When the word “suicide” comes up during counseling sessions, it usually triggers clinician anxiety. You might begin having thoughts such as, “What should I ask next? How can I best evaluate my client’s suicide risk? Should I do a formal suicide assessment, or should I be less direct?” In addition, you might worry about possible hospitalization and how to make the session therapeutic while also assessing risk.
Suicide-related scenarios are stressful and emotionally activating for all mental health, school and health care professionals. Counselors are no exception. But counselors bring a different orientation into the room. As a discipline, counseling is less steeped in the medical model, more oriented toward wellness, and more relational throughout the assessment and intervention processes. In this article, we explore how professional counselors can meet practice standards for suicide assessment and treatment while also embracing a holistic, strengths-based and wellness orientation.
Moving beyond traditional views of suicide
Suicide and suicidality have long been linked to negative judgments. Sometimes suicide — or even thinking about suicide — has been characterized as sinful or immoral. In many societies, suicide was historically deigned illegal, and it remains so in some countries today. In the past, suicidality was nearly always pathologized, and that largely remains the case now. Defining suicide and suicidal thoughts as immoral or illegal or as an illness is an alienating and judgmental social construction that makes people less likely to openly discuss these thoughts and feelings. Most people experiencing suicidality already feel bad about themselves; socially sanctioned negative judgments can cause further harm.
Our position is that suicide is neither a moral failure nor evidence of so-called mental illness. Instead, consistent with a strengths-based perspective, we believe suicidal ideation is a normal variation on human experience. Suicidal ideation usually stems from difficult environmental circumstances, social disconnection or excruciating emotional pain. Improving life circumstances, enhancing social connection and reducing emotional pain are usually the best means for reducing the frequency and intensity of suicidal thoughts and feelings.
Practitioners trained in the medical model tend to diagnose people who are suicidal with some variant of depressive disorder and provide treatments that target suicidality. Sometimes treatments are applied without patient consent. Health care providers are usually considered authority figures who know what’s best for their patients.
In contrast to the medical model, a strengths-based perspective includes several empowering assumptions:
- When painful psychological distress escalates, strengths-based counselors view the emergence of suicidal ideation as a normal and natural human response. Suicidal ideation is a reaction to life circumstances and may represent a method for coping with relentless psychological pain.
- Because suicidal ideation is viewed as a normal response to psychological pain, client disclosures of suicidality are framed as expressions of distress, rather than evidence of illness. Consequently, if clients disclose suicidality, counselors don’t react with fear and judgment, but instead welcome suicide-related disclosures. Strengths-based counselors recognize that when clients openly share suicidal thoughts, they are showing trust, thus creating opportunities for interpersonal and emotional connection.
- Many people who are suicidal want to preserve their right to die by suicide. If they feel judged by health care or school professionals and coerced to receive treatment, they may shut down and resist. Instead of insisting that clients and students “need treatment,” strengths-based counselors recognize that clients are the best experts on their own lived experiences. Strengths-based counselors provide empathic, collaborative assessment and treatment when clients and students are suicidal.
- Instead of relying on mental health diagnoses or asking symptom-based questions from a standard form such as the Patient Health Questionnaire-9, strengths-based counselors weave in assessment questions and observations pertaining to client strengths, hope and coping resources. Using principles of solution-focused counseling and positive psychology, strengths-based counselors balance symptom questions with wellness-oriented content.
We believe the preceding assumptions can be woven into counseling in ways that improve traditional suicide assessment and treatment approaches. In fact, over the past two decades, evidence-based treatments for suicide, such as collaborative assessment and management of suicide, have increasingly emphasized empathy, normalization of suicidality and counselor-client collaboration. An objectivist philosophy and medical attitude is no longer required to work with clients or students who are suicidal. Newer approaches, including the strengths-based approach discussed here, flow from postmodern, social constructionist philosophy in which conversation and collaboration are fundamental to decreasing distress and increasing hope.
