Tag Archives: Suicide

Raising awareness of suicide risk

By Jerrod Brown and Tony Salvatore December 6, 2017

Suicides have increased steadily in the United States during the past decade. Suicide research has also grown, but pertinent findings are sometimes slow to reach mental health professionals and providers. Many misconceptions and gaps in the knowledge base remain. The role that mental illness plays in suicide is an area of research that both the public and many clinicians must better understand. This article touches on 10 aspects of the relationship between suicide and mental illness that mental health professionals should be aware of and should be able to share with others.

1) Serious and persistent mental health disorders sometimes contribute to suicidal behavior, but they generally are not the cause of suicides on their own. A suicide risk factor is a personal or demographic attribute found to be prevalent among suicide victims; a cause is a condition that brings suicide about. When suicide and serious and persistent mental illness are inappropriately linked, it can result in enhancing associated stigmas and misdirecting the focus of suicide prevention. Mental illness is sufficient to contribute to suicide but not absolutely necessary. Myriad factors and reasons, separate and aside from mental illness, can account for suicidal behavior. Keep in mind that antidepressants and other psychotropic medications may effectively reduce suicide risk only for the psychiatric disorder for which they are prescribed.

2) Many individuals who die by suicide do not have a diagnosed serious and persistent mental illness at the time of death. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Violent Death Reporting System has found that just over 40 percent of those who die by suicide have a mental health diagnosis.

Despite methodological flaws, psychological autopsy studies that attempt to assign psychiatric diagnoses post-mortem through interviews of those who knew the deceased have routinely found that an overwhelming number of victims of suicide had a diagnosable, although perhaps not documented, mental illness. Nonetheless, this mode of research may sometimes exaggerate the role that mental illness plays in suicide. Mental health providers must understand that although mental health services are a critical component of suicide prevention, they should be only part of a comprehensive approach to deterring the onset or progression of suicide risk.

3) The rate of suicide and suicidal behavior has been found to be higher among people with a serious and persistent mental illness than in the general population, but the majority of those with a serious and persistent mental illness neither attempt nor complete suicide. Every mental health professional and provider organization must be sensitive to the potential for suicide risk and behavior in their clients regardless of their psychiatric histories. Retrospective studies of those who have died by suicide have found that not all of these individuals possessed discernible signs of any form of mental illness as identified by family members or friends. Therefore, outpatient providers must be careful not to minimize signs of possible suicide risk in the absence of mental illness.

4) Psychiatric hospitalization may stabilize and ensure the safety of people who are acutely suicidal. However, it does not in and of itself constitute long-term treatment or reduce the risk of suicidality in the future. Inpatient settings can reduce suicide risk through appropriate use of psychotropic medication when indicated. Psychoeducation about suicide and support groups should also be part of a treatment plan for a client who is suicidal. Community-based providers accepting referrals from inpatient facilities should review the attention given to a potential client’s suicidality while hospitalized and make sure that a predischarge suicide risk assessment was performed.

Suicide prevention must also be part of aftercare in the community. Outpatient providers should engage the client on this objective prior to discharge. Outpatient providers should be thoroughly familiar with the client’s discharge plan, and particularly those elements relating to ongoing suicide risk. If appropriate and with the client’s consent, the outpatient provider should consider a family conference to ensure that the client’s support system understands the individual’s ongoing suicide risk, the family’s role in managing it and what family members should do if the client shows signs of suicidality.

Most important, outpatient providers must maintain continuity of care and resume treatment as soon as possible. When short-term resumption of treatment cannot be accomplished, contact should be initiated by telephone or other means to support the client.

5) The first 30 days after discharge from inpatient psychiatric care is a period of high suicide risk irrespective of the reason for admission. Suicide risk has been found to be especially high in the first week after discharge. This must be acknowledged in outpatient discharge plans. Patients and families must be made aware of this risk, and providers must ensure that patients returning to the community engage quickly with outpatient services and adhere to medication regimens as applicable. Those leaving hospitals must be made aware of 24/7 hotline and crisis services that they can turn to if needed. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (at 800-273-8255) is one such resource.

6) Contracting for safety is a technique in which at-risk clients agree to notify their mental health providers or take other steps (e.g., calling a hotline or 911) rather than making an attempt on their life if they have thoughts of suicide. Many counselors, therapists and mental health practitioners continue to use this technique despite an absence of research supporting its efficacy. At best, safety contracts give mental health providers a questionable, if not groundless, sense of security regarding their clients’ potential risk.

Providers are better advised to use thorough suicide risk assessments and personal suicide safety plans with patients and clients. Providers and clients can collaboratively develop personal suicide prevention safety plans, and they have therapeutic value. These plans generally document factors such as warning signs, triggers, coping methods, supports, providers and sources of emergency help.

