Monthly Archives: October 2019

Supporting survivors of suicide loss

By Dana M. Cea October 29, 2019

Each year, more than 40,000 people die from suicide in the United States, making suicide the 10th-leading cause of death in our nation. Worldwide, more than 800,000 people are lost to suicide annually. These are devastatingly high numbers. But an even larger number encompasses the people who have been impacted by a loved one’s death from suicide. They are known as survivors of suicide loss.

In 1973, psychologist and suicidologist Edwin S. Shneidman — who founded the American Association of Suicidology (AAS) — estimated that for every suicide death, there were six survivors affected. Thirty-eight years later, research by psychologist Alan L. Berman — at that time the executive director of AAS — determined there were anywhere from five to 80 or more survivors of suicide loss for each suicide death. That year, 2011, was the same year my dad died from suicide.

The response to my dad’s death made Berman’s research findings seem like a significant underestimation. Hundreds of people showed up for my dad’s funeral and contacted our family after his death. A 2018 article published by the American Association of Suicidology found the number of people impacted by one suicide death to be around 135 people. Thus, approximately 6 million people in the United States are affected by suicide loss each year.

 

Survivor day

After I found out my dad had died from suicide, I called my previous college therapist. Even though I had not seen her in more than a year, she called me back. She listened, she validated, she empathized — all of the things you hope a therapist would do. She also told me about a day specifically to support survivors of suicide loss: International Survivors of Suicide Day (Survivor Day for short). In 1999, Sen. Harry Reid, who had lost his father to suicide, introduced a resolution to create an annual day for survivors of suicide loss to come together for healing and support. Congress designated the Saturday before Thanksgiving as Survivor Day.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) supports hundreds of Survivor Day events around the world. Each year, AFSP creates a documentary of the stories of suicide loss survivors that is shown at Survivor Day events. Both the documentaries and the events focus on healing, surviving and thriving. Survivor Day events offer survivors of suicide loss a safe space to “find connection, understanding and hope through their shared experience.” Past documentaries can be viewed on AFSP’s website.

Since 2012, I have assisted in hosting a local Survivor Day each year. This year, I am hosting the event in Greenville, North Carolina, at East Carolina University’s Navigate Counseling Clinic, part of the Department of Addictions and Rehabilitation Studies, where I am pursuing my doctorate. At past events, I have witnessed survivors talking about their loved one’s death from suicide for the first time — sometimes years or decades after their loss. I have heard survivors share their experiences of shame, guilt, anger and grief. I have also heard stories about funny, kind, caring, smart, artistic and achieving loved ones who have been lost to suicide. I have experienced connections that may not have been found anywhere else.

 

Support groups

In 2011, Survivor Day fell on the same day as my dad’s funeral, and in a sense, we held our own impromptu Survivor Day event. Without the actual designation or documentary, hundreds of people came together as survivors of the suicide loss of my dad. After I went back to Tennessee, where I was living at the time, I began individual therapy with a local provider. I remember feeling that she did not “get it”  — the “it” being all that comes with the loss of a loved one to suicide. However, she gave me information about the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network, which was hosting a support group for survivors of suicide loss in my area. That support group is where I found others who did get it.

The support group members did not blame each other for their loved one’s death. They did not make comments such as “I hope God forgives your dad”; “You should have known this was going to happen”; “Your dad is in a better place now”; “I do not know how I could keep living if I were you”; “Why didn’t you stop him?”; “That was so selfish of him to do that to you”; or any of the other insensitive remarks that survivors of suicide loss so often hear.

Some of the group members had people in their lives who no longer talked to them or who actively avoided them. Yet the support group members continued to show up for each other. When group members tried to talk with other people about their pain or how their loved one had died, the conversations often shut down immediately. Yet the support group members encouraged one another to share and express their emotions.

Losing someone to suicide is very different from losing someone to another cause of death. And sometimes, finding someone who understands your loss requires finding someone who has also lost someone to suicide.

 

Postvention

Postvention is the work done to support survivors of suicide loss. In my master’s counseling program, we learned some about suicide prevention, yet suicide postvention was hardly mentioned. Although suicide prevention and intervention training can be inadequate in some counseling programs, suicide postvention training is often nonexistent. So, how can we as mental health professionals help clients who have lost a loved one to suicide?

First, we can be trained to provide services specifically tailored for survivors of suicide loss. AFSP’s website has a list of clinicians trained in suicide bereavement. These clinicians have been through a daylong training workshop that includes information about what being a survivor of suicide loss means, the impact the loss has on survivors’ mental health and well-being, and common themes survivors may experience in their bereavement. Clinicians also learn clinical techniques that can help survivors work through their bereavement and piece their lives back together. AFSP provides training for professionals interested in becoming suicide bereavement clinicians.

AFSP also provides training for clinicians who want to lead or facilitate support groups for survivors of suicide loss. There are two different versions of the training: one for facilitating adult support groups and another for child and teen groups. Each program lasts two days and includes lectures, interactive discussions, and role-playing.

Clinicians who are not interested in leading a group can still give clients a list of AFSP-curated support groups for survivors of suicide loss.

