populations" and "The organization identifies clients at risk for suicide" (see this .pdf for explication of these goals).

From one perspective, there is nothing wrong with using acronym like this. It can remind clinicians (assuming they can remember what all the letters stand for!) of some of the risk factors and warning signs of suicide. Who can argue with that? However, from a training and clinical perspective, there are a few problems with this approach, especially when the screen is put forward as a scored scale. Let me summarize a few of these. Note that my thinking about some of these concerns is strongly influenced by concerns articulated by my senior (and very brilliant) colleagues in email exchanges we have had about this. I don't claim originality here, just summary:

  1. The "scale" assigns risk level on the basis of a point system: A score of 1 or 2 points indicates low risk, 3-5 points indicates moderate risk, and 7-10 indicates high risk. This approach works under the assumption that these factors are equally weighted. A separated, 46-year old male with diabetes with no depression would have a higher risk level (score=4, moderate), than 40 year-old married woman with chronic depression, current hopelessness who was just released from a psychiatric hospital after a near-hanging. (score=2, low risk).

  2. Having a risk "score" creates conditions for clinicians to rely on a number instead of developing an informed clinical formulation of risk.

  3. The suggestion that risk for suicide can be boiled down to a single number--even for screening purposes--presents a misleading picture of the complexity phenomenon and how to think about it as a clinician.

  4. The evidence that the linked article gathered does not correspond with the alluring headline, "Simple Screen Improves Suicide Risk Assessment." Evidence reported by those who conducted the study was that, after using the computerized screen, nurses tested showed more knowledge about risk factors for suicide. Of course, knowledge about factors is a long way from demonstrating improved assessment. Obviously, the physicians who reported their study at APA the study did not write the headline. The semantic overreach of the headline speaks to the understandable desire to find easy ways of doing hard things.

  5. Finally, from a training perspective, I find acronyms longer that 3 letters almost impossible to remember! SAD PERSONS particularly clumsy, and, IMHO a bit forced. "O" stands for "Organized plan or serious attempt" whereas I would probably make plan a "P" if I were trying to remember it, but of course that's already taken by "P" for "Previous." That often ends up being the problem with trying to make these things fit into an acronym. In a way, this gets back to the theme I've been harping on lately in my posts about teaching and training about needing a basic-science base about how clinicians learn, remember, and use principles or practices we learn. I'd imagine an expert in human memory could graph the inverse relationship between recall rate and number of letters in an acronym--add to that the need to recall these letters that signify words or concepts with high emotional impact.

In summary, while SAD PERSONS may be helpful to some people as a tool for remembering risk factors, it has some serious limitations as risk assessment "scale" and probably as a mnemonic.

Treatment teams as "Communities of Practice"

Still thinking about the intersection of clinical practice, risk assessment, knowledge management (KM), and Dave Snowden, which I blogged about yesterday.

In KM world, what mental health clinicians call a "treatment team" could be considered a Community of Practice. There are many definitions of this term and treatment teams fit some more than others. But Dave Snowden is clear in the videotaped discussion I pointed to yesterday that one of the failures of contemporary knowledge management is the inability to promote fruitful communities of practice. Snowden argues that organizations make the mistake of trying to organize communities of learning and practice using language, structures, and concepts that are not "naturalistic." That is, we ignore the processes by which people naturally come together to form knowledge-sharing communities and either over-organize (imposing a hierarchy and structure that we think will promote good functioning, but ultimately stifle innovation) or wrongly organize (bringing people together around a concept or structure that does not promote natural affinity).

Our organization is considering a redesign of our ambulatory service into diagnostic-based treatment teams (e.g. "Comorbid depression team"). The aim is to have well-functioning teams that promote evidenced-based practice. As I listened to Dave Snowden talk about communities of practice, I coudn't help but think that organizing this way has hints of the kinds of non-naturalistic grouping that Snowden warns against. The intent is good and the organizational principle makes sense on the surface, but grouping clinicans by the DSM diagnosis of their patients has the potential to be structure-rich, story-poor, and human-factor-ignoring.

One of the principal reasons stated for considering organizing by diagnosis is that the research literature about effective treatments is organized by diagnosis. It is an "evidence-based" decision. However, evidence associated with a particular epistemology (categorical psychopathology) is privileged over that of other epistemologies like cognitive science, organizational behavior, human factors research, and systems theory are ignored. Just because treatment studies organize patients into diagnostic groups, doesn't mean that human clinicians will work most effectively with the human problems and stories we see by grouping ourselves by our patients' Axis I diagnosis.

