Counseling Today, Knowledge Share

Case conceptualization: Key to highly effective counseling

By Jon Sperry and Len Sperry December 7, 2020

In their first session, the counseling intern learned that Jane’s son had been diagnosed with brain cancer. The therapist then elicited the client’s thoughts and feelings about her son’s diagnosis. Jane expressed feelings of guilt and the thought that if she had done more about the early symptoms, this never would have happened to her son. Hearing this guilt producing thought, the intern spent much of the remaining session disputing it. As the session ended, the client was more despondent. 

After processing this session in supervision, the intern was no longer surprised that Jane had not kept a follow-up appointment. The initial session had occurred near the end of the intern’s second week, and she had been eager to practice cognitive disputation, which she believed was appropriate in this case. In answer to the supervisor’s question of why she had concluded this, the intern responded that “it felt right.”

The supervisor was not surprised by this response because the intern had not developed a case conceptualization. With one, the intern could have anticipated the importance of immediately establishing an effective and collaborative therapeutic alliance and gently processing Jane’s emotional distress sufficiently before dealing with her guilt-producing thought.

This failure to develop an adequate and appropriate case conceptualization is not just a shortcoming of trainees, however. It is also common enough among experienced counselors.

What is case conceptualization?

Basically, a case conceptualization is a process and cognitive map for understanding and explaining a client’s presenting issues and for guiding the counseling process. Case conceptualizations provide counselors with a coherent plan for focusing treatment interventions, including the therapeutic alliance, to increase the likelihood of achieving treatment goals.

We will use the definition from our integrated case conceptualization model to operationalize the term for the purposes of explaining how to utilize this process. Case conceptualization is a method and clinical strategy for obtaining and organizing information about a client, understanding and explaining the client’s situation and maladaptive patterns, guiding and focusing treatment, anticipating challenges and roadblocks, and preparing for successful termination.

We believe that case conceptualization is the most important counseling competency besides developing a strong therapeutic alliance. If our belief is correct, why is this competency taught so infrequently in graduate training programs, and why do counselors-in-training struggle to develop this skill? We think that case conceptualization can be taught in graduate training programs and that counselors in the field can develop this competency through ongoing training and deliberate practice.

This article will articulate one method for practicing case conceptualization.

The eight P’s

We use and teach the eight P’s format of case conceptualization because it is brief, quick to learn and easy to use. Students and counselors in the community who have taken our workshops say that the step-by-step format helps guide them in forming a mental picture — a cognitive map — of the client. They say that it also aids them in making decisions about treatment and writing an initial evaluation report.

The format is based on eight elements for articulating and explaining the nature and origins of the client’s presentation and subsequent treatment. These elements are described in terms of eight P’s: presentation, predisposition (including culture), precipitants, protective factors and strengths, pattern, perpetuants, (treatment) plan, and prognosis.

Presentation

Presentation refers to a description of the nature and severity of the client’s clinical presentation. Typically, this includes symptoms, personal concerns and interpersonal conflicts.

Four of the P’s — predisposition, precipitants, pattern and perpetuants — provide a clinically useful explanation for the client’s presenting concern.

Predisposition

Predisposition refers to all factors that render an individual vulnerable to a clinical condition. Predisposing factors usually involve biological, psychological, social and cultural factors.

This statement is influenced by the counselor’s theoretical orientation. The theoretical model espouses a system for understanding the cause of suffering, the development of personality traits, and a process for how change and healing can occur in counseling. We will use a biopsychosocial model in this article because it is the most common model used by mental health providers. The model incorporates a holistic understanding of the client.

Biological: Biological factors include genetic, familial, temperament and medical factors, such as family history of a mental or substance disorder, or a cardiovascular condition such as hypertension.

Psychological: Psychological factors might include dysfunctional beliefs involving inadequacy, perfectionism or overdependence, which further predispose the individual to a medical condition such as coronary artery disease. Psychological factors might also involve limited or exaggerated social skills such as a lack of friendship skills, unassertiveness or overaggressiveness.

Social: Social factors could include early childhood losses, inconsistent parenting style, an overly enmeshed or disengaged family environment, and family values such as competitiveness or criticalness. Financial stressors can further exacerbate a client’s clinical presentations. The “social” element in the biopsychosocial model includes cultural factors. We separate these factors out, however.

Cultural: Of the many cultural factors, three are particularly important in developing effective case conceptualizations: level of acculturation, acculturative stress and acculturation-specific stress. Acculturation is the process of adapting to a culture different from one’s initial culture. Adapting to another culture tends to be stressful, and this is called acculturative stress. Such adaptation is reflected in levels of acculturation that range from low to high.

Generally, clients with a lower level of acculturation experience more distress than those with a higher level of acculturation. Disparity in acculturation levels within a family is noted in conflicts over expectations for language usage, career plans, and adherence to the family’s food choices and rituals. Acculturative stress differs from acculturation-specific stresses such as discrimination, second-language competence and microaggressions.

