Tag Archives: suicide prevention

Suicide prevention strategies with the military-affiliated population

By Duane France and Juliana Hallows October 29, 2019

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.

Fighting suicide: The importance of hope

By David Kaplan January 7, 2019

Scary numbers about suicide have been splashing across the headlines for some time now. Many of us have seen the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data indicating that suicide rates have been rising and that suicide is now the 10th-leading cause of death in the United States. According to the CDC, nearly 45,000 lives were lost to suicide in 2016 in the U.S.

Statistics provided by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention indicate that, on average, 129 Americans die per day by suicide.

These numbers — and the severity of this public health issue — hit home for many people following the self-inflicted deaths of celebrities such as fashion designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain.

 

The instinctive reaction

The knee-jerk reaction when fear arrives at our front door is to distance ourselves from the problem causing the fear. That keeps us from having to think that something could happen to us or our loved ones — and provides a buffer from having to become involved.

In the face of more self-inflicted deaths, the defense mechanism for many individuals has become blaming suicide on mental illness.

“Suicide is rarely caused by a single factor,” the CDC reported earlier this year. “Although suicide prevention efforts largely focus on identifying and providing treatment for people with mental health conditions, there are many additional opportunities for prevention.”

 

The opportunity of hope

Along with its 2018 report on suicide, the CDC released “Preventing Suicide: A Technical Package of Policy, Programs and Practices,” which offers a core set of strategies to help inform states and communities as they make decisions about prevention activities and priorities.

At the start of that document, hopelessness is identified as one of a number of risk and protective factors associated with suicide.

Let’s take a closer look at the other side of hopelessness. Let’s focus on hope.

Someone who has hope is not likely to end his or her life. Things may be miserable at the moment, but individuals will hang on if they know there is a light at the end of the tunnel and a chance that things will get better. It is the person who has lost hope who sees suicide as a viable option.

The possibility of instilling hope is one reason that counseling is so important for people who are thinking about suicide. Professional counselors are experts at helping people see that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem — and that there is hope for the future.

 

Everyone can help prevent suicide

If you, a loved one, a friend, a co-worker or someone else you know is discouraged, losing hope and possibly considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-723-8255. The Lifeline staff members answering the phone — and the professionals to whom they refer clients — focus on instilling hope and, through that, preventing a tragic loss.

If you realize that a person you know may be suicidal, don’t distance yourself. Become involved, contact the Lifeline and help the person see that things can get better. By providing hope, you may help save a life.

 

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Warning signs of suicide

  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
  • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious, agitated or recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings

The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the person’s risk of attempting suicide. Warning signs are associated with suicide, but they may not be what causes a suicide.

 

What to do

If someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide:

  • Do not leave the person alone
  • Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt
  • Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255)
  • Take the person to an emergency room, or seek help from a medical or mental health professional

 

(Warning signs and recommendations from reportingonsuicide.org)

 

 

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David Kaplan is the chief professional officer of the American Counseling Association, the world’s largest association exclusively representing professional counselors in various practice settings.

 

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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.

Raising awareness of suicide risk

By Jerrod Brown and Tony Salvatore December 6, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having an article accepted for publication, go to ct.counseling.org/feedback.

 

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

 

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

By Bethany Bray September 12, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other key findings in the VA report include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Read the VA report in full here

 

Read a VA press release about the report here

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Addressing ethical issues in treating client self-injury

By Julia L. Whisenhunt, Nicole Stargell and Caroline Perjessy July 24, 2016

AuthorsAs professional counselors, we enter this field with a desire to understand and help others. There comes a time in every counselor’s career, however, when intellectual understanding is overpowered by the need for empathic understanding. This is particularly true when counselors work with clients who intentionally cut, burn, scratch, hit or otherwise injure themselves.

Jennifer Muehlenkamp and colleagues found that this coping skill, known as nonsuicidal self-injury (SI), may be used by as much as 18 percent of the general population. Furthermore, Laurie Craigen and colleagues found that as many as 39 percent of adolescents may self-injure. It is important to note that SI is separate from socially sanctioned body modification practices (e.g., piercings, tattoos), substance use or physical fighting, which can also seem intentionally harmful but have different underlying purposes.