What would be a more narrative-rich way or organizing ourselves? Well, if we think of theoretical paradigm as a narrative, than perhaps that could be starting point. Or perhaps provide freedom for people to organize themselves into natural groupings. Or maybe there's a way of listening to clinicians and patients' stories about themselves and seeing trends and themes that we don't now see. It would take time and a new set of methods, those more akin to what Snowden promotes, to discover these themes. But we're taking time and energy either way. I'm not sure, to be honest, but I think the principle Snowden promotes is a good one: don't impose a community of practice based on a predetermined epistemology, especially one that is reductionist and devoid of narrative...rather, look at how productive human networks form naturally and spend your time and energy discerning the conditions in which these can develop.

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. 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.

Organizational factors that support care of suicidal person

Wendi Cross, a gifted and innovative colleague in our department, presented at our Family Research Roundtable yesterday. One of the ways she is contributing to the field is to raise awareness about, and develop methodology to study, the factors surrounding implementation of an evidence-based intervention (be it training, prevention, or therapeutic intervention) that influence its ultimate impact. Right now her focus is on implementers of an intervention, but in the course of discussion she mentioned that there are other extra-intervention factors, such as institutional and organizational factors that influence how, how much, and how well evidence-based interventions are put into practice after someone is trained.

This got me thinking about what might be the institutional factors that enable (rather than hinder) adoption and competence in evidence-based risk assessment. I started making a list of these. In the course of doing so, I realized that, without having the language for it, this is part of what I have been working to build in to my trainings about risk assessment. I accompany training about risk-factors with documentation examples and templates and with a map of the procedures, options, and services available to a clinician if elevated risk is identified. It dawned on me that the reason participants find this part of it helpful is that it embeds the training in institutional resources.

Here is my initial brainstorm of potential institutional/organizational enabling factors. Whether these actually make a difference is an empirical question, of course, but these are the ones that occur to me based on my experience:

  1. Documentation prompts. Embedding risk assessment in required documentation templates can support risk assessment training by providing ongoing “booster training” in risk factors and risk formulation. In terms of risk assessment training this is "external" to the training, but can enable its implementation.

  2. Clear instruction about what to do when risk is detected. As I noted above, my trainings bring together risk assessment with specific information about resources and procedures at the local level. We have gotten feedback that this improves implementation of the risk formulation training.

  3. A non-blaming, supportive environment. Clinicians will distance themselves from patients with suicide risk if they fear they will be blamed (in any way) if injures or kills him/herself. There needs to be a consistent message from every level of an organization that understands how difficult clinical work is. There needs to be a healthy respect for the courage it takes to stick with a person at risk—especially if the person is not as cooperative as we would like (see my previous posts about patient choice). A non-blaming environment needs to be in place around all kinds of clinical issues and outcomes, not just suicide—otherwise it will not appear genuine.

  4. A culture that emphasizes patient choice, informed consent, and meeting people where they are. A “comply or bye-bye” approach will probably discourage thorough and honest risk assessment. In a previous post on risk and patient choice I gave an example of how to handle a patient’s refusal to comply with a recommendation to attend a partial hospitalization program.  I have a suspicion that clinicians sometimes downplay risk or avoid asking too many questions about suicide when we suspect that a patient would not comply with the recommendation that higher risk would compel us to make. For example, if a clinician knows that the patient will refuse an E.D. for evaluation, the clinician might de-emphasize or not ask about risk factors that could signal need for such an evaluation, thereby avoiding appearing negligent for not referring.
    In contrast, we might promote risk assessment if the clinician knows his her her job is to make an assessment, inform the patient of options, present risks and benefits, and work with whatever the patient decides. I think this would be a significant mindset shift for many systems, and one that I think could be one of those enabling factors.
    We can take a lesson from our colleagues in family medicine about how to continue a supportive, therapeutic relationship with patients who do not follow our recommendations (who do not abide by the "social contract" as discussed in this post). Family physicians are accustomed to recommending treatments, medications, and interventions, and knowing that some proportion of patients will not end up following them. This is not without frustration, to be sure. But, except in rare cases, family physicians continue to work the patient, meeting the patient where he or she is, and hoping to move them slowly toward change. As one of our clinical leaders pointed out to me yesterday, that is where a motivational interviewing (MI) approach would come in handy. And, in fact, one of ther research fellows at our institution is studying on an MI intervention with suicidal individuals in the emergency department.

There are lots of others, but these are the ones that first come to mind. I welcome comments with other ideas about factors, outside of training and the individual clinician, that would enable good care and assessment for patient with risk for suicide.

Standardizing Risk Assessment Documentation

There are no established formats for documenting a formulation of suicide risk. I have taken some steps to standardize this documentation in the clinical service I direct, but it needs further development. I'll be helping our department arrive at a common format. Thankfully, I'll be working with some really bright people who can view this documentation need from a variety of perspectives (compliance/QA, acute services, research). Here are some working principles:

1. Check boxes will not do. We can prompt clinicians with keywords, but like it or not, suicide risk formulation will always need narrative.