Precipitants

Precipitants refer to physical, psychological and social stressors that may be causative or coincide with the onset of symptoms or relational conflict. These may include physical stressors such as trauma, pain, medication side effects or withdrawal from an addictive substance. Common psychological stressors involve losses, rejections or disappointments that undermine a sense of personal competence. Social stressors may involve losses or rejections that undermine an individual’s social support and status. Included are the illness, death or hospitalization of a significant other, job demotion, the loss of Social Security disability payments and so on.

Protective factors and strengths

Protective factors are factors that decrease the likelihood of developing a clinical condition. Examples include coping skills, a positive support system, a secure attachment style and the experience of leaving an abusive relationship. It is useful to think of protective factors as being the mirror opposite of risk factors (i.e., factors that increase the likelihood of developing a clinical condition). Some examples of risk factors are early trauma, self-defeating beliefs, abusive relationships, self-harm and suicidal ideation.

Related to protective factors are strengths. These are psychological processes that consistently enable individuals to think and act in ways that benefit themselves and others. Examples of strengths include mindfulness, self-control, resilience and self-confidence. Because professional counseling emphasizes strengths and protective factors, counselors should feel supported in identifying and incorporating these elements in their case conceptualizations.

Pattern (maladaptive)

Pattern refers to the predictable and consistent style or manner in which an individual thinks, feels, acts, copes, and defends the self both in stressful and nonstressful circumstances. It reflects the individual’s baseline functioning. Pattern has physical (e.g., a sedentary and coronary-prone lifestyle), psychological (e.g., dependent personality style or disorder) and social features (e.g., collusion in a relative’s marital problems). Pattern also includes the individual’s functional strengths, which counterbalance dysfunction.

Perpetuants

Perpetuants refer to processes through which an individual’s pattern is reinforced and confirmed by both the individual and the individual’s environment. These processes may be physical, such as impaired immunity or habituation to an addictive substance; psychological, such as losing hope or fearing the consequences of getting well; or social, such as colluding family members or agencies that foster constrained dysfunctional behavior rather than recovery and growth. Sometimes precipitating factors continue and become perpetuants.

Plan (treatment)

Plan refers to a planned treatment intervention, including treatment goals, strategy and methods. It includes clinical decision-making considerations and ethical considerations.

Prognosis

Prognosis refers to the individual’s expected response to treatment. This forecast is based on the mix of risk factors and protective factors, client strengths and readiness for change, and the counselor’s experience and expertise in effecting therapeutic change. 

Case example

To illustrate this process, we will provide a case vignette to help you practice and then apply the case to our eight P’s format. Ready? Let’s give it a shot.

Joyce is a 35-year-old Ph.D. student at an online university. She is white, identifies as heterosexual and reports that she has never been in a love relationship. She is self-referred and is seeking counseling to reduce her chronic anxiety and social anxiety. She recently started a new job at a bookstore — a stressor that brought her to counseling. She reports feeling very anxious when speaking in her online classes and in social settings. She is worried that she will not be able to manage her anxiety at her new job because she will be in a managerial role.

Joyce reports that she has been highly anxious since childhood. She denies past psychological or psychiatric treatment of any kind but reports that she has recently read several self-help books on anxiety. She also manages her stress by spending time with her close friend from class, spending time with her two dogs, drawing and painting. She appears to be highly motivated for counseling and states that her goals for therapy are “to manage and reduce my anxiety, increase my confidence and eventually get in a romantic relationship.”

Joyce describes her childhood as lonely and herself as “an introvert seeking to be an extrovert.” She states that her parents were successful lawyers who valued success, achievement and public recognition. They were highly critical of Joyce when she would struggle with academics or act shy in social situations. As an only child, she often played alone and would spend her free time reading or drawing by herself.

When asked how she views herself and others, Joyce says, “I often don’t feel like I’m good enough and don’t belong. I usually expect people to be self-centered, critical and judgmental.”

Case conceptualization outline

We suggest developing a case conceptualization with an outline of key phrases for each of the eight P’s. Here is what these phrases might look like for Joyce’s case. These phrases are then woven together into sentences that make up a case conceptualization statement that can be imported into your initial evaluation report.