Hosting a Survivor Day in your area is another powerful way of helping suicide survivors, some of whom may be more comfortable with a one-day event rather than regularly attending a support group. The Out of the Darkness Community Walk is another one-day event. These walks, which take place in numerous locations nationwide, are not specifically for survivors of suicide loss. Their purpose is to raise awareness — and funds — to help prevent suicide. These walks are also where many survivors of suicide loss find support for the first time. Each walk is sponsored by a local chapter of AFSP, and being connected to those chapters can give clinicians access to resources to help themselves and clients.

 

Other resources

When I called to set up therapy after my dad died from suicide, I was told the wait was several weeks. During that time, I leaned on the support of family, friends and co-workers. I wish I had known about some of the resources available to recent survivors of suicide loss.

Healing Conversations is an AFSP program that connects recent survivors of suicide loss to volunteers who are also survivors and have been through a training and vetting process. Healing Conversations, formerly known as the Survivor Outreach Program, offers that connection to people without the pressure of therapy, groups or events. Survivors simply submit a form through the AFSP website, and a coordinator connects the survivor and a volunteer for an in-person visit, phone call, or video call.

AFSP’s I’ve Lost Someone page contains a variety of helpful tools, including practical information for immediately after a loss, resources to help loss survivors find support, and self-care recommendations. Schools, colleges and workplace managers can also access postvention toolkits. Survivors can use the page to identify ways to honor loved ones lost to suicide through digital and physical memory quilts, memorial funds, and Out of the Darkness walks.

AFSP is not the only organization that provides helpful resources and information. The Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC) offers a variety of suicide prevention resources, training programs and toolkits, including “Suicide Prevention Competencies for Faith Leaders.” SPRC’s website also has sections devoted to postvention and supporting survivors of suicide loss.

The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) offers “compassionate care to all those grieving the loss of a loved one who died while serving in our Armed Forces or as a result of his or her service.”

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has suicide prevention coordinators at each VA medical center nationwide. They can help active-duty members and veterans get counseling and needed services. The suicide prevention coordinators are also incredible resources for families, loved ones and communities.

 

Talking about suicide

The phrase “commit suicide” can be one of the worst things that a survivor of suicide loss hears. Where did this phrase come from? For hundreds of years, attempting or dying from suicide was an actual crime in Britain. Punishments may have included denial of a funeral, burial alone without a marker, desecration of the body, and confiscation of the person’s property. States such as Maryland and Virginia, despite having developed their own laws, continue to recognize this law. The phrase “commit suicide” reinforces the suggestion of suicide as a crime.

Two other phrases that come across as icky, for lack of a more scientific term, are “completed suicide” and “successful suicide,” as if death were the preferred outcome of an attempt. Advocates for suicide prevention and postvention encourage the use of “died by suicide.” While I see this as a much-preferred phrase, I take the phrase one step further and use “died from suicide.” I have never heard anyone say someone “died by” a heart attack, an accident, cancer, or any other disease. People commonly say that someone “died from” whatever the cause of death was. Therefore, I prefer “died from suicide.”

Other advocates prefer to say that someone “died from a mental illness” rather than from suicide. Although I can see the intention behind this phrasing, the reality is that not everyone who dies from suicide has a mental health condition. In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), after examining suicide statistics in 27 states from 1999-2016, released a report showing that more than 50% of people who died from suicide did not have a diagnosed mental health condition at the time of their death. Reading and quoting these statistics can make the conversation confusing, and the bottom line is that there are tens of thousands of people dying from suicide each year who do not have a mental illness.

Regardless of your current or future involvement in supporting survivors, I ask one thing of each of you reading this: Please be aware of how you talk or joke about suicide. Both AFSP and SPRC have guidelines for talking about suicide: Speaking Out About Suicide and Suicide Reporting Recommendations.

 

Suicide’s impact on counselors

As mental health professionals, we are not immune to being impacted by losses from suicide. While I am not going to delve into our legal responsibilities, I will touch on our ethical responsibilities. If we lose someone to suicide, we may be affected by our grief more than we realize, and this can take a personal toll and negatively affect our work with clients. I encourage us as mental health professionals to take care of ourselves, to seek support, and to take off as much time as needed so that we can live up to the ethical responsibilities we have to provide competent care.

I also implore mental health professionals to bracket their values that may be harmful when discussing death from suicide with clients. If someone comes to me and says that they will not attempt suicide because that would be a sin, I will use that as a protective factor with the person. However, I would not tell someone that attempting or dying from suicide is a sin. The reality is that many religions and places of worship no longer view suicide as a sin and have come to realize the part that mental health and life situations play in deaths from suicide.

If you do decide to offer services specifically to survivors of suicide loss, or if some of your clients are or become survivors of suicide loss, please consider seeking training, consultation and supervision. Survivors of suicide loss are at higher risk of having thoughts of suicide due to their exposure to suicide compounded with their grief. Grief journeys can be difficult enough without the additional layers that come with a suicide loss. Gaining additional expertise in counseling survivors of suicide loss through training, consultation and supervision can make all the difference in the care you provide to clients.

 

Conclusion

As we continue to raise awareness and work to prevent suicide, we can expand our efforts to assist those who have been affected by suicide. Please join me in supporting survivors of suicide loss by being aware of and using available resources, encouraging postvention efforts, talking about suicide safely, and taking care of ourselves so that we can continue to provide effective mental health services.

 

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Dana M. Cea, pronouns she/her or they/them, is a volunteer for the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, a mental health professional, a survivor of suicide loss, and a current doctoral student at East Carolina University. She focuses her research on mental health and suicide, the LGBTQ+ community, youth, and autism spectrum disorder. Dana lives with mental health disorders, her spouse, and their three dogs. Contact her at danamcea.com.