A holistic approach
When clients disclose suicidal ideation, it’s not unusual for counselors to overfocus on assessment. In reaction to suicidality, counselors may begin asking too many closed questions about the presence or absence of suicide risk and protective factors. This shift away from an empathic focus on what’s hurting and toward analytic assessment protocols is unwarranted for two primary reasons. First, based on a meta-analysis of 50 years of risk and protective factors studies, a research group from Vanderbilt, Harvard and Columbia universities concluded that no factors provide much statistical advantage over chance suicide predictions. In other words, even if mental health or school professionals conduct an extensive assessment of client risk and protective factors, that assessment is unlikely to offer clinical or predictive value. Second, focusing too much on suicide risk assessment usually detracts from important relationship-building interactions that are necessary for positive counseling outcomes.
Instead of overemphasizing risk factor assessment, counselors should identify client distress and respond empathically. Recognizing and responding supportively to emotional pain and distress will help individualize your understanding of the client’s unique risk and protective factors. From a practical perspective, rather than using a generic risk factor checklist, counselors are better off directly asking clients questions such as, “What’s happening that makes you feel suicidal?” and “What one thing, if it changed, would take away your suicidal feelings?”
Additionally, as strengths-based practitioners, we should be scanning for, identifying and providing clients feedback on their unique positive qualities. Statements such as “Thank you so much for being brave enough to tell me about your suicidal thoughts” communicate acceptance and a reflection of client strengths. Although counselors may work in settings that use traditional suicide risk assessment protocols, they can still complement that procedure with a more holistic, positive and interpersonally supportive assessment and treatment planning process.
To help counselors tend to the whole person — instead of overfocusing on suicidality — we recommend using a dimensional assessment and treatment model. Our particular dimensional model tracks and organizes client distress into seven categories. Here, we describe each dimension, offer examples of how distress manifests differently within each dimension, and identify evidence-based or theoretically robust interventions that address dimension-specific distress.
The emotional dimension: Clients who are suicidal often experience agonizing sadness, anxiety, guilt, shame, anger and other painful emotions. Other times, clients feel numb or emotionally drained. Focusing on and showing empathy for core emotional distress or numbness is foundational to working with these clients. Clients also may experience emotional dysregulation. Interventions to address emotional issues in counseling include traditional cognitive behavioral therapies for depression and anxiety, existential exploration of the meaning of emotions, and dialectical behavior therapy to aid clients in emotional regulation skill development.
The cognitive dimension: Humans often react to emotional pain with maladaptive cognitions that further increase their distress. Hopelessness, problem-solving impairments and core negative beliefs are linked to suicide. Depending upon each client’s unique cognitive symptoms and distress, strengths-based counselors will begin by responding with empathy and then, if needed, work with hopelessness in the here and now as it emerges in session. Counselors may also initiate problem-solving strategies, emphasize solution-focused exceptions and teach clients how to notice, track and modify maladaptive thoughts.
The interpersonal dimension: Substantial research points to social and interpersonal difficulties as factors that drive people toward suicide. Common interpersonal themes that trigger suicidal distress include social disconnection, interpersonal grief and loss, social skills deficits, and repetitive dysfunctional relationship patterns. Interventions in the interpersonal dimension include couple or family counseling, grief counseling, social skills training, and other strategies for enhancing social and romantic relationships.
The physical dimension: Physical symptoms trigger and exacerbate suicidal states. Common physical symptoms linked to suicide include agitation/arousal, physical illness, physical symptoms related to trauma, and insomnia. Using a strengths-based model, counselors can collaboratively develop treatment plans that directly address physical symptoms. Specific interventions include physical exercise, evidence-based trauma treatments, and cognitive behavior therapy for insomnia.
The cultural-spiritual dimension: Cultural practices and beliefs alleviate or contribute to client distress and suicidality. Religion, spirituality and a sense of purpose or meaning (or a lack thereof) powerfully mediate suicidality. Specific cultural-spiritual themes that trigger distress include disconnection from a community, higher power or faith system. A sense of meaninglessness or acculturative distress may also be present. Strengths-oriented counselors explore the cultural-spiritual and existential issues present in clients’ lives and develop individualized approaches to addressing these deeply personal sources of distress and potential sources of support or relief.
The behavioral dimension: Clients and students sometimes engage in specific behaviors that increase suicide risk. These may include alcohol/drug use, impulsivity and repeated self-injury. Having easy access to guns or other lethal means is another factor that increases risk. Helping clients recognize destructive behavior patterns, develop alternative coping behaviors and decrease their access to lethal means can be central to a holistic treatment plan. Additionally, collaborative safety planning is an evidence-based suicide intervention that focuses on positive coping behaviors.