Purpose of SI

For those who do not purposefully inflict physical harm on themselves, the concept of SI can be both foreign and confusing. As counselors, we need to know that SI works for some people, most often to help them manage intense and often painful emotions. In fact, David Klonsky, a pioneer in SI research, found that emotion regulation is the single most common function of SI. Emotional pain is linked with physiological arousal (e.g., pounding heart, headache), and SI can ease this tension, channel the pain and bring arousal to a bearable level.

Researchers such as Klonsky, Muehlenkamp, Janis Whitlock, Brianna Turner, Alexander Chapman and Brianne Layden have also examined other functions of SI. For example, SI can serve as a method for transforming emotional pain into physical pain, which can be easier to cope with for many people. SI can serve as a way to validate feelings and create a visual representation of the pain within them. Some people who self-injure may do so to cope with feelings of dissociation or depersonalization — to help themselves feel “real” or “alive” again. This is especially relevant for people who feel numb because of depression or trauma. SI can be used to vent anger privately or to channel anger toward the self as a form of punishment.

Finally, although less common, SI can serve as a means of communicating with or influencing others. Despite popular stereotypes, SI is rarely meant to be intentionally manipulative. Most often, clients who self-injure for this reason do so because they do not know more effective ways of communicating their needs and distress. In fact, the majority of clients who self-injure do so in private and are very secretive about it. Admittedly, some people self-injure to either intentionally or unintentionally influence others, but this is not the primary motivation for most clients. Consequently, assuming malicious intent behind SI can be grossly invalidating to clients’ experiences and can severely damage the therapeutic relationship.

Although the motivations for SI are complex and unique for every individual, the lay community has often equated SI with suicide. Whitlock and colleagues found that as many as 60 percent of people who self-injure may experience suicidal thoughts or behaviors. Although SI is a strong predictor of suicide, a large portion of people who self-injure do not struggle with suicide.

Several differences exist between SI and suicide regarding intent, means, frequency, severity, and emotional antecedents and consequences. Researchers such as Chapman and Katherine Dixon-Gordon have found that the emotions experienced prior to and following SI and suicide attempts are largely different. Furthermore, Muehlenkamp and Peter Gutierrez found that people who self-injure are often able to identify more reasons for living than are people who are suicidal. In fact, for some people, SI may serve an anti-suicidal function that is life preserving.

Counselors working with clients who self-injure are likely to encounter some ethical dilemmas regarding safety concerns and duty to warn/protect. With that in mind, we want to discuss some ways for counselors to address common ethical concerns that tend to emerge in this type of work. This list is not comprehensive, however, so counselors should use an established ethical decision-making model and consult or seek supervision as necessary.

Counselor values

Although counselors are trained to nonjudgmentally join with their clients, counselors may have intense reactions to SI. Doreen Fleet and Rita Mintz found that shock, sadness, anger, anxiety, frustration and diminished professional self-confidence are common responses to SI.

It is important to remember that the therapeutic relationship can be damaged beyond repair if clients feel judged. Even if counselors temper their initial reactions and support clients who self-injure, other counselor values can be damaging to the client and the therapeutic relationship. For example, it is unhelpful to assume that every client who uses SI needs to be hospitalized. We will discuss safety assessment later in this article, but counselors should remember that SI and suicidality are not equivalent.

Some counselors might feel that a contract specifying no SI would encourage clients to use healthier coping skills, but that can stem from a counselor’s anxiety surrounding the behavior and can lead to clients feeling judged by the one person who is supposed to be nonjudgmental. Moreover, SI works as a coping skill for some clients, and asking them to give up their most effective coping skill in the absence of other ways of coping can leave them feeling scared and helpless. In addition, nonharming alternative behaviors (e.g., snapping a rubber band, using a red water-soluble marker) may reduce risk, but they are not effective ways of addressing the underlying mental health issues.

Out of concern, some counselors may lecture clients on the dangers of SI and the fear that SI evokes for loved ones. Although psychoeducation can be used very effectively with clients who self-injure (e.g., dangers and wound care), there is a fine line between psychoeducation and lecturing. Many people who use SI experience self-imposed shame and guilt or have it imposed on them by others. Consequently, lecturing clients on the consequences of SI or otherwise attempting to convince clients not to self-injure can be harmful.

Similarly, chastising clients for doing permanent damage to their bodies is also unhelpful because SI is commonly a way for some people to connect with their bodies and find physical and emotional relief. It can also be unhelpful to insist on seeing a client’s wounds. If the client would like to show you his or her wounds, that can be therapeutic in itself. However, we are not medical doctors, and we should refer physical assessments to someone who is properly trained.