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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.

CEO’s Message: Be not fearful of our future

Richard Yep

Richard Yep, ACA CEO

Last month, Governing Council convened to discuss the American Counseling Association’s current strategic plan. Now in its second year, this road map helps to chart our direction for both the association and the profession. More than just an academic exercise, ACA’s plan is a living, breathing, evolving guide for ACA. I was impressed with the engagement, energy and discussion that took place.

The current challenges to the counseling profession take place at many levels, and the strategic plan helps us make decisions about deploying the finite resources we have. In the “old days,” one or two state-level issues might have come across our desk each year. So far this year, what has come across our “desktop” is no less than a dozen active issues, at least four of which could have a significant impact on those of you in practice.

The need for qualified, appropriately trained, and committed professional counselors is critical. Yet during this time, some of the most drastic challenges faced by the profession involve your ability to diagnose and treat, your ability to provide services to all who are in need, and, of course, your ability to be reimbursed for the important roles you play in society.

ACA must stand strong against the forces that would seek to limit your scope of work and ability to practice. Some of these challenges arise out of a simple lack of understanding on the part of others about the education, preparation, credentials and research base that are part of the counseling profession. Unfortunately, some of these challenges also originate from those who belong to the mental health profession.

How in the world can this happen? We live in a society where children are forced to grow up so much faster, when seniors in need of counseling are denied those services simply because of an out-of-date government regulation, and when hate crimes and persecution of people are on the rise. Despite the shortage of mental health providers for those in need, there are some in the mental health profession who are more interested in limiting the work of professional counselors. I am not sure if this is simply a sign of being ignorant of the exemplary work you do or if there might be a deeper strategy to totally emasculate the counseling profession.

ACA understands what it needs to do for its members, for the profession, and, ultimately, for those who benefit from the services you provide. Many of you may be aware of the decision by the ACA Governing Council to appropriate up to $600,000 to pursue the portability of counselor licenses across state lines through interstate compacts. Phase one of that project launched last month. In addition, we have deployed ACA’s public policy team to various states this year and asked them to establish stronger alliances with those who share common public policy interests. We simply must advance and protect the counseling profession.

There are some outstanding mental health providers in social work, psychology, and marriage and family therapy who operate outside of a counseling framework but understand the professional ecosystem. They know how each of you plays a special role in delivering critical and important services. In fact, most of those in the sister professions walk that path with ACA. Unfortunately, there are a select few who cause unwarranted havoc, resulting in damage to the reputation of the entire mental health profession.

I am proud of the path that ACA leaders and staff have practiced for decades. ACA prides itself on taking the proverbial high road. Our leadership understands that if we are to provide for clients and students, all aspects of the helping community need to work together. Staying true to our principles reflects the foundations of the counseling profession.

As always, I look forward to your comments, questions and thoughts. Feel free to call me at 800-347-6647 ext. 231 or to email me at ryep@counseling.org. You can also follow me on Twitter: @Richyep.

Be well.

From the President: Counselors embracing their roles as advocates

Heather Trepal

Heather Trepal, the 68th president of the American Counseling Association

A slogan on a basketball team shirt for our local high school reads: F.E.A.R: Forget Everything and Run or Face Everything and Rise? The Choice is Yours.

By definition, counselors are agents of change. We are called upon, via our ethical codes, competencies, and personal vision, to advocate for and with our clients and communities. We are a mission-based profession.

When we think about advocating for our profession, however, the task can feel daunting. We can feel small and inadequate when faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Current issues facing our profession can pose real barriers for counselors. Sometimes advocacy involves defending our profession against external threats to our scope of practice, the regulation of our licensure, Title IX reporting concerns on college campuses, or the defining of counselor-to-student ratios in schools. Other times, advocacy involves standing up for inclusion, such as expanding counselor employment prospects in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) or in medical settings. In still other instances, issues such as licensure portability and parity require counselor advocacy to achieve basic equity with other professions.

Many members are not aware that ACA currently employs three full-time government relations staff and will be hiring for a fourth position. We also use outside legislative on certain issues. ACA has brought on more new and experienced public policy, social media, and engagement strategists.

ACA is a strong advocate for the Medicare Access Improvement Act. This bill would allow licensed professional counselors (LPCs) to practice independently under Medicare. In addition, given a number of rules being promulgated that would affect professional counselors delivering services in regard to the opioid crisis, ACA’s government relations staff has also been meeting with the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. In addition, ACA has been partnering with the VA, and specifically with the offices that provide direction on hiring within VA facilities. In fact, the VA sent representatives to the ACA 2019 Conference to explain how LPCs can obtain jobs in VA facilities. We have been working with organizations both inside and outside of the profession on rule changes in states across the country that have the potential to impact licensed counselors’ ability to practice. Finally, ACA continues to move forward on prioritizing seamless portability for counselors. In an effort to operationalize the ACA licensure portability model, we are engaging in an interstate compact process that would allow states to come together to craft a path for those who want to work in those states in a compact area.

This year, we also have a Professional Advocacy Training Task Force charged with identifying strategies that ACA can use to empower and support counselors in becoming effective advocates for the profession. We regularly send out announcements and VoterVoice updates encouraging member participation in advocacy efforts that affect counselors on the state and national levels. There is much advocacy work to do — and we need everyone in the profession to be involved.