7) Many mental health providers do not have suicide prevention policies that mandate routine training or outline requirements for client and patient suicide risk assessment. In some instances, mental health providers lack guidance on what should be done in the event of the suicide of a client. This is a serious deficit given our exposure to potential client suicides. Agencies should have a formal suicide prevention policy stating the measures to be taken to prevent suicide and postvention actions to be initiated with staff affected by a client’s suicide. Providers should encourage licensed staff to include suicide prevention trainings among their required continuing education.

A client suicide is perhaps the most traumatic experience that a mental health provider can endure. Taking a risk management stance after a suicide is not sufficient and may be harmful to all concerned. Providers should supply grief support resources, such as Survivors of Suicide, to both staff members and to the deceased client’s family members.

8) Care of individuals who are suicidal has been delegated to the mental health system for evaluation and treatment. This has resulted in many at-risk individuals being assigned one or more diagnoses from the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. These diagnoses often become the focus of subsequent care, which may overshadow the person’s ongoing suicide risk and the need to address his or her suicidality. The mental health field has access to some evidenced-based therapies that can assist in reducing suicide risk and deterring future suicidal behavior, but more research and education are needed.

Those who survive a suicide attempt have an elevated short-term suicide risk and a continuing lifelong suicide risk. It is imperative for treating mental health professionals not only to provide therapeutic services but also to connect these clients with available community resources to reduce the likelihood of subsequent suicide attempts. Support groups made up of survivors of suicide attempts are optimal, but these groups are appearing only slowly in communities. In the absence of peer groups or provider-led support groups, consideration should be given to warm lines, chats and other online resources, or to videos and texts created by survivors of suicide attempts.

9) Effective treatment of serious and persistent mental health disorders may lessen suicide risk among impacted individuals. However, treatment for these disorders may not be the only answer. It is imperative for mental health professionals to also address other issues such as substance misuse, traumatic loss, shame, social disconnectedness, feelings of hopelessness or the belief that one is a burden to others when present. Suicide risk should be assessed whenever clients experience any adverse life events, regardless of clients’ adherence to therapy or counseling regimens. Assessing for risk of suicide may require ongoing attention throughout the entire treatment process.

10) The intense and persistent desire to die is experienced by some individuals with serious and persistent mental illness. However, by itself, desire to die is insufficient to bring about a potentially fatal suicide attempt. The person in question must also have overcome the inherent resistance to lethal self-harm. The mitigation of this resistance can occur through life experiences such as abuse, a history of violence, self-injury or traumatic grief, any of which individually can create a capability for significant self-harm up to and including suicide.

Conclusion

Certainly, some individuals with serious and persistent mental illness die as a result of suicide. Nonetheless, suicide is preventable. Mental health treatment providers are well-positioned to minimize the impact of suicidality after onset and to address any ongoing suicide risk. Several steps can be taken to accomplish this.

Every provider should have a suicide prevention policy that outlines measures to identify suicide risk in clients and appropriate responses to such risk. Such a policy should detail what must be done in the event of a client suicide. A suicide risk assessment should be considered as part of new client intake depending on prescreening responses. This involves both clinical judgment and an evidence-based risk assessment instrument.

All staff need to be able to recognize possible warning signs of suicide in clients. We recommend requiring all clinical staff to complete a continuing education course on suicide prevention on a regular basis. Providers might also consider participating on suicide prevention task forces at the city, county or state level. Participation may provide additional access to suicide prevention experts and other resources.

Finally, clinicians must adopt what might be called suicide prevention literacy. They must rely only on evidence-based reports about suicide from researchers in their disciplines and related fields. They must be able to assess these sources and use them to develop evidence-based treatments and programs. Suicide prevention literacy means employing these skills to make suicide prevention a practice reality. It goes beyond participating in suicide prevention walks and runs, conferences and trainings to create a provider mentality that is prevention-oriented. It means using what is available to try to mitigate suicide risk and amplifying suicide protective factors in clients and in the community — not just talking about it.

 

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Jerrod Brown is the treatment director for Pathways Counseling Center Inc., which provides programs and services for individuals impacted by mental illness and addictions. He is also the founder and CEO of the American Institute for the Advancement of Forensic Studies and the editor-in-chief of Forensic Scholars Today and The Journal of Special Populations. He holds graduate certificates in autism spectrum disorder, other health disabilities and traumatic brain injuries. Contact him at Jerrod01234Brown@live.com.

Tony Salvatore is the director of suicide prevention at Montgomery County Emergency Service, a nonprofit crisis intervention and psychiatric emergency response system in Norristown, Pennsylvania. He has a particular interest in post-psychiatric hospital suicide prevention and has served on a number of suicide prevention task forces at the state and county levels in Pennsylvania.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

 

’13 Reasons Why’: Strengths, challenges and recommendations

By Laura Shannonhouse, Julia L. Whisenhunt, Dennis Lin and Michael Porter September 4, 2017

The Netflix series 13 Reasons Why has launched a national discussion regarding teen suicide, motivating a webinar response from professional organizations about how to shape the dialogue, dozens of editorials and millions of cautionary letters home from schools to parents across the country.