Overall, counselors should work toward empathic understanding of SI and reduce stereotypes or countertransference in the relationship. Working with clients who self-injure presents unique considerations for clinicians, who must manage their own reactions and beliefs about SI while simultaneously providing sound therapeutic care. Supervision, consultation and treatment teams are key sources of support and monitoring when working with these clients.

Confidentiality

The issue of confidentiality can be complicated when working with clients who self-injure, especially if those clients are minors. Confidentiality and privacy should be explained clearly in informed consent, which is an ongoing process.

At intake, or when SI is disclosed, counselors should explain techniques and interventions that will be used specifically to address SI. Counselors should also be very clear about the duty to protect and how SI might lead to mandated reporting, such as if the client develops suicidal intentions or if SI results in a major health risk (e.g., large, infected wounds).

If the client is a minor and caregivers are aware of the SI, an open discussion should occur to determine what types of information will be shared (e.g., types of interventions, progress toward goals) and how this will be shared with caregivers (e.g., privately over the phone, after session with the client present). If the caregivers of a minor are not aware that the client is using SI, counselors might need to disclose this information to parents because of the possibility of foreseeable harm. Again, however, it is important for the client to feel empowered throughout the treatment process, especially when the counselor must notify parents or loved ones.

Foreseeable harm and safety planning

Although it is important to temper counselor anxiety and methodically work through the counseling process with clients who self-injure, it is also important to actively monitor and continually assess client suicide risk. Clients sometimes minimize their use of SI, and counselors must astutely tune in to the serious nature of this behavior, understand the possibility of increased harm in the future and put adequate interventions in place.

Relatedly, clients might disclose SI before they are ready to work toward goals related to the behavior. Counselors must explore the paradox between autonomy and nonmaleficence, constantly assessing for the point at which risk outweighs the client’s readiness to change. As mentioned previously, it is generally not helpful to ask clients to stop self-injuring in the absence of other effective coping skills. So, part of this process typically involves diminishing risk while simultaneously enhancing the client’s other strengths and coping skills.

Ongoing formal and informal suicide assessment should be part of the therapeutic process. However, it is critical that counselors do this in a way that is neither assumptive nor judgmental. It is also helpful to develop a safety plan with all clients who self-injure. Clients can
use the safety plan during times of distress, regardless of whether suicidal ideation is present. A major component of providing care to clients who self-injure involves the counselor’s efforts to ensure the appropriateness of services through consistent consultation, supervision and referrals.

Assessment of SI and suicide

Assessment of SI begins at intake. We believe it is important to ask all new clients about their history of intentional SI. There are a number of assessment instruments for SI, some of which screen for SI, some that monitor risk of suicide and some that assess the functions of SI. Examples include Kim Gratz’s Deliberate Self-Harm Inventory, Matthew Nock and colleagues’ Self-Injurious Thoughts and Behaviors Interview, Marsha Linehan and colleagues’ Suicide Attempt Self-Injury Interview, and Catherine Glenn and David Klonsky’s Inventory of Statements About Self-Injury. As is the case with any therapeutic issue, counselors should document their use of established assessment instruments, consultation or supervision, and a reputable decision-making model to uphold proper standards of care.

In consideration of the elevated risk of suicide and the sometimes conflicting feelings about life and living that some clients who self-injure may experience, it is important for professional counselors to use recursive suicide risk assessment practices. Without assuming that clients who self-injure are suicidal, counselors should conduct suicide risk assessments at intake, at Branding-Images_injuryperiodic intervals and as indicated throughout the therapeutic relationship. Counselors should remember that suicide risk assessment involves more than asking a quick close-ended question. Rather, it should involve use of a reliable and valid instrument and should include dynamic, ongoing discussions about stress, coping and ideas about living.

When working with clients who self-injure, we ask counselors to remain attuned to the risk factors and warning signs of suicide so that they can respond most appropriately if risk elevates. Safety plans (as opposed to no-harm contracts) are an effective way to build the counseling relationship and minimize client risk. At a minimum, safety plans include identification of warning signs, internal coping strategies, positive distractions, people to ask for help, professionals/agencies to ask for help and ways to make the environment safer.