I tend to think of advocacy in terms of organized advocacy (e.g., efforts toward changing federal or state legislation) and daily advocacy, or all of the continuous, ongoing and in-the-moment efforts to positively promote the counseling profession. Advocacy is challenging work, but I challenge professional counselors to discover their mission for the profession and to commit to professional advocacy, whether that involves engaging in organized or in-the-moment advocacy. Regardless of whether you are a practicing counselor, a counseling student, a counselor educator, a retired counselor, a counselor supervisor, or someone else who is in invested in the work of counseling, this profession needs you. Notice that I used the title counselor in each of the preceding descriptions. We are all in this profession together, and the truth is, the most important voice is yours. You can do this.

 

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Follow Heather on Twitter @HeatherTrepal

Suicide prevention strategies with the military-affiliated population

By Duane France and Juliana Hallows

Every suicide is a tragedy affecting families, friends and whole communities, but when everyone works together to help those in need, suicide becomes preventable. All of us have a role to play in preventing service member, veteran, and military family (SMVF) suicide.

Within the Department of Defense (DoD), the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and the community, professional counselors play a critical role in providing support to this population. Through a community public health approach with dedicated partners and a willingness to learn and adapt to the changing needs of veterans, we can prevent suicide and help individuals live, work and thrive in the community of their choice. Because professional counselors approach mental health from a wellness perspective, they are uniquely qualified to not only support military-affiliated clients, but to advocate for wellness approaches in the communities where they live and serve.

The federal government is working diligently to address suicide in a number of different ways. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has released a number of strategies created to reduce the number of deaths by suicide, and last year, the VA published a 10-year strategic plan outlining how all parts of the country can work together to support veterans. Additionally, President Trump recently signed an executive order known as the President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End the National Tragedy of Suicide (PREVENTS), which establishes a task force to engage stakeholders nationwide in suicide prevention efforts.

Using a public health approach

Suicide prevention remains the VA’s top clinical priority, but the fact remains that no one person, organization or program can do it alone. The public health approach asks all facets of the community, including mental health professionals, to work together toward a solution. The VA, as a member of the community, has a critical opportunity to meaningfully connect to community stakeholders to save neighbors, family members and friends.

Every VA facility has a suicide prevention coordinator who is asked to step out of their facilities and into their communities to build relationships with community partners that are vested and connected to service members, veterans, their caregivers and their families. Through this model, researchers, clinicians and partners collaborate for suicide prevention by identifying community issues, developing and implementing strategies to address those issues (through maximizing protective factors and minimizing risk factors related to suicide), and creating an evaluative process for those implemented strategies.

Of the 20 million veterans nationwide, less than half use Veterans Health Administration services. That makes it challenging to identify veterans who may be at risk for suicide and to connect them with mental health care professionals, peer networks, employment, and other resources known to bolster protective factors and help with coping. As large and robust of a network as the VA is, this challenge cannot be solved by the VA alone.

Community hospitals, clinics, and health care professionals across the nation play a key role in preventing suicide because they are integrated into the local fabric of the SMVF community. VA partnerships with community health care providers expand access to care to SMVF members in the communities where they live, work and thrive. In addition, not all those who die by suicide necessarily access mental health care services prior to their deaths. This means that community organizations such as veterans groups, recreational teams, faith-based centers, and myriad other community supports can serve as potential collaborators to build on suicide prevention efforts.

Part of improving access and building a public health approach is identifying those who are part of the SMVF community. For example, the New Hampshire Legislative Commission on Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury created an initiative for stakeholder agencies to add a question about service member and veteran status, thus improving referral and access to services within the SMVF community. By adding the question “Have you or a family member ever served in the military?” to intake, enrollment and health history forms, counselors create opportunities to discuss military experiences and their impact on clients’ lives. This provides the benefit of informing treatment and connecting individuals to SMVF-specific resources (see askthequestionnh.com/about/why-ask). Identifying the SMVF community can also happen across varying community services, thus strengthening care coordination and supports.

In addition to asking clients about their military status, professional counselors can be particularly helpful in building the public health approach by asking the following questions:

  • How is the community collecting and reporting data on SMVF suicides?
  • How are the local emergency rooms collecting data on suicide attempts?
  • Does the community have a strategic initiative to address SMVF suicides?

If there are no answers to these questions, counselors can work with their communities to implement more effective strategies. Communities can also implement these strategies beyond the service member and veteran populations to include caregivers and loved ones. There still is a long way to go in identifying and understanding all of the risk factors and protective factors for suicide among the spouses and children of service members and veterans.

Although the VA is expanding community care for the SMVF population, community health care providers need to develop the same level of military cultural competence as exhibited by providers within the VA. It is essential that health care providers understand the cultural issues related to military service that may give veterans mixed feelings about receiving health care. These cultural issues include:

1) Concerns that seeking care, particularly mental health care, will harm their careers, whether military or civilian.

2) Fears about how they could be perceived by others for seeking care, such as being seen as “weak” by their peers.

3) The belief that overall mission success is a greater priority than their own well-being.

In Phoenix, VA teams have partnered with the Arizona Coalition for Military Families to provide military culture training to local behavioral health providers. In Richmond, Virginia, the McGuire VA Medical Center partnered with the Richmond Behavioral Health Authority to include VA resources on the state’s behavioral health website.