The contextual dimension: Many larger contextual, environmental or situational factors contribute to distress in the other six dimensions and thus heighten suicidality. These factors include poverty, neighborhood or relationship safety, racism, sexual harassment and unemployment. Helping clients recognize and change contextual life factors — if they have control over those factors — can be very empowering. Clients also need support coping with uncontrollable stressors. Developing an action plan and discerning when to use mindful acceptance may be an important part of the counseling process. Advocacy can be particularly useful for supporting clients as they face systemic barriers and oppression.
Regardless of theoretical orientation or professional discipline, mental health and school professionals must meet or exceed foundational competency standards. In this article, we recommend integrating strengths-based principles, holistic assessment and treatment planning, and wellness activities into your work with individuals who are suicidal. Our recommendation isn’t intended to completely replace traditional suicide-related practices, but rather to add strengths-based skills and holistic case formulation to your counseling repertoire.
When adding a strengths-based perspective into one’s counseling repertoire, counselors should remain cognizant of the usual and customary professional standards for working with suicide. The American Counseling Association’s current ethics code doesn’t provide specific guidance for suicide assessment and treatment. However, suicide-related competencies are available in the professional literature. For example, Robert Cramer of the University of North Carolina Charlotte distilled 10 essential suicide competencies from several different health care and mental health publications, including guidelines from the American Association of Suicidology.
Cramer’s 10 suicide competencies are listed below, along with short statements describing how strengths-based counselors can address each competency.
1) Be aware of and manage your attitude and reactions to suicide. Strengths-based counselors strive for individual, cultural, interpersonal and spiritual self-awareness. Self-care also helps counselors stay balanced in their emotional responses to clients who are suicidal.
2) Develop and maintain a collaborative, empathic stance with clients. Strengths-based counselors are relational, collaborative and empathic, while also consistently orienting toward clients’ strengths and resources.
3) Know and elicit evidence-based risk and protective factors. Strengths-based counselors understand how to individualize risk and protective factors to fit each client’s unique risk and protective dynamics.
4) Focus on the current plan and intent of suicidal ideation. Strengths-based counselors not only explore client plans and intentions but also actively engage in conversations about alternatives to suicide plans and ask clients about individual factors that reduce intent.
5) Determine the level of risk. Strengths-based counselors engage clients to obtain information about self-perceived risk and collaborate with clients to better understand factors that increase or decrease individual risk.
6) Develop and enact a collaborative evidence-based treatment plan. Strengths-based counselors engage clients in establishing an individualized safety plan that includes positive coping behaviors and collaboratively develop holistic treatment plans that address emotional, cognitive, interpersonal, cultural-spiritual, physical, behavioral and contextual life dimensions.
7) Notify and involve other people. Strengths-based counselors recognize the core importance of interpersonal connection to suicide prevention and involve significant others for safety and treatment purposes.
8) Document risk assessment, the treatment plan and the rationale for clinical decisions. Strengths-based counselors follow accepted practices for documenting their assessment, treatment and decision-making protocols.
9) Know the law concerning suicide. Strengths-based counselors are aware of local and national ethical and legal considerations when working with clients who are suicidal.
10) Engage in debriefing and self-care. Strengths-based counselors regularly consult with colleagues and supervisors and engage in suicide postvention as needed.
The strengths-based approach in action
Liam was a 20-year-old cisgender, heterosexual male with a biracial (white and Latino) cultural identity. At the time of the referral, Liam had just started a vocational training program in the diesel mechanics trade through a local community college. He was referred to counseling by his trade instructor. About a week previously, Liam had experienced a relationship breakup. Subsequently, he punched a wall while in class (breaking one of his fingers), talked about killing himself, threatened his former girlfriend’s new boyfriend, and impulsively walked off the job at his internship placement.
Liam started his first session by bragging about punching the wall. He stated, “I don’t need counseling. I know how to take care of myself.”
Rather than countering Liam’s opening comments, the counselor maintained a positive and accepting stance, saying, “You might be right. Counseling isn’t for everyone. You look like you’re quite good at taking care of yourself.”
Liam shrugged and asked, “What am I supposed to talk about in here anyway?”
