Is post-diagnosis suicide risk in cancer patients related to psychological or physical factors?

I have been thinking and learning a lot about suicide risk in cancer patients because I am working with some colleagues in cancer control and prevention to identify and respond to educational needs among cancer care professionals. Related to this topic, readers might be interested a nice article by Kendal & Kendal published last year in the journal Crisis (abstract linked below). This article titled, Comparative Risk Factors for Accidental and Suicidal Death in Cancer Patients makes a number of insightful observations about risk in cancer patients based on statistical analyses of a large and impressive NCI dataset (SEER, 1973-2000).

Among the observations I found most interesting was that the well-documented increased risk of suicide in the year following cancer diagnosis, which is commonly attributed to psychological factors, may in fact be more closely related to physical factors, i.e. rapid deterioration of symptoms in rapidly progressing disease. Because many of the candidate psychological factors were not measured in this study, the question cannot be studied directly, but I found the findings compelling enough–and their treatment in the article careful enough–to warrant consideration. In the end, it may be very difficult to tease apart psychological distress from physical suffering, but I appreciate this article drawing attention to the question.

Citation: Kendal WS & Kendal WM (2012). Comparative risk factors for accidental and suicidal death in cancer patients. Crisis: The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention. 33(6):325-34. doi: 10.1027/0227-5910/a000149.

A better term for "high risk"?

At a recent workshop I presented, a senior colleague commented that our clinical vernacular needs a more apt phrase than "high risk" to describe individuals whose clinical and historical presentation suggests risk for suicide.   "High risk for suicide," he pointed out, sounds like suicide is probable, when in fact the likelihood of suicide in any given "high risk" case is still low in absolute terms.    So, I've been struggling to think about an alternative.  "Elevated risk?"  "Multiple indicators of risk?"   I don't know.   This is not the only area in clinical suicidology with nomenclature problems, but it's the one I need to figure out right now in order to make some recommendations for documentation standards in our department.   If you have any ideas, please leave them in the comment section or use the contact page to email me.

Teaching and learning at New York State psychiatric facilities

I've returned from a fascinating series of trips to two New York State psychiatric facilities (St. Lawrence Psychiatric and Pilgrim Psychiatric), as part of a project I'm working on with the Office of Mental Health.  I learned a great deal from talking about suicide risk with over 500 clinicians from a variety of disciplines and settings--psychologists, RNs, case managers, social workers, psychiatrists, mobile crisis clinicians, family therapists and others.   It would be hard to find a group of professionals with more experience working with individuals at-risk, and the questions, comments, and concerns the participants contributed matched that level of experience.

I have made some notes about issues that were raised by clinicians, and plan to blog my thoughts about these in coming months as I get pockets of time to reflect on my travels.   As I have stated before, I think it's important for educational initiatives to map closely onto the real-life concerns of clinicians, rather than simply reflecting content that experts deem important.   Here are a few concerns and questions that I hope to think more about when I have time:/

  • When it comes to hospitalizing isn't it always best to "err on the side of caution?"

  • Why are we focusing on suicide so much when the people we work with have so many other problems?

  • Why are we focusing on suicide when it's so rare and most people who die by suicide weren't in treatment when they die?

  • How do we handle individuals at risk who are only marginally involved in treatment-they miss more appointments than they make, but still come enough that they remain on our caseloads?

  • Does doing a better job with risk for suicide always mean more work and writing?

  • Is there anyone for whom it is not indicated to ask about suicidal thoughts?

  • How often should we do a risk assessment?

  • What kinds of lawsuits have and have not been successful against clinicians in cases of completed suicide?

  • Even if we do everything right, can suicide really be prevented?

Along the lines of that last question, several clinicians shared moving stories about ways in which suicide has touched their lives, personally and professionally.   It is always so sad to hear about these deaths, and so encouraging to hear that some of the ideas I brought for discussion felt relevant to these experiences.

A big thanks to the professionals at OMH, St. Lawrence, and Pilgrim who supported and hosted me during these trips.   And to the clinicians at both facilities who made these trainings so stimulating and enjoyable.

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.

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.

Possible implications of findings re: visual memory

Readers of this blog know that I am interested in mindmapping and other visual presentation strategies as tools for training clinicians in suicide risk assessment (see related posts listed below).  In a previous post marked "needs development" I noted:
Really, there is a “basic science” set of questions about learning and the clinician mind that gets skipped over when we do the necessary and important work of evaluating educational interventions.

Thanks to a post on PsychNews, I came across this interesting article in Cognitive Daily that attempts to provide some explanations for why visual memories are often so vivid.  One of the take-home points of the study cited in the article is that the vividness of visual memory is directly related to the duration of viewing.    This is unsurprising in some ways, but it supports the educational strategy of using one or two maps or other graphics (rather than a multitude of Powerpoint slides or text handouts) to teach about a clinical concept like risk assessment.   Participants in my trainings, for example, view one map (whose branches I dynamically hid and show) for nearly the entire presentation.