In addition to building cultural competency, community health care providers need to be able to offer the SMVF population the same type of evidence-based practices provided through the VA. This may be achieved through partnering with local VA providers on trainings that build on clinical skills for suicide prevention. The VA developed a Community Provider Toolkit (see mentalhealth.va.gov/communityproviders/index.asp) to help community providers, including counselors, gain a deeper understanding of military culture.

Through the public health approach, everyone has a role to play in preventing SMVF suicide. By considering level of risk and the factors beyond mental health that contribute to suicide, communities can deliver resources and support to SMVF populations earlier, before they reach a crisis point.

Maximizing protective factors

A critical component of SMVF suicide prevention is identifying the protective factors that prevent these individuals from getting into crisis. As noted in the CDC’s Preventing Suicide: A Technical Package of Policies, Programs, and Practices (2017), there are many strategies to build up protective factors. Some of these protective factors include promoting connectedness, improving economic stability, and increasing education and awareness about suicide within the population and throughout the community. These strategies fit well into Thomas Joiner’s interpersonal-psychological theory of suicidal behavior, in which he proposes that individuals die by suicide when there is a desire and capacity to do so. He posits that a sense of isolation, feelings of burdensomeness, and an ability to engage in self-harm all correlate with increased risk of suicide.

Connectedness

Promoting connectedness in the military population helps to reduce a person’s sense of isolation. This strategy has two critical components: peer norm programs and community engagement activities. 

Counselors in the VA leverage community partnerships, promote family engagement, and encourage those around SMVF populations to ensure they remain connected to their loved ones and peers. The Veteran Resource Locator, for instance, links veterans and their loved ones, or community providers, with programs and services in their area, both within the VA and in the community. Counselors consistently look to engage family members in veterans’ treatment to increase their support systems. Local VA facilities conduct extensive outreach in the community to form partnerships with organizations in which veterans and service members are involved. For example, in Billings, Montana, the VA and community teams developed a local veterans meet-up group to help service members stay connected to their community during transition from active duty. Group members meet regularly for cookouts and conversation.

Counselors in the community can also support efforts to improve connectedness. For example, counselors can become familiar with peer support programs in their communities or get involved in the development of such programs if none exist. If organizations exist within the community that provide opportunities for the SMVF population to engage with others while supporting their community (e.g., Team Rubicon; Team Red, White & Blue; The Mission Continues; Travis Manion Foundation), counselors can get to know who is in the organization. Counselors can provide referrals to these organizations and invite representatives to speak to their colleagues.

Economic stability

A suicidal crisis in a member of the SMVF population does not happen in a vacuum. Increasing economic stability is a significant protective factor in preventing suicide. As service members transition out of the military, whether they have served for four years or 24 years, the majority are young enough to be able to continue in another career. When housing, employment and finances are not stable, this can cause additional stress for this population and increase feelings of burdensomeness.

Counselors in the community can maintain a list of referral agencies that support housing, employment and financial support. These organizations play an important role in reducing SMVF suicide, whether they realize it or not. If a service member or veteran is in financial crisis, they may be in a psychological crisis too.

The VA is increasingly working to support veterans in financial distress through the Financial Assistance for High Risk Veterans program. This program, available at many VA facilities, creates a partnership between local VA facility suicide prevention coordinators and revenue staff. Should a veteran with high risk of suicide also require assistance related to financial distress, the suicide prevention coordinator would connect the veteran to revenue staff. These staff would work personally with the veteran to apply for a VA financial hardship program that best fits the veteran’s financial situation.

As counselors in the community and the VA become aware of how financial stressors are interacting with the sense of burdensomeness in their clients, they can incorporate clinical moments to discuss and assess suicide risk while also developing strategies to build economic support. Together, clinicians inside and outside of the VA can bolster the network of housing, employment and financial assistance through reviewing what is available in the community and developing strong referral processes.

Education and awareness

A third protective factor is increasing community education and awareness about SMVF suicide and suicide prevention. This is yet another area in which professional counselors can make an impact. Counselors who are familiar with suicide prevention efforts can help others become familiar with them too. Providing greater awareness in the community is important. It is also critical to educate medical professionals about the problem. A large number of those who have died by suicide saw their primary care providers a month or less before their deaths (see ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12042175). Counselors can support their communities by facilitating or promoting gatekeeper training for those serving the military-affiliated population.

The VA has invested significantly in education around suicide. VA employees take annual suicide prevention training. VA facilities also conduct extensive community outreach to ensure that partners are aware of resources available to veterans and their families.

Counselors in the community can also take the initiative to become educated on SMVF suicide. The VA has partnered with PsychArmor Institute to provide free online access to the S.A.V.E. suicide prevention training (available at psycharmor.org/courses/s-a-v-e). In addition, VA suicide prevention coordinators partner with community providers to offer in-person training to those who need it. In their role as advocates, counselors can work with local leaders to provide clinical expertise connected to community suicide prevention efforts, whether that be public awareness campaigns or participation in local SMVF suicide prevention efforts.

Minimizing risk factors

Unfortunately, no matter how much we invest in preventive efforts, the possibility still exists that a member of the military-affiliated population will experience a suicidal crisis. When this happens, the community needs to be just as prepared to identify and reduce risk factors as it is to identify and implement protective factors. Both the CDC and the VA have identified more than a dozen risk factors that may lead to suicidal thoughts and behaviors, but there are three areas where professional counselors can be especially helpful.