Competence

As professional counselors, we are charged with practicing only within the boundaries of our competence based on education, training, supervised experience, state and national professional credentials, and appropriate professional experience. However, clients who self-injure usually present with multiple treatment issues that are complicated for both novice and seasoned clinicians to conceptualize.

Clients who self-injure often have trauma and abuse histories. Consequently, they can also struggle with eating disorders, poor body image, personality disorders, anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation. Because clients who self-injure may present with complex symptomatology and even acute distress, counselors may doubt their clinical competence and ability to meet the therapeutic demands of this client population.

Efforts to improve feelings of competence can be addressed in a variety of ways. First, we can encourage counselors to remember that the best way to understand clients’ lived experiences is to create a safe context in which clients feel free to share their stories. Counselors can promote clients’ sense of safety by exhibiting humanistic qualities such as unconditional positive regard, which can both strengthen the therapeutic relationship and convey understanding and acceptance of the client.

Next, counselors engaging in ongoing supervision and consultation can improve their clinical skills related to working with this population. Discussing clients who self-injure, in supervision or consultation contexts, provides counselors with new and different perspectives on their work, which can help them modify their treatment planning and clinical interventions. Consultation and supervision also offer counselors opportunities to reflect on how they feel toward their clients. Considering how strongly our value systems shape our work with clients, this is an invaluable exercise.

It is also imperative that counselors who work with this population review the existing literature on SI, seek continuing education on SI and remain current on emerging SI research. Competent counselors should practice treatment strategies that are evidence based and well-grounded in the literature, and access reputable resources, such as those stemming from the International Society for the Study of Self-Injury.

Finally, in situations in which clients are not progressing or a therapeutic impasse cannot be resolved, competent counselors should understand how and when to refer to another provider. Often, when counselors are unable to promote a strong therapeutic alliance or further treatment goals, it is the result of a lack of training or experience that can be remedied through additional training, supervision and consultation.

Evidence-based practices

SI is a complex treatment issue and, for obvious reasons, counselors may feel ill-equipped to effectively intervene when clients self-injure. However, just like with any treatment issue, effective intervention begins with having a safe and nonjudgmental relationship. This is not to say that knowing the complexities of SI and how to intervene appropriately are unimportant. Rather, we hope readers will remember to start with the relationship and use interventions and treatment strategies that are grounded in the literature.

In the next section, we provide a brief introduction to a few therapeutic strategies that have shown promise with clients who self-injure. It is important to note, however, that no specific treatment interventions have proved largely effective for the treatment of SI. So, counselors often rely on theoretically grounded interventions and those proposed by leaders in the field of SI. For a more detailed yet succinct review of evidence-based practices in the treatment of SI, see the ACA Practice Brief on nonsuicidal self-injury by Julia Whisenhunt and Victoria Kress (see counseling.org/knowledge-center/practice-briefs). The practice brief provides references to a number of researchers who have

examined SI intervention. Additionally, we recommend a recent publication by Catherine Glenn, Joseph Franklin and Matthew Nock, who examined the evidence base of SI treatments for youth and rated their effectiveness using the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology standards level system.

Individual interventions: Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), created by Marsha Linehan, improves emotion regulation skills and intrapersonal awareness by challenging and modifying one’s cognitions, emotions and behaviors. As mentioned earlier, emotion regulation is the single most common function of SI, so learning to regulate emotions in healthier ways can decrease SI behaviors. DBT interventions are most successful when clients feel supported and accepted by their counselors and when counselors believe in their clients’ ability to change. The evidence base on DBT for SI is still limited, and some results are conflicting, but DBT may be useful for managing some of the emotion dysregulation and alexithymic aspects of SI.

Because of the maladaptive and distorted cognition seen in many people who self-injure, cognitive interventions may be well-indicated. Both David Klonsky and Nadja Slee independently suggest that cognitive therapy has been found to be most effective when focusing on the specific SI behavior and on emotion regulation skills. Problem-solving therapy, a type of cognitive therapy, may be effective when combined with cognitive, behavioral and interpersonal interventions. However, Jennifer Muehlenkamp and others have noted that the long-term results are mixed and inconclusive.