The series, based on a novel, is narrated by high school student Hannah Baker, who made a series of cassette tapes to be passed to 13 individuals she argues contributed to her reasons for dying. Her story is seen through the eyes of a peer, Clay, who listens to the tapes. He comes to understand Hannah’s perspectives about those people and events she claims motivated her suicide, which include Clay’s own (in)actions.

The series has been critically acclaimed for the acting and commended for addressing challenging topics, such as bullying/cyberbullying, sexual assault and teen suicide. However, school administrations, school counseling associations, suicide prevention organizations and counseling/psychology associations such as the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC), the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) and the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) have advised caution because of the graphic nature, revenge fantasies and potential contagion effect. This article highlights strengths and major challenges of the series. It also provides recommendations that have been underrepresented, though not absent, in the discussion.

 

Strengths

1) Raising awareness that suicide is a real problem.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide is a major public health issue. The most recent  statistics available note that among high school students, 17 percent have seriously considered suicide, while 8 percent have attempted suicide within the past 12 months. We know that for every suicide, there are many survivors, including the family and friends of the person and those who have experienced psychological, physical and social distress after exposure to a suicide.” The most commonly cited statistic is that each suicide directly affects six people; however, more recent research argues there are between 45 and 80 survivors per suicide.

In 2015, there were more than 44,000 reported suicide deaths, including 5,191 deaths by suicide among those ages 15 to 24. However, this statistic includes only those that were reported. Although there is no consensus on the rate of under-reporting due to stigma or ambiguous cause of death, the best analysis suggests that for each completed youth suicide, there are 100-200 times as many nonfatal suicide actions.

Combining CDC data with our current understanding of rates of suicidal ideation in youth, in this moment there are close to 15 million people in the U.S. who think of suicide in any given year. Suicide is a very real public health issue; when it is ignored, stigmatized or minimized, we as a community are missing the chance to prevent it.

2) Even professional counselors may not be ready to respond to a suicidal situation.

Because counselors often receive referrals of clients who are suicidal, counselors’ competency in identifying and intervening with those at risk is crucially important. However, the overtaxed counselor in 13 Reasons Why, Mr. Porter, is underprepared to face a suicidal student coping with complex trauma. Although he did not act in the scope of best practice, his failings are unfortunately not unusual among counselors, despite decades of advocacy for increased suicide assessment trainings in counselor education.

Mr. Porter missed several suicidal statements (e.g., “I need everything to stop”), made assumptions about contributing events and was uncomfortable talking about suicide (and other issues). We may easily judge Mr. Porter’s mistakes, but as counselors, we should take this opportunity to reflect and ask ourselves if we are ready to respond to a student at risk of suicide. The research is equivocal.

3) Suicide is complex and individual.

Although 13 Reasons Why portrays some known “red flags” that can indicate suicidal intent, the factors that contribute to individual suicides vary. Stressors that may influence one person’s decision to die by suicide may not have the same effect on others. For instance, we know that not all people who are depressed die by suicide (research shows the rate is from 2-15 percent) and that not all people who complete suicide are depressed. There is a variety of prevention programming regarding common warning signs. However, there is no perfect amalgam of warning signs or demographics (e.g., risk for transgender persons) that helps us differentiate who will decide to die by suicide. We need to go beyond just learning warning signs in order to help.

Livingworks, a suicide intervention training organization, focuses on three elements when assessing warning signs and risk factors. First, we must look for the meaning behind stressful events. For instance, in 13 Reasons Why, being listed “Best Ass” was highly distressing to Hannah because she felt objectified and was concerned people would misperceive her to be easy. However, another student, Angela “Best Lips” Romero, was flattered by such attention. The meaning behind the stressful event is more important than the stressful event itself.

Second, we need to know that warning signs can be, and often are, expressions of pain. When Hannah pushed Clay away, he recognized that something was wrong but did not see that her rejection was an indication of emotional pain. Third, we must trust our intuition. One peer recognizes Hannah’s poem as a cry for help but does not offer assistance. We need to pay attention to our gut feelings and act on them to take care of each other.

13 Reasons Why provides an opportunity to see Hannah’s experience of several traumatic events (cyberbullying, being stalked, public objectification, losing money, feeling responsible for a person’s death, witnessing rape and being raped) and does a good job of depicting the pain, shame and isolation she experiences as a result. The viewer has an opportunity to consider Hannah’s subjective experience and understand how the cumulative effect of these “reasons why” motivates her to suicide.

One model to help contextualize suicidality is the interpersonal-psychological theory of suicidal behavior developed by psychologist Thomas Joiner. Joiner states that the highest risk occurs when one feels like a burden to others, feels alienated or lacks belongingness and, crucially, has overcome the natural human inclination toward self-preservation. This model posits that suicide is a process — one gradually builds tolerance to the idea through self-injurious thoughts or behaviors (although each person’s path is unique). There are multiple points on that path at which others can intervene. The 13 Reasons Why series emphasizes those missed opportunities. As in Hannah’s case, every day there are suicides that happen as a result of those missed opportunities.

4) The central message is a positive one.