Access to care

Of all the risk factors and protective factors identified here, the area in which counselors are most likely to be naturally involved is improving access to safer care. When it comes to the military-affiliated population, this means improving culturally competent care, reducing barriers to care, and reducing the mental health provider shortage for those organizations that serve this population.

The VA has done much to improve access to care for veterans, including the expansion and promotion of the Veterans Crisis Line (VeteransCrisisLine.net), a 24-hour service that veterans can call, text, or chat with at any time to receive immediate support. The VA also provides same-day access for veterans in need of mental health care and has built a robust telemental health and call center network that can direct veterans to get the care they need. In addition, the VA sponsors Coaching Into Care (mirecc.va.gov/coaching), a free service that educates, supports and empowers family members and friends who are seeking care for loved ones who are veterans. In addition, the DoD expanded nonmedical mental health services for the SMVF population up to a full year after leaving active duty.

Counselors in the community must be just as ready as their colleagues in the VA to improve access to care. It is incumbent upon counseling professionals to ensure that they develop and maintain an understanding of the unique psychological challenges faced by the SMVF population and that they are available to serve those individuals who do not access care through the VA or DoD.

Community counselors also have the ability to be important advocates for the profession through mentorship, collaboration and consultation. Increasing the number of veterans and military family members who consider careers in the mental health field is an excellent way to improve access to care for this population.

Lethal means safety

One area that deserves discussion but often goes unmentioned is the need for counselors to address the ability of clients to engage in self-harm. This includes talking about lethal means safety, particularly with those in the military-affiliated population.

Veterans are more likely to die from firearm-related suicide than are those in the general U.S. population, according to the VA’s 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report (see mentalhealth.va.gov/suicide_prevention/data.asp). Safe storage of lethal means is any action that builds in time and space between a suicidal impulse and the ability to harm oneself. It addresses how to be safe from any lethal means, including firearms, prescription medications, and suicide hot spots.

This topic can be sensitive, especially because veterans have experience with and are comfortable with firearms. Effective lethal means safety counseling is collaborative, veteran-centered, and consistent with their values and priorities. Although the most preferred way of preventing SMVF suicide is to keep these individuals from going into crisis in the first place, lethal means safety plans are critical to preparing for suicidal crises should they arise.

The VA has made significant efforts to impact the conversation around lethal means safety. For example, it distributes free gunlocks to veterans and provides safe medication disposal envelopes at facilities across the country. The VA also recently instituted a nationally standardized safety planning template that ensures veterans have high-quality suicide prevention safety plans. Veterans and their providers work together to complete the plans, which identify innovative and feasible actions that can be taken to reduce access to lethal means. Suicide prevention coordinators within the VA have participated in firearm shows and fairs, providing materials and gunlocks directly to gun owners in their communities through partnering with local firearm groups.

Counselors in the community must be just as informed and prepared as counselors in the VA to discuss lethal means safety. They should be aware of locations that provide out-of-home firearm storage in the community and be able to have honest discussions with clients about when and how to use these resources. Counselors can partner with other community agencies to identify these resources. For example, the Colorado School of Public Health and the University of Colorado School of Medicine at the Anschutz Medical Campus have established the Colorado Gun Storage Map, provided for those community members seeking local options for temporary, voluntary firearm storage (see coloradofirearmsafetycoalition.org/gun-storage-map).

Counselors must take the same care when it comes to storage of prescription medications. In addition, community counselors may be more able than their VA counterparts to partner with local law enforcement to identify and mitigate suicide hot spots.

Postvention

A final area that counselors must address to reduce the risk of suicide in the SMVF population is postvention. Engaging service members, veterans, families, and providers after a suicide loss can promote healing, minimize adverse outcomes for those affected, and decrease the risk of suicide contagion. Postvention is critical to preventing additional suicides in the immediate social network of the person who died by suicide. Those bereaved by another person’s suicide have a greater probability of attempting suicide than do those bereaved by other causes of death. Those bereaved by another person’s suicide are also at increased risk for several physical and mental health conditions.

Community providers play a significant role in postvention. Clients who have attempted suicide are at a higher risk for future attempts unless the underlying problems that led to the attempt are addressed. Community providers are also important in addressing postvention needs in those left behind because of a death by suicide, such as the spouse and child of a service member or veteran. Whereas veterans may be served through the VA and service members may be served through the DoD, spouses and children of service members and veterans may not have access to the resources they need. This is where professional counselors in the community can offer support. For example, SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education) has excellent postvention resources for coping with loss (see save.org/find-help/coping-with-loss).

The VA has implemented processes to increase postvention efforts in its facilities. The VA provides its staff with suicide postvention guidance that can be tailored to meet the needs of each individual facility. Postvention efforts should include everyone who might have been affected by the death, including veterans, their families, and employees. Following a suicide, efforts are made to promote healing and support the deceased veteran’s family. Many local VA organizations have partnerships with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (afsp.org) and the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (taps.org/suicideloss) to provide support to veterans’ family members and friends.

Additionally, the free, confidential Suicide Risk Management Consultation Program (mirecc.va.gov/visn19/consult) is available to assist staff with training on postvention. This program provides consultation, support and resources that promote therapeutic best practices for providers working with veterans at risk of suicide. It offers tailored, one-on-one support with consultants who have years of experience with veteran suicide prevention.