These little bits of basic science evidence remind me, once again, that we pay too little attention to the evidence base of our teaching techniques.   It is well and good to decideto pursue evidence-based interventions and therapuetics (EBIT, as we call it around here), but what is often missing (besides a coherent notion of what constitutes evidence--a topic for another day) is an evidence-based way of disseminating evidence-based practice to clinicians.

Related Posts:

Visual maps and guides in high stress situations

Mindmapping coping strategies

Evidence for visually different presentation format

Tech tools for clinical thinking and training

Conversation with Paul Quinnett, Founder/CEO of QPR

I talked yesterday with Paul Quinnett, Ph.D. Founder and CEO of the QPR Institute. He has been working in the field of suicide prevention for decades and has developed an excellent set of tools for clinicians. I enjoyed the conversation because Dr. Quinnett is bright, experienced, and passionate about his work, and also because of the conceptual overlaps I observed through our conversation. Here are a few from my notes:

Technology Transfer. Dr. Quinnett’s interest is technology transfer, i.e. taking what is known from the literature and clinical experience giving it legs for the working clinician and healthcare system. This the primary thrust of my evolving work, as well. I also have an interest finding the most efficient and effective pedagogical method for transferring information.  This is where my interest in mapping and other forms of visual representations comes in (see my previous mapping posts). This topic is also part of what has interested me when I heard Wendi Cross speak (see my post reflecting on Organizational factors that support care of suicidal person).

Family involvement. I’ve posted several times (see Where’s the Family?, and At the crossroads of family therapy and suicide prevention) about the conundrum that family involvement presents for suicide risk assessment: we don’t have good models for talking about suicide with family members present, we don’t have clear ideas about how to incorporate families in the assessment process, AND in many cases it is impossible to imagine performing a worthwhile assessment and management plan without family input.  Dr. Quinnett has been working on this very issue from two interesting perspectives. The first is what he called “the cost of data collection.” That is, he is curious about how clinicians perceive the cost of collecting information from 3rd parties. The second is that he is working on developing a protocol of the key questions and info one should ask/gather from family members to guide clinicians in their interviews. Dr. Quinnett has been working on this with Sergio Perez Barrero, MD, a psychiatrist in Cuba who founded the Suicidology Section of World Psychiatry Association and also the World Suicidology Net.Dr. Perez Barrero is a QPR trainer, who has translated the materials in to Spanish.

Drawing on experience in other fields that do risk assessment.  In a previous post, (Reflecting on Intersections with Knowledge Management, Dave Snowden, and Singapore’s Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning System), I shared my reactions to Dave Snowden’s work on detecting terrorist threats. Dr. Quinnett was struck in a similar way by Gavin deBecker’s work in threat assessment. I had not heard of deBecker but apparently his California firm, Gavin deBecker and Associates works with high-profile clients (including Hollywood celebrities) to analyzing potential threats to their safety. He has written a book called “The Gift of Fear,” which I plan to read on Dr. Quinnett’s recommendation.

Along similar lines, I have consulted with a forensic psychologist and friend, Daniel Murrie, Ph.D., who co-authored a book (with Mary Alice Conroy) coming out this fall about assessment of risk for violence, “Forensic Assessment of Violence Risk: A Guide for Risk Assessment and Risk Management.” This book, which I’ve seen excerpts of, presents an approach to assessment of risk for violence that is clear and accessible to clinicians and retains the richness and clinical complexity that appropriate to the challenging work of predicting an individual’s risk of being violent. The approach that Conroy and Murrie take has potential applicability for suicide risk assessment, for which we’ve never quite had such a clear model for conducting and writing assessments.

I guess the intersection here relates to seeing potential for developments in threat and violence prediction work to help our efforts to improve detection of suicide risk.

Desire to understand the clinician’s state of mind when faced with risk assessment. I have noted before (see my post on Visual maps and guides in high stress situations) that I’m interested in learning what the cognitive science would be related to how people best access information for decision making in high arousal situations. Similarly, Dr. Quinnett mentioned that he would like to test clinician perceptions about information gathering in risk assessment. What kind of cost/benefit appraisals do they make about asking questions and gathering collateral info?

In my view, the clinician’s state of mind/emotion and cognitive heuristics are underappreciated in most approaches to training about suicide risk. As I noted in my post about clinician anxiety (Clinician anxiety–what’s it about?), what we believe about the most pressing concerns for clinicians will influence what and how we teach. Likewise, understanding how clinicians learn best is important for modes of dissemination (for example, see my post on How clinicians learn: Web 2.0 Opportunities?).