In the last episode, Clay says to Mr. Porter, “It has to get better, the way we treat each other and look out for each other.” Instead of feeling guilty or turning away, we can task ourselves with being more supportive community members.

All too often, we operate from a place of fear, which is understandable considering that schools have a legal duty to protect students from self-harm, and lawsuits are a potential reality (as shown in 13 Reasons Why). However, when systems or individual responders act out of fear, it focuses the interaction away from the needs of the person at risk. Even well-intentioned modern practices of “suicide gatekeeping” have substituted swift (and protocol-driven) identification and referral for the direct supportive intervention by community members proposed by John Snyder in 1971. Clay’s words echo those from Snyder half a century ago, when he said that most “who attempt suicide are victims of breakdowns in community channels for help.”

Although Mr. Porter clearly failed to proper identify Hannah’s suicidal ideation, perhaps even more troubling was his failure to hear her story and understand the factors behind her decision to die by suicide. Listening and demonstrating empathy to someone who is struggling was demonstrated to reduce suicidal ideation on calls to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. Talking about suicide can help the person at risk to no longer focus on the past or feel alone and, instead, shift to the present moment, where the person can feel understood and cared for. If those in Hannah’s community who were witness to her emotional pain had actively engaged her and listened, it may have reduced her isolation and lessened her self-perception as a burden. This may even have prevented Hannah’s death.

Research indicates that our personal beliefs about suicide influence our responder behaviors. Therefore, gaining awareness of our beliefs and how our ability to intervene is affected by them is vital. Regardless of whether we can stop a suicide, we can control how prepared we are to try. We can make sure that our systems (in schools and elsewhere) are places where it is easy for someone to receive help.

After working through Hannah’s tapes, Clay now believes that we are, in a way, our brother’s keepers. Community-level response by direct intervention is a central theme in my (Laura Shannonhouse) research. It involves equipping “natural helpers” (e.g., teachers, bus drivers, resources officers, school counselors/psychologists) with the skills needed to perform a life-assisting suicide intervention at the moment it is needed most.

The producers and cast of 13 Reasons Why have underscored their desire for this series to start a conversation. Although that has certainly been accomplished, we hope the dialogue focuses more on how we can “look out for one another” and foster communities less at risk for suicide.

 

Challenges

1) Graphic nature and contagion

Viewers of 13 Reasons Why watch two rape scenes and Hannah’s suicide, which is shown in detail. Nic Sheff, one of the writers of the series, stated that the scene of Hannah’s suicide was intended “to dispel the myth of the quiet drifting off.” Some crisis texts suggest that we “deromanticize” suicide by helping our clients understand the unintended effects of trying to die by suicide, such as surviving but becoming disabled or alienating friends and family. Therefore, an argument could be made that a graphic, painful portrayal of suicide is warranted.

However, research does suggest that suicide portrayals can contribute to contagion by triggering suicidal behaviors in people — particularly youth — who are experiencing high levels of emotional distress. In fact, SPRC and AFSP have made recommendations for best practices in prevention of suicide contagion. A discussion of post-suicide intervention to prevent contagion is beyond the scope of this article, but as an example, the locker memorial portrayed throughout the series is against standard guidance (it should not last for weeks, as shown). Furthermore, when considering how media reaction to the series has often included sensational headlines, it is helpful to review these recommendations for reporting on suicide.

2) Survivor’s guilt and revenge fantasies

By assigning “reasons why,” the series sends a message that Hannah’s death is caused by other people’s actions. When Clay openly questions, “Did I kill Hannah Baker?” his friend Tony answers dramatically, “Yes, we all killed Hannah Baker.”

Although we suggested earlier that we all have a responsibility to create communities that help prevent suicide, Tony’s level of direct attribution can be counterproductive. Hannah experienced multiple losses, traumas and stressors caused by others, both intentionally and unintentionally. Placing responsibility for her death on those individuals instead of on Hannah’s action can exacerbate survivors’ guilt. Those viewers who have lost a friend, loved one or acquaintance to suicide may feel even more strongly after viewing the series that “It is my fault.”

These feelings are associated with lower functioning in comparison with survivors of accidents. Although undeserved, survivor’s guilt is a real phenomenon, and considerable research shows that even counselors who experience the death of a client by suicide can experience shame/embarrassment and emotional distress.

Whereas Clay may feel guilt for his part in Hannah’s story, the tapes could implicate others in criminal or negligent behavior, perhaps giving Hannah posthumous revenge. Some viewers who may have struggled with suicidal ideation themselves could get the message that if they take their lives, they can get revenge on those who have hurt them. This is an additional reason that schools across the nation and professional helping organizations have felt the need to do damage control for 13 Reasons Why.

 

Recommendations

1) Parents need to not just talk but watch, listen and connect.

Some school counselors argue that it’s harmful for children and teens to watch the series on their own without the support of a parent or trusted adult because the series depicts a graphic and romanticized portrayal of a teenager in crisis and does not identify competent resources capable of helping her. Accordingly, many experts encourage parents to talk to their children about the series. In addition to using talking points, we recommend that parents listen deeply and without judgment to what their children say. When people feel genuinely heard, they are more likely to talk about their true thoughts and feelings.