Suicide prevention is everyone’s job

The strategies to prevent suicide in the SMVF population are as complex as the risk factors for suicide itself. Unlike other challenges that SMVF clients face, such as homelessness and unemployment, success in reducing suicide is not clearly defined. If clients are housed, they are no longer homeless, and if clients are employed, they are no longer unemployed. The measure of success in suicide reduction is not just the absence of suicidal self-harm, however, but the presence of a life worth living and an overall level of wellness in the client.

This is where professional counselors can play a role in their clients’ lives and in their communities. Members of the military-affiliated population have sacrificed and served, regardless of when, where and how they served. It is necessary — and possible — to serve them in return, providing them the life of wellness and stability that they desire and deserve.

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For more information and resources, visit mentalhealth.va.gov and veteranmentalhealth.com. Additional resources for veterans, families, and community providers can be found at BeThereForVeterans.com and MakeTheConnection.net

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Duane France is a retired Army noncommissioned officer, combat veteran, and licensed professional counselor. He is the director of veteran services for the Family Care Center, a privately owned outpatient mental health clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado, that specializes in serving the military-affiliated population. He also writes and speaks about veteran mental health on his blog and podcast, Head Space and Timing (veteranmentalhealth.com), and writes the monthly “From Combat to Counseling” column for CT Online.

Juliana Hallows is a national board certified and professionally licensed counselor. She serves veterans, their families, and communities through the VA National Suicide Prevention Program, where she is a health system specialist for policy and legislation.

 

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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Related reading: Counseling Today‘s September cover story, “Making it safe to talk about suicidal ideation

 

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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.

How do you know it’s not counseling?

By Jenny Heuer October 28, 2019

It was my “aha!” moment as a counselor. My mentor had captured it in one question: “How do you know it’s not counseling?”

What I had been taught and what I had envisioned as counseling was the Carl Rogers, one-hour, chair-to-chair, face-to-face session, and that was definitely not happening. I was counseling an individual in the middle stage of dementia. I would sit and listen about how she was getting on and off a train and how she wanted to learn to knit again to make clothes for her grandbabies. My client had not been on a train. And as much as I wished for her hands to be OK, they weren’t capable of coordinating the task of knitting because of the impact of dementia.

So, I would just sit and listen — usually right next to her on the couch because she had hearing issues. Sometimes the sessions would not even last an hour. In fact, at times, they lasted only 30 minutes because I could tell she was getting tired. I felt bad and started to fear that ethically I was doing the wrong thing. How could I spend only 30 minutes with this client listening to her repeated story of getting on and off a train and knitting?

I began to wonder whether I was taking advantage of the situation. After all, I was getting paid to work with this client, but the process didn’t resemble what I thought counseling should look like. Eventually, I told the family I couldn’t ethically continue to work with the client because her dementia prevented her from processing. However, the son wanted me to continue spending time with his mother, even if it only involved activities such as drawing.

In my mind, this did not equate to “true” therapeutic process. So, I called my mentor, and that’s when she asked one simple question: “How do you know it’s not counseling?”

I felt the weight and pressure of my boxed-in idea of counseling lift off my shoulders. I consider myself to be an outside-the-box, creative individual. Why had I not considered this to be counseling? In continuing to discuss the situation, my mentor encouraged me to further expand my definition of counseling. “I think we all need to broaden our perspective on what constitutes counseling,” she said. “We get hung up on the picture of therapy and forget that it is all about meeting the needs of the client.”

What makes this situation even more embarrassing is that I specialize in working with individuals with dementia. Whatever their disease stage, I listen to them in the moment, meeting them where they are and identifying the feelings they are experiencing. How were my sessions with this client any different? I was meeting her where she was in the moment and reflecting on her feelings about the adventures on the train and the excitement about the idea of knitting again. It wasn’t my job as a counselor to contradict her story or her sense of her own abilities. It was never about the content. I was that person sitting next to another human being who just wanted to be heard. This situation was beyond counseling techniques and textbook knowledge. This was person-centered empathy at its core. I realized then that even when I question whether I am helping, I am.

 

Providing a sense of safety and security

Knowing how to respond to a client’s concern — which may or may not be based in reality — can be challenging. For example, I met an individual with late-stage dementia who wanted to leave a locked unit to get to his wife, who was sick. He walked from door to door trying to get out. Although the client’s wife was not sick, at first I didn’t correct his misapprehension. Instead, I asked myself how I would feel if my partner were sick and I couldn’t get to them. Then I said to this individual, “That sounds scary, and I know you are worried.”

In cases such as this one, there is some debate about which technique is appropriate: therapeutic lying or validation therapy. I side on using both techniques to keep an individual calm and limit the potential for agitation and aggression. In this instance, I told the client that his wife was safe, and a sense of calm came over him.

In some cases, it’s most therapeutic to just “go along” with the client. I often meet individuals in the later stages of dementia who walk up to me and say, “It’s been such a long time. It’s wonderful to see you.” Except I have never met these individuals before. But how would I feel if I encountered someone I always enjoyed spending time with whom I hadn’t seen in a long time? I would feel excited. So, I will often respond to these individuals by saying, “It has been a long time. It is so nice to see you again.” Responding like this often elicits a warm smile, hug or handshake from the person.