Presentation: Generalized anxiety symptoms and social anxiety

Precipitant: New job and concerns about managing her anxiety

Pattern (maladaptive): Avoids closeness to avoid perceived harm

Predisposition:

  • Biological: Paternal history of anxiety
  • Psychological: Views herself as inadequate and others as critical; deficits in assertiveness skills, self-soothing skills and relational skills
  • Social: Few friends, a history of social anxiety, and parents who were highly successful and critical
  • Cultural: No acculturative stress or cultural stressors but from upper-middle-class socioeconomic status, so from privileged background — access to services and resources

Perpetuants: Small support system; believes that she is not competent at work

Protective factors/strengths: Compassionate, creative coping, determined, hardworking, has
access to various resources, motivated for counseling

Plan (treatment): Supportive and strengths-based counseling, thought testing, self-monitoring, mindfulness practice, downward arrow technique, coping and relationship skills training, referral for group counseling

Prognosis: Good, given her motivation for treatment and the extent to which her strengths and protective factors are integrated into treatment

Case conceptualization statement

Joyce presents with generalized anxiety symptoms and social anxiety (presentation). A recent triggering event includes her new job at a local bookstore — she is concerned that she will make errors and will have high levels of anxiety (precipitant). She presents with an avoidant personality — or attachment — style and typically avoids close relationships. She has one close friend and has never been in a love relationship. She typically moves away from others to avoid being criticized, judged or rejected (pattern). Some perpetuating factors include her small support system and her belief that she is not competent at work (perpetuants).

Some of her protective factors and strengths include that she is compassionate, uses art and music to cope with stress, is determined and hardworking, and is collaborative in the therapeutic relationship. Protective factors include that she has a close friend from school, has access to university services such as counseling services and student clubs and organizations, is motivated to engage in counseling, and has health insurance (strengths & protective factors).

The following biopsychosocial factors attempt to explain Joyce’s anxiety symptoms and avoidant personality style: a paternal history of anxiety (biological); she views herself as inadequate and others as critical and judgmental, and she struggles with deficits in assertiveness skills, self-soothing skills and relational skills (psychological); she has few friends, a history of social anxiety and parents who were highly successful and critical toward her (social). Given Joyce’s upper-middle-class upbringing, she was born into a life of opportunity and privilege, so her entitlement of life going in a preferred and comfortable path may also explain her challenges with managing life stress (cultural).

Besides facilitating a highly supportive, empathic and encouraging counseling relationship, treatment will include psychoeducation skills training to develop assertiveness skills, self-soothing skills and relational skills. These skills will be implemented through modeling, in-session rehearsal and role-play. Her challenges with relationship skills and interpersonal patterns will also be addressed with a referral to a therapy group at the university counseling center. Joyce’s negative self-talk, interpersonal avoidance and anxiety symptoms will be addressed with Socratic questioning, thought testing, self-monitoring, mindfulness practice and the downward arrow technique (plan-treatment).

The outcome of therapy with Joyce is judged to be good, given her motivation for treatment, if her strengths and protective factors are integrated into the treatment process (prognosis).

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Notice how the treatment plan is targeted at the presenting symptoms and pattern dynamics of Joyce’s case. Each of the eight P’s was identified in the case conceptualization, and you can see the flow of each element and its interconnections to the other elements.

Tips for writing effective case conceptualizations

1) Seek consultation or supervision with a peer or supervisor for feedback on your case conceptualizations. Often, another perspective will help you understand the various elements (eight P’s) that you are trying to conceptualize.

2) Be flexible with your hypotheses and therapeutic guesses when piecing together case conceptualizations. Sometimes your hunches will be accurate, and sometimes you will be way off the mark.

3) Consider asking the client how they would explain their presenting problem. We begin with a question such as, “How might you explain the (symptoms, conflict, etc.) you are experiencing?” The client’s perspective may reveal important predisposing factors and cultural influences as well as their expectations for treatment.

4) Be OK with being imperfect or being completely wrong. This process takes practice, feedback and supervision.

5) After each initial intake or assessment, jot down the presenting dynamics and make some guesses of the cause or etiology of them.

6) Have a solid understanding of at least one theoretical model. Read some of the seminal textbooks or watch counseling theory videos to help you gain a comprehensive assessment of a specific theory. Knowing the foundational ideas of at least one theory will help with your conceptual map of piecing together the information that you’ve gathered about a client.

We realize that putting together case conceptualizations can be a challenge, particularly in the beginning. We hope you will find that this approach works for you. Best wishes!

 

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For more information and ways of learning and using this approach to case conceptualization, check out the recently published second edition of our book, Case Conceptualization: Mastering This Competency With Ease and Confidence.

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Jon Sperry is an associate professor of clinical mental health counseling at Lynn University in Florida. He teaches, writes about and researches case conceptualization and conducts workshops on it worldwide. Contact him at jsperry@lynn.edu or visit his website at drjonsperry.com.

Len Sperry is a professor of counselor education at Florida Atlantic University and a fellow of the American Counseling Association. He has long advocated for counselors learning and using case conceptualization, and his research team has completed eight studies on it. Contact him at lsperry@fau.edu.

Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

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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.

4 Comments

  1. Kristin

    Really appreciated this article! I come from a social work background so haven’t heard of the 8 P’s before but it helps to have that as a foundation for assessing clients. Thank you!

    Reply
  2. Stevee Jones

    This is such an excellent article for professionals at every stage. It is greatly appreciated as this gives a new perspective on case conceptualization. The 8 P’s definitely help in clearly assessing all aspects of the client. I will keep this article as a reference.

    Reply

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