To accomplish this goal, parents can use active listening skills, such as open-ended questions, reflections of feeling, paraphrasing and encouragement. Also, we recommend that parents watch the series and risk being human — risk being impacted by the series and empathizing with their child. The construct of empathy is powerful, particularly if it is sincere. For a three-minute visual summary, consider watching Brene Brown on empathy. In our counseling skills courses, we often talk about “getting in the well of despair” and genuinely connecting with others. We know that talking about suicide paradoxically provides a significant buffer to suicidal action.

2) We need more than prevention programming in schools.

We know from a well-regarded U.S. Air Force study that we need suicide programing at all three levels: prevention, intervention and post-intervention. Many suicide prevention programs have been implemented in the school context, but there is mixed evidence of their effectiveness. From our clinical experience in crisis response, our scholarship and our history with training a specific model of suicide intervention, we need to acknowledge that we are biased about what types of programming should be implemented and when is the right time to implement. We feel that an appropriate first step for a school system is to implement basic screeners and gatekeeper trainings such as Signs of Suicide or Sources of Strength.

However, suicide prevention should not end with identification for referral. Optimally, the process continues by assessing level of risk, identifying reasons for dying and reasons for living, discussing alternatives to dying, enlisting the support of trusted loved ones and limiting access to lethal means or securing the person’s environment. Because youth who struggle with thoughts of suicide often seek out the support of those they trust rather than professional mental health providers, those teachers, coaches and others with open hearts and doors are the most effective gatekeepers for a system. Their nondirection and empathy are useful pedagogical qualities and vital to effective suicide intervention.

We endorse models that empower those “natural helpers” to provide a potentially life-saving intervention for students who are in suicidal distress. Although this may be augmented with the support and follow-up of a trained mental health provider, gatekeepers can implement the steps listed above.

3) Be intentional about identifying caregivers and shifting school culture.

My (Shannonhouse) research involves partnering with school districts and superintendents (in Maine and Georgia) to identify “natural helpers” and equip them with the skills to perform a life-assisting intervention in the moment (i.e., Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training, or ASIST). These natural helpers are often teachers, resource officers, coaches, administrative staff, bus drivers and other people who are likely to be confidants to students who experience distress. Measuring suicide intervention skills and responder attitudes is easy for an academic. Identifying those school personnel in the trenches who would be first responders is more difficult — it requires the total involvement of administrators. Furthermore, such an approach requires schools to commit to a student-centered response model.

ASIST is relationship-driven and aligned with the values of the helping professions. It meets the needs of students who are at risk by focusing on responding to those immediate needs rather than referring the student (which can lead to further isolation and an increased sense of burdensomeness). Although the student is often referred for more long-term counseling, ASIST provides the student with a six-step intervention at the moment it is most needed and can be performed by anyone over age 18. Having natural helpers trained in ASIST or a similar protocol can dramatically increase a school’s responsiveness and effectiveness to help students in distress.

4) Use an intervention model backed by research.

ASIST is a 14-hour, two-day, internationally recognized and evidence-based model that has been adopted by multiple states and the U.S. Army. It has also been recognized by the CDC and used in crisis centers nationwide. Caregivers trained in ASIST consistently report feeling more ready, willing and able to intervene with a person at risk of suicide.

The program has been evaluated in a variety of settings (click to download), with pretest to post-test improvement noted in trainees’ comfort level at intervention and in their demonstrated intervention skills in response to simulated scenarios. Although outcome research is rare, research compared ASIST-trained counselors with those trained in other models through a double-blind, randomly controlled study of more than 1,500 calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Those trained in ASIST more often demonstrated particular behaviors such as exploring invitations, exploring reasons for living, recognizing ambivalence about dying and identifying informal support contacts. Those trained in ASIST also elicited longer calls.

We found that ASIST can be applied to both university and K-12 settings. Our work measured increased suicide intervention skills and beneficial responder attitudes, which have been maintained over time. We have trained more than 500 people in ASIST and have received multiple reports of teachers disarming fully formed suicide plans with their new skills. More recently, we have conducted behavioral observations of ASIST responder behavior and have begun evaluating outcomes of students who have received ASIST intervention. Initial results have been promising, including better coping and commitment to follow-up and decreased lethality.

 

Summary

Although 13 Reasons Why gives us pause for its poor portrayal of effective suicide intervention, we feel that the series raises awareness and, at its core, advocates a community-level response to suicide prevention. This message to “look out for each other” is aligned with more intervention-oriented gatekeeping. We have explored the impact of one such model, ASIST, in several educational settings and found that it improves responder behavior. Furthermore, this approach comes with a mindset that systems can harness their strengths (i.e., natural helpers) to focus on responding to and intervening with the student rather than simply identifying and referring the student to the system.

 

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Please contact me (Laura Shannonhouse) should you have any questions about our research.