Sometimes the only choice is to support and affirm a client’s recognition of a painful truth. The client I referenced originally knew that her memory was fading, and that was her worst fear. How would I feel under the same circumstances? I would feel scared. I told her, as I tell other clients in similar situations, that what she was experiencing sounded scary but that she was safe with me, that I was here with her. Letting clients know that they are not alone in their fear is crucial. Individuals with dementia are frequently looking for a sense of safety and security.

In addition to reflecting on clients’ feelings, it is also important to know who they were before the disease. What did they do for a living? Were they a parent? Did they love dogs? What was their favorite holiday? This is where counseling is really out of the box and creative.

Learning clients’ interests presents opportunities to engage them by tapping into all five senses — sight, sound, touch, smell and taste. It also provides opportunities to learn and focus on what they can do rather than what they can’t. How? Envision a client who enjoyed going to baseball games. Unfortunately, the client is no longer able to attend games because it stresses the client to have their environment changed frequently. But what would stop a counselor from tapping into the sights and sounds of a baseball game and encouraging the client to put on their favorite baseball hat and look through baseball cards or pictures, eat a hot dog and, if possible, listen to a game on the radio? As the client enjoys the experience, the counselor could encourage the client to share thoughts and memories about the game. One word of caution: Never attempt to engage a client by asking, “Do you remember?” Also, never underestimate the power of a little  humor.

Two of my favorite examples of how knowing clients’ backgrounds can positively affect therapeutic interactions with dementia involve a former member of the military and an ex-government employee. In the first case, I was working in a psychiatric hospital, and an individual with dementia started to get agitated. A case manager I was working with said to this individual, “That is not behavior becoming of an officer.” I was amazed at how this individual settled down. My co-worker had taken the time to learn important details from the individual’s past that could help in his care. The second case involved a client who had worked with the government in a position involving maps. To give him a sense of purpose and an opportunity to engage in something he enjoyed, the staff gave the client maps that he could “work on” throughout the day.

When talking to other counselors about how effective it is to connect clients with what they enjoy, I ask them to imagine themselves in a similar situation. What would they want others to know about them? If they were feeling alone, lost, scared or confused, what favorite sights, sounds, smells, tastes or tactile sensations would soothe them? I know that for me, wearing a cardigan and flip-flops, sipping a pumpkin spice latte, holding a dog, and looking at pictures of Halloween decorations would do the trick.

 

An overwhelming need

The individuals I have described are only a few of the 50 million people worldwide who currently have dementia, according to the World Health Organization. The increasing number of individuals with dementia is overwhelming. To me, what feels even more overwhelming is the number of counselors I meet who do not have the knowledge and skills to work with someone with dementia. Recently, while giving a presentation on counseling individuals with Alzheimer’s disease, I asked the participants to raise their hands if they could answer yes to the following questions:

1) Do you have a basic understanding of the medical aspects of Alzheimer’s disease, such as symptoms, behaviors, and the process of receiving a diagnosis?

2) Do you have a holistic viewpoint of the person with this diagnosis: a psychosocial history, who they are, what their likes and dislikes are, their perception of their own lives, and their perspective about being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s?

3) Have you reflected on and identified your own biases, stereotypes, and stigma regarding people living with Alzheimer’s?

4) Are you aware of counseling techniques that are effective when working with individuals with the disease?

5) Are you aware of resources that could assist these clients, such as neurologists or other specialists, support groups, and informational literature?

Unfortunately, none of the attendees could answer yes to any of the questions. Admittedly, it is currently difficult to acquire the information that might have enabled them to answer yes. While doing my own research, I found only a handful of articles that discussed counseling individuals with dementia. Of those that did, most focused heavily on caregivers. I do not want to discount the impact of the disease on caregivers. However, those who are struggling with dementia have an urgent need for support. How can counselors meet their needs if they are unable to learn how?

We are living in a time in which you may not hear much about dementia, but its effects can be found around every corner. Fear and stigma surround the disease, making it more difficult for those affected to get help. Almost daily, people who know I specialize in working with individuals with dementia approach me about someone they know who is impacted. I wish I could put on a cape and help them all. My call to the counseling profession and fellow counselors is this: I need your help. Ask yourself if you can answer yes to my presentation questions. Do you have a general understanding of dementia — a disease affecting more than 50 million people? What personal biases and stereotypes may be preventing you from working with these individuals? Do you know which counseling techniques are most helpful when working with people with dementia?

I was speaking with a friend the other day who has early onset dementia. She was struggling with not being able to help more people. I told her that all we can do is help one person at a time. I guess this is my philosophy in counseling. If I help one person with dementia, it is worth it. I will no longer question if what I am doing is counseling or if I am helping, because it is and I am.

 

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Jenny Heuer is a licensed professional counselor specializing in gerontology. Older adults are her area of expertise in clinical practice, teaching, and research. She is a certified dementia practitioner and adjunct instructor at Georgia State University’s Gerontology Institute. Her passion is opening up dialogue about the lived experiences of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease. Contact her at jenheu77@gmail.com or through her website at jennyheuer.wixsite.com/aging.

 

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Related reading: Look for an in-depth cover story on working with clients with dementia, and their families and caregivers, in the upcoming January issue of Counseling Today.

From CT Online: “Understanding the gap: Encouraging grad students to work with an aging population

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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.