Summary: “Needs Development.” This is another post I’ll tag “needs development” because much of this raises more questions than it answers.   But reflecting on these conceptual intersections helps me to see how much is not known about how to approach training in suicide risk assessment.   Really, there is a “basic science” set of questions about learning and the clinician mind that gets skipped over when we do the necessary and important work of evaluating educational interventions (which, of course, we don’t do enough of either!).

Visual maps and guides in high stress situations

I had a stimulating conversation about the directions my work is heading with two of my mentors last week.   One part of the conversation was about further examining the potential of visual mapping in clinical teaching, especially in the area of suicide risk assessment.  I need to understand the cognitive science of mapping more.  One of the questions we discussed in this meeting is whether there is a special benefit of visual mapping for situations that involve high arousal (such as that which a clinician faces when assessing an individual with high risk of suicide).   Is there better recall of previously presented material?  Can a clinician process a visual aide in the midst of the clinical moment better than text?   I'd imagine these things have been explored, at least in some form, by educational psychologists, cognitive scientists, and neuroscientists.    I recently added a tag for "needs development" so I can review things that I've noted needing more work.  This post will get that tag. :)

Reflecting on Intersections with Knowledge Management, Dave Snowden, and Singapore’s Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning System

Warning: This post starts out a bit far afield from clinical work. My ideas about how it ultimately connect back, but they're still forming, so this is definitely a "put on your seatbelt" kind of post.

For some time, I have been following the work and blog of Dave Snowden, founder of Cognitive Edge. Snowden is an scientist, theorist, and organizational consultant at the cutting edge of the Knowledge Management (KM) field. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Snowden is a pioneer and visionary who is try to push KM to an entirely different dimension (call it KM 2.0). I must admit that I am still trying to get a handle on Snowden's thinking (it's broader and more complex than I can yet grasp), but one of the most interesting things to me about his work is that he emphasizes narrative (versus purely numerical) approach to "sensemaking." Snowden and others of his ilk argue that you can learn more useful information, detect more weak signals, capture trends earlier through gathering stories than you can by gathering numbers. Stories show emerging trends. Numbers tell you what has already happened.   (For a popular version of this argument see Lori Silverman's provocatively titled book "Wake me up when the data are over: How Organizations Use Stories to Drive Results")

Snowden and another KM guru, Gary Klein, were recently videotaped discussing the methodology (and software) that the Government of Singapore has developed to help them detect terrorist risk, the Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning (RAHS) system. I found their videotaped discussion fascinating, especially Snowden's critique on the failures of knowledge management (2nd clip on the page). I don't know enough to understand the differences between the perspectives Klein and Snowden offer (and, can't in fact follow all of what either one says), but I listened with great interest to their perspective on how one approaches information-gathering, sensemaking, and decision-making in an uncertain, unpredictable, and unstable environment.

Obviously, clinical sensemaking and decision-making is quite different from government counter-terrorism operations. But I could not help but think of parallels, especially for assessment of suicide risk. Here are a couple of developing (and somewhat random) reflections I had:

  1. We know about statistical risk factors, but how do we do sensemaking with a particular person's set of stories. Clinicians have access to rich narratives, but we generally lack methodologies and technologies for sensemaking that retains complexity and guides decision making.

  2. Traditional documentation (the principal knowledge management system for clinical care), including the diagnostic evaluation reports, usually flatten the richness of stories (by design) into a language that is more technical, linear, and sterile than real life. We usually don't capture stories on their own or track raw data, but rather we move quickly to interpretation and synthesis.

  3. I noted in a previous post that I use mindmapping to teach about suicide risk. In that post, I suggested one benefit might be "it helps to be able to visualize connections between concepts on a map because it makes complex material more accessible." In light of what I'm learning from Snowden and KM, I wonder if mindmapping also facilitates sensemaking from narratives better because it is nonlinear and attempts to replicate connections in human thought patterns.

  4. Apropos of my previous post, Where's the family? therapy offers an opportunity for gathering anecdotes from multiple perspectives. Snowden has a KM exercise called "Anecdote Circles," which he uses to help organizations gather information through story. The techniques he uses would be interesting to apply to a family, and to gathering information from family members about suicide risk. This kind of raw data is not available without family members.

  5. Our models and language around risk assessment needs to better reflect how fluid and unstable the phenomena of risk and suicidality really are. The act of suicide is a momentary coalescing of a multitude of snippets and anecdotes and narratives. Reading retrospective case studies of people who died by suicide makes that really clear--all of what we categorize as "risk" comes together in a certain way at a certain point in time. As one of my mentors pointed out to me last week, we can "predict" suicide retrospectively, but it is almost impossible to detect prospectively.  As clinicians we want to be sensitive to the snippets, so that we can scan the horizon (a la RAHS) and sense emerging trends, far before the data ever catches up.

As I warned in the beginning, these thoughts are pretty raw, but I'm interested in exploring this intersection more.

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.