 

 

Laura Shannonhouse is an assistant professor in the Counseling and Psychological Services Department at Georgia State University. Her research interests focus on crisis intervention and disaster response, particularly involving social justice issues in this context. Currently, she is conducting community-based research in K-12 schools (suicide first aid) to prevent youth suicide and with disaster-impacted populations in fostering meaning-making through one’s faith tradition (spiritual first aid).

 

Julia L. Whisenhunt is an associate professor of counselor education and college student affairs at the University of West Georgia. She specializes in the areas of self-injury, suicide prevention and creative counseling. She is particularly interested in the relationship between self-injury and suicide and ways that mental health professionals can apply this knowledge to clinical intervention.

 

Dennis Lin is an assistant professor at New Jersey City University, with areas of expertise in play therapy, child/adolescent counseling and assessment, suicide prevention/intervention, quantitative research and meta-analysis. He is also a certified master trainer of Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST).

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Aspiring to make suicide a relic of the past

By John McCarthy May 15, 2017

The story of yet another medical breakthrough related to some disease may not catch your attention. In fact, in an era of technological advances, such innovation is expected. After all, longer life spans and the defeat of diseases are seen as inevitable.

According to a story published last year in The New York Times, the rates of colon cancer, heart disease and dementia have all dropped in wealthier countries. Perhaps in the year 2117, people will wonder what those diseases even were.

My hope is that the same will be said for another primary cause of death, albeit one with a rate that is currently heading in the wrong direction. Suicide was the 10th-leading cause of death in the United States in 2014.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the age-adjusted rate for suicide increased 24 percent from 1999-2014. Rates were higher for both men and women in nearly all age groups over that period. The largest increases in suicide rates were found in girls ages 10-14 (a 200 percent increase) and in men ages 45-64 (a 43 percent increase). Firearms were responsible for the majority of male suicides, whereas the primary means among women involved poisoning.

Suicide accounted for nearly 43,000 deaths in the U.S. in 2014, according to the CDC. Put into perspective, the annual number of suicides equates to the entire population of many small U.S. cities, including places such as North Miami Beach, Florida; Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania; and Urbana, Illinois. Although violence is frequently and rightfully discussed in the media, the number of homicides in the U.S. in 2013 was approximately 16,000. In other words, for every death by homicide that we read about or hear about in the news, there are more than two completed suicides. These are lives lost that may go unnoticed by many.

Unlike with the medical diseases that I mentioned earlier, a similar story of progress for suicide prevention cannot yet be written. The NCHS found a current rate of 13 suicides per 100,000 population. A comparison with past decades yields similar findings. The rates per 100,000 population were 12.4, 12.6 and 10.6 in 1990, 1975 and 1959, respectively.

Furthermore, the economic cost is staggering. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention estimates that suicide costs our nation $44 billion annually. A recent study on depression, a disorder frequently associated with suicides, estimated an annual cost of $210 billion, an increase of 22 percent since 2000.

A look at the global picture is slightly different, however. Suicides throughout the world decreased 9 percent between 2000-2012, according to World Health Organization (WHO) data. Various factors, including national strategies and new treatments available for depression, were cited as possible reasons for the decrease.

So, perhaps there is hope for decreasing instances of suicide, just as we are witnessing declines in other leading causes of death. WHO’s Mental Health Action Plan 2013-2020 calls for a 20 percent increase in coverage for individuals with severe mental disorders and, simultaneously, a 10 percent reduction in global suicides. The success of such aims is contingent on early identification of suicidal behaviors, community-oriented supports for people who have attempted suicide and restricting access to commonly used methods of suicide.

The leading causes of death in the United States in 1890 included typhoid fever, diphtheria and cholera, none of which are seen in the rankings today. Perhaps in the coming years, people will review a similar list, and maybe — just maybe — suicide will be a thing of the past.

 

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John McCarthy is a professor in the Department of Counseling at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He is also a member of Ray of Hope: Westmoreland County Suicide Awareness and Prevention Task Force. Contact him at jmccarth@iup.edu.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Suicide statistics highlight veteran population’s acute need for counseling, inside and outside of the VA

By Bethany Bray September 12, 2016

The rate of veteran deaths by suicide increased 32 percent between 2001 and 2014, according to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). When compared with the U.S. civilian population, veterans have a 21 percent higher risk of dying by suicide.

The VA is calling the report, released in August, its most comprehensive analysis of rates of veteran suicides. The agency compiled data from more than 55 million veterans records from 1979 to 2014 from every U.S. state.

Among the findings was that between 2001 and 2014, the rate of suicide deaths among U.S.

U.S. Navy photo by Seaman Clark Lane/defense.gov

U.S. Navy photo by Seaman Clark Lane/defense.gov

veterans who used VA services increased 8.8 percent, whereas the suicide rate among veterans who did not use VA services increased 38.6 percent during that time frame.

In 2014, an average of 20 veterans died by suicide each day; approximately six per day were users of Veterans Health Administration (VHA) services.