Many clients who are feeling suicidal immediately begin talking about their distress. Others, like Liam, deny suicidality. When clients lead with distress, the counselor’s first task is to empathically explore the distress and highlight unique factors in the client’s life that trigger suicidal thoughts and impulses. In contrast, with Liam, the counselor mirrored Liam’s opening attitude, accepted Liam’s explanation and explicitly focused on Liam’s strengths: his employment goals, his initiative to start vocational training immediately after graduating high school, his ability to care deeply for others (such as his ex-girlfriend), and his pride at being physically fit.
After about 15 minutes, the conversation shifted to how Liam made decisions in his life. Instead of questioning Liam’s judgment, the counselor continued a positive focus, saying, “As I think about your situation, in some ways, hitting the wall was a good idea. It’s definitely better than hitting a person.” The counselor then added, “I don’t blame you for being pissed off about breaking up. Nobody likes a breakup.”
The counselor asked Liam to tell the story of his relationship and the events leading to the breakup. Liam was able to talk about his sense of betrayal and loneliness and his underlying worries that he’d never accomplish anything in life. He admitted to occasional thoughts of “doing something stupid, like offing myself.” He agreed to continue with counseling, mostly because it would look good to his vocational training instructor. Before the session ended, the counselor explained that counselors always need to do a thing called “a safety plan.” During safety planning, Liam admitted to owning two firearms, and even though he “didn’t need to,” he agreed to store his guns at his mom’s house for the next month.
After the first session, the counselor documented the assessment, the intervention and Liam’s treatment plan. The counselor’s documentation included problems and strengths, organized with the holistic dimensional model:
1) Emotional: Liam experienced acute emotional distress and emerging suicidal ideation related to a relationship breakup. Although he minimized his distress, Liam was also able to articulate feelings of betrayal and loneliness.
2) Cognitive: Liam felt hopeless about finding another girlfriend. He was somewhat evasive when asked about suicidal ideation. Eventually, he acknowledged thinking about it and that if he ever decided to die (which he said he “wouldn’t”), he would shoot himself. Liam was able to participate in problem-solving during the session.
3) Interpersonal: Although Liam was distressed about the breakup of his romantic relationship, he agreed to consult with his counselor about relationships during future sessions. He collaboratively brainstormed positive and supportive people to contact in case he began feeling lonely or suicidal. Liam reported a positive relationship with his mother.
4) Physical: Liam reported difficulty sleeping. He said, “I’ve been drinking more than I need to.” During safety planning, Liam agreed to specific steps for dealing with his insomnia and alcohol consumption. Liam was in good physical shape and was invested in his physical well-being.
5) Cultural-spiritual: Liam said that “it won’t hurt me any” to attend church with his mom on Sundays. He reported a good relationship with his mother. He said that going to church with her was something she enjoyed and something he felt good about.
6) Behavioral: Liam contributed to writing up his safety plan. He agreed to follow the plan and take good care of himself over the coming week. Liam identified specific behavioral alternatives to drinking alcohol and suicidal actions. He agreed to store his firearms at his mother’s home.
7) Contextual: Other than high unemployment rates in his community, Liam didn’t report problems in the contextual dimension. He said that he currently had an apartment and believed he had a good employment future.
A holistic, strengths-based and wellness-oriented model for working with clients and students who are suicidal is a good fit for the counseling profession. In tandem with knowledge and expertise in traditional suicide assessment and treatments, the strengths-based model provides a foundation for suicide assessment and treatment planning. A detailed description of the strengths-based model is available in our book, Suicide Assessment and Treatment Planning: A Strengths-Based Approach, which was published earlier this year by ACA.
John Sommers-Flanagan is professor of counseling at the University of Montana with over 100 professional publications, including Suicide Assessment and Treatment Planning, Clinical Interviewing and seven other books co-authored with Rita Sommers-Flanagan. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his blog, which also offers free counseling-related resources, at johnsommersflanagan.com.
Rita Sommers-Flanagan is professor emerita of counseling at the University of Montana. Since retiring, Rita has shifted her interests toward suicide prevention, positive psychology, creative writing and passive solar design. She blogs at godcomesby.com/author/ritasf13 and can be contacted at email@example.com.
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