2. Our format needs to feel friendly and familiar to clinicians with a wide range of education and clinical experience.

3. The following elements should be present:

  • specific risk factors for suicide

  • non-specific risk factors for suicide

  • clinical data that mitigates risk

  • protective (or potentially protective) factors upon which to build treatment

  • summary clinical judgement about (a) chronic and (b) acute/imminent risk (there are some examples of metrics that define "low, medium, or high" or at least provide examples of each)

4. The format should eventually be standardized across our continuum of care.

5. Formulations with anything other than low risk, should somehow be addressed in treatment planning process.

6. We need to provide lots of documentation examples for clinicians to use as reference.

I'd be eager to hear from anyone who has a narrative format that satisfies some or all of these principles.

How we think about Primary Care "Gatekeepers"

Primary care physicians are often grouped in as "gatekeepers," who need to be able to ask about suicide, know warning signs, and refer. The tend not to get in-depth training about formulating or documenting risk assessments.

The problem with this "gatekeeper" view is that we don't have the kind of seamless system that allows the primary care professional the luxury to leave the judgment call to a mental health professional. It's not like they are standing at a gate, able to wave a patient on to a mental health professional on the other side. There are barriers to access, patients who refuse evaluations, and the need to make decisions about who warrants intrusive involvement and who does not. These are sophisticated clinical judgments that go beyond "know the warning signs." PCPs have to be able to articulate an evidence-based rationale for allowing a patient to go home with an outpatient appointment versus involving a psychiatric emergency team.

I met with a group of pediatric primary care professionals this week. Our discussion brought this point home to me. They were eager to be trained in true risk formulation and documentation--and felt that these skills would help them feel less anxious about asking about suicide.

There may be some gatekeepers for whom instruction in questions, warning signs, and referral options is enough. But primary care gatekeepers need more.

At the crossroads of family therapy and suicide prevention

I recently led a discussion about "Evidence-based risk assessment: implications for family therapy education, research, and practice?" at the Family Research Roundtable, which is a collaborative venture chaired by Susan McDaniel and Jane Tuttle, and funded by the University Committee on Interdisciplinary Studies.

My interest in the nexus between suicidology and family therapy is a natural one given the way my work has been evolving over the past year, but the intellectual spark for drawing the connection was a Grand rounds presentation by Paul Duberstein. In a brilliant talk titled, Standing at the crossroads of personology and prevention science: a view from suicide research, he made the following three statements that have stuck with me:

  • "Many people take their own lives because they did not receive adequate mental health treatment. Their traits, motives, and attitudes made it difficult for them to engage effectively with the mental health care delivery system and form a life-saving therapeutic alliance...It is this failure to seek and receive adequate treatment, perhaps more so than a mental or medical disorder, that is fatal."

  • "We need to be creative and target at-risk patients, their family members, healthcare providers, and institutional settings. We need to enhance the ability to detect signs of distress, refer to treatment, and encourage treatment adherence and the development of the therapeutic alliance."

  • "A truly person-centered health care delivery system is responsive to the “inseparable biopsychosocial entity” - and tailored to individual traits, preferences, attitudes, and communication styles."

As a family therapist, my first thought was about the patients and family members we see who might not otherwise have contact with a mental health professional. Dr. Duberstein later made that same observation about family therapy in a subsequent talk I attended: During the presentation of a psychological autopsy he noted two points in the person's life when marital and/or family therapy might have been helpful. These are potential "missed opportunities" we have to reach people who would not probably not otherwise seek treatment (i.e. they might come in because of marital problems or problems with their children, even when they might not seek help for themselves (or even conceptualize their problem as having to do with themselves).

There is lots of fodder for discussion here, but here are some possibilities occur to me. These are not formed conclusions, just ideas for exploration, comment, and study:

  1. Family therapists need to be strong in suicide assessment, including of family members who are not the identified patients.

  2. We need to figure out how to invite people in for treatment based on how they conceptualize their problems, and not force them to fit their problems into the way we organize our delivery system.

  3. (corollary to 2). We need to develop a flexible mental set about what kind of treatment we think is needed for people who contemplate suicide. A common assumption is that every person with significant risk for suicide or suicidal ideation needs to be first and foremost in individual treatment. If we think about suicide as failure in problem solving and an escape from pain, we have to ask...what problem and pain is the person motivated to address? Many people see their relationship difficulties as central and many (especially, perhaps, older men) will feel more comfortable learning problem-solving in the context of their family than in other forms of therapy we might offer.

  4. We need models for assessment and engagement with people who are not the identified (index) patient.

  5. No matter what the modality or paradigm, perhaps we need to think about who in a family needs help beyond the person who is the patient.

An additional empirical question that occurs to me is: how many people who died by suicide had a family member who was in treatment? We know that most people how die by suicide are never enrolled treatment, but I wonder how the numbers would look for family members.

Lots of thoughts, lots of questions swirling around as I stand at the crossroads of family therapy and suicide prevention.