“The VA’s latest report on veteran suicide is the most comprehensive to date and should be a call to arms for everyone in our profession who works with this population,” says Jeff Hensley, a Navy veteran who is an American Counseling Association member and a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in Texas.

“The data clearly shows that getting help, helps,” continues Hensley, a leadership fellow with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and director of clinical and veteran services at Equest, a therapeutic riding program in North Texas. “Those veterans who seek care have a suicide rate significantly lower than those who get no care at all. However, the VA is stretched to capacity — and many of those veterans who need help the most are either not registered with the VA or ineligible due to their discharge status. This leaves a significant gap between those who need help and the resources available to provide it. As professional counselors, we can step in and meet this need. Whether we work in community agencies serving veterans or volunteer our time with nonprofits like Give An Hour, counselors are in a unique position to significantly lower this troubling statistic.”

Other key findings in the VA report include:

  • In 2014, veterans made up 8.5 percent of the U.S. adult population, yet they accounted for 18 percent of all deaths by suicide. In 2010, veterans composed 9.7 percent of the U.S. population and accounted for 20.2 percent of deaths by suicide.
  • In 2014, roughly 67 percent of all veteran deaths by suicide involved firearms.
  • Roughly 65 percent of veterans who died by suicide in 2014 were age 50 or older.
  • In 2014, rates of suicide were highest among veterans ages 18 to 29. Rates of suicide among veterans age 70 or older were lower than were rates of suicide for the civilian population in the same age group.

Overall, U.S. rates of suicide have increased by 24 percent during the past 15 years.

The rate of veteran suicide gained public attention in 2012, when the VA released a report saying that 22 American veterans died by suicide every day of the year. That number has decreased to 20 per day (in 2014) in this most recent report.

In response, the VA has beefed up support services, including the creation of a toll-free crisis hotline and expanding telemental health care programs.

However, these efforts don’t address one glaring omission: Professional counselors are often excluded from jobs at VA facilities. A 2006 law recognized “licensed professional mental health counselors” and “marriage and family therapists” as mental health providers within the VA health care system. However, 10 years later, few VA job postings include counselors as candidates to fill those positions, and even fewer licensed counselors are actually hired.

“It’s noteworthy that within the ‘nation’s largest analysis of veteran suicide,’ there is no mention of words such as ‘medication,’ ‘pharmaceuticals,’ ‘counselor’ or ‘counseling,’” says Natosha Monroe, an Army veteran and Texas LPC who is a co-leader of ACA’s Veterans Interest Network. “I would be interested to know what exactly isn’t working in current treatment trends. I would love to see veterans have just as much access to nonpharmaceutical treatments such as professional counseling as they do VA psych meds.”

As Monroe recounts, “While working at the Pentagon [as an operations noncommissioned officer for comprehensive soldier fitness], I was literally told by a decision-maker that licensed professional counselors are not needed in the Army and that I should stop asking because that wasn’t going to change. I was told that ‘the current behavioral health providers are adequate.’ Well, the statistics say otherwise. I think it’s time to allow LPCs and licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFTs) to do our jobs. Our professions are the most specifically qualified to address the issues that troops and their families most often face: cognitive issues, transition issues and family challenges.

“It’s unfortunate that counselors and therapists are the only [mental health] professions completely excluded from every military branch,” Monroe says. “It’s frustrating that I am not allowed to be a behavioral health officer because I am a highly qualified LPC,” she continues. “Our professions are also the only ones blatantly discriminated against within the VA system despite Congress mandating our equal hiring — it still isn’t happening.”

“I’m not saying that correlation is causation, but I am definitely saying that veteran suicide rates are increasing, and there is persistent discrimination and exclusion of our profession,” Monroe concludes.

 

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Read the VA report in full here

 

Read a VA press release about the report here

 

Contact the Veterans Crisis Line or find out more at veteranscrisisline.net

 

Get involved with or find out more about ACA’s Veterans Interest Network here

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org

 

Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook at facebook.com/CounselingToday.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

 

 

Thriving, not just surviving: Un milagro de Dios

By Kelly M. Whaling July 18, 2016

“Catalina” (pseudonym used to protect the identity of the individual being interviewed) is not your typical medical student. Young, Dominicana and the first generation of her family born in washing machinesthe United States, she shoves her clothes into a washing machine in her apartment complex. Graciously, she answers questions about an epidemic in the Latina community: adolescent suicide.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2013, the United States saw one suicide every 13 minutes. A study conducted by Danice K. Eaton et al. in 2011 found that Latina adolescents attempt suicide at even higher rates than other gender and ethnic groups, with 14 percent of Latinas attempting suicide in a given year. This stands in stark contrast to attempts made by white adolescents (7.7 percent). A 2011 report by the CDC uncovered similar rates, with 20 percent of Latina adolescents reporting a plan to commit suicide and 11.1 percent attempting suicide.

Catalina tells me, “It’s just the nature of being an adolescent, wanting to fit in and being different in all of these ways. I’m not American enough, and I’m not Latina enough. It’s like trying to be one thing or the other, while being neither.”

This is not the first time that perceived differences, peer victimization and sociocultural factors have been linked to hardships in the Latina community. Furthermore, these hardships have been linked to increasingly common suicidal behavior in Latinas. In 2014, Andrea Romero, Lisa Edwards, Sheri Bauman and Marissa Ritter stated that levels of suicidality in the Latina adolescent community were epidemic. When reviewing the statistics, it’s truly a miracle of God (un milagro de Dios) that Catalina is alive — and not just alive, but thriving. Thriving with an education level that reaches far beyond her bachelor’s degree and with pride in her heart when she discusses the adversities that she faced growing up.

While navigating middle school and high school, Catalina contended with homelessness, poverty, the incarceration of a parent, the suicidality of a parent and her feelings of missing family members who had remained in the Dominican Republic. “I felt like my whole life, my way of coping with the bull—- was to put on this extremely tough exterior,” she tells me. “I don’t like to show weakness. It was adaptive because I had to be strong for my family.”

Painting a picture of what strength for her family looked like, and perhaps hinting at familismo as a protective factor against suicidality, Catalina laughs and says, “I feel like that was a lot of my issues growing up — this constant need to be tough and in control and be strong for my family. If people f—– with my sister, I would tell them I’d rip their face off. When I think back, I’m like, ‘Whoa, I was f—— insane.’”

All things considered, it doesn’t sound that “insane” to me. Given Catalina’s circumstances, it sounds adaptive. This was her coping mechanism to deal not only with family problems and problems faced by most adolescents, but also with struggles unique to being a Latina.

In a 2012 study paper, Allyson Nolle, Lauren Gulbas, Jill Kuhlberg and Luis Zayas suggested that a model of risk factors for suicidality in adolescent Latinas includes factors such as familismo, the adolescent’s own emotional vulnerability, acculturative stress, conflicts between the dominant culture and the culture of the family, immigration stress, socioeconomic status and gender roles.

Another possible factor that increases suicide rates in this population: Latina/os are less likely than other ethnic groups to seek mental health care. In 1999, William Vega, Bohdan Kolody, Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola and Ralph Catalano found that less than 20 percent of U.S.-born Latinos searched for mental health services. That number decreased to 9 percent when specifically considering whether an individual sought care in a mental health care setting as opposed to general practice. Other barriers to receiving services for Latina/os include insurance issues, transportation and stigma.

Thriving, rather than just surviving, indicates that through adversity, individuals are able to better themselves, grow from their experiences and develop adaptively. Although there are unique cultural factors that contribute to Latina adolescent suicidality, there are also unique factors that contribute to Latina thriving, as evidenced in the success of Catalina.

Given that Latina teens are at risk for many mental health challenges, how do they cope? How can we maximize upon this coping? Catalina attributes her own personal thriving over suicidality to an optimistic outlook of her future, including the assumption that she could go to college; familismo, including the sense that she could not take her life because her family needed her; and an acceptance of her cultural identity.

Regarding her cultural identity, Catalina shared, “I don’t have to be either this or that. If I like being or having certain things that, yes, confirm stereotypes, then f— it. That’s just the way it is. I like to shake my ass, and I like salsa and hoop [earrings] and red lipstick. I can get a little hood, but I can also go to college.”

Currently, the National Center for Education Statistics estimates that 15 percent of all undergraduates in the United States are Latinas, a number that rises sharply when looking at regions with high concentrations of Latina/o populations. As suggested through Catalina’s narrative and current social science statistics, there are unique factors that create hardships and mental health issues for Latina adolescents at a disproportionate rate. It is of the utmost importance that counselors focus on culturally relevant, fair and sensitive practices when working with Latinas, especially given their historical rates of college enrollment and barriers to college retention. Thus, those who work with Latina adolescents in any capacity should use culturally relevant coping mechanisms not only to buffer the influence of the hardships that Latinas face, but to encourage thriving among this client population.

Many scholars, including Zayas in 2005, have issued calls for more research to be conducted on Latina suicidality. With levels of suicide in this population rising disproportionately, we must utilize the participants as experts. Future research must be conducted from a communitarian psychology or liberation psychology framework, in which the individuals participating in studies have an active role in the research process. This results in an emancipatory experience for participants and a broader sense of the true and lived experiences of adolescent Latinas facing issues of depression and suicidality.

In addition, it is suggested that participants be invited back to take part in outreach workshops in the community as promotoras (lay community members who receive training in conducting workshops on special topics). This approach engenders more community trust and engagement, and it also increases self-esteem for the promotoras who are survivors of suicide.

In conclusion, it is important to note that whereas a significant amount of research exists on the deficits that can cause Latina adolescents to attempt suicide, a balanced amount of research is needed on the strengths that promote thriving, not just surviving in this community.

 

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Kelly M. Whaling is a counseling psychology doctoral student in the Department of Counseling, Clinical and School Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Contact her at kwhaling@education.ucsb.edu.