Other empirically based treatment approaches focusing on the behavior of SI include behavioral management strategies, functional assessment analysis of SI and means restriction/delay of SI. Klonsky, Muehlenkamp, Stephen Lewis and Barent Walsh provide a nice overview of these interventions in their book Nonsuicidal Self-Injury, which is part of the Advances in Psychotherapy Evidence-Based Practice series. All of these interventions promote the use of learning new behaviors in an effort to reduce the occurrence of SI.

Pioneered by William Miller and Stephen Rollnick, and applied to the treatment of SI by Victoria Kress and Rachel Hoffman, motivational interviewing (MI) is a humanistic-based therapy that can be used to enhance client motivation to change. At its core, MI is a client-centered approach that demands counselor nonjudgment and acknowledges that every client who comes to counseling is at a different place of readiness for change. Although the application of MI to the treatment of SI has not been researched well, counselors may find MI particularly useful for fostering a strong therapeutic alliance and working with clients who may not be willing or ready to cease self-injuring.

Family interventions: Family support can be a protective factor against SI and suicide. As such, family therapy can promote client change and well-being. Family members who engage in therapy can learn how to communicate with their loved ones in ways that are affirming and nonblaming. Counselors can help educate family members on the reasons that their loved ones engage in SI behaviors.

Family therapy can also help counselors explore family dynamics and how those patterns may have influenced clients’ propensity to self-injure. Trauma, abuse, unhealthy communication patterns, inappropriate alliances and other family dynamics can occur in the family of origin and create toxic relationships that are dysfunctional and in need of repair. Counselors can help clients mend these broken relationships, which in turn can potentially decrease the clients’ desire to self-injure. Klonsky and his co-authors provide a brief overview of the support for applying family therapy to the treatment of SI in their book.

Summary

To help ensure a growth-promoting experience and minimize both risk and liability, counselors should keep a number of things in mind when working with clients who self-injure. These include the following:

  • Monitoring one’s own values when working with clients who self-injure for the purpose of avoiding making the client feel unsafe or creating inappropriate therapeutic conditions
  • Identifying when and how to make disclosures of confidential information regarding SI
  • Identifying foreseeable harm regarding severe SI or suicide
  • Using reliable and valid assessment instruments to identify and monitor SI
  • Monitoring one’s own competence to treat SI
  • Using evidence-based therapeutic interventions

Above all else, we hope readers will remember five key points about SI from this article:

1) SI is often used as a coping skill, but it always has a function (and sometimes multiple functions). For most people, that function is emotion regulation. Therefore, identifying the function or functions can help to guide intervention.

2) Treatment that focuses exclusively on stopping the SI behavior fails to address the underlying reasons for the behavior and is not likely to produce long-term change.

3) Counselors’ reactions — both verbal and nonverbal — communicate clear messages to clients who self-injure. If counselors want their clients to feel safe and not judged, counselors should start by identifying their biases regarding SI.

4) Counselors need to be specially educated and trained in how to intervene with clients who self-injure. There are risks and therapeutic pitfalls that can be minimized with adequate understanding of SI.

5) SI and suicide are not equivalent, but counselors should work to monitor suicide risk without assuming that all clients who self-injure are suicidal.

The information provided in this article is not exhaustive, but we hope readers will be stimulated to continue learning about SI so that when (not if) a client presents with SI, they will feel better able to intervene.

 

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We would like to extend a heartfelt thanks to our friends and colleagues Victoria Kress and Chelsea Zoldan for their contributions to this article.

 

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

Julia L. Whisenhunt is an assistant professor of counselor education and college student affairs at the University of West Georgia. She is an editorial board member for the Journal of Counselor Leadership & Advocacy and serves Chi Sigma Iota (CSI) International through committee membership. A licensed professional counselor (LPC), national certified counselor (NCC) and certified professional clinical supervisor (CPCS) in Georgia, she specializes in the areas of self-injury, suicide prevention and creative counseling. Contact her at jwhisenh@westga.edu.

Nicole Stargell is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Counseling at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. She is a member of the CSI International Counselor Community Engagement Committee, the ACA Practice Briefs advisory group and the editorial board for the Counseling Outcome Research & Evaluation journal. She is an LPC, NCC and licensed school counselor.

Caroline Perjessy is an assistant professor of counselor education and college student affairs at the University of West Georgia.  An editorial board member of the Association for Specialists in Group Work, she has presented and published on dialectical behavior therapy and postmodern approaches to counselor practice and pedagogy. She is an LPC and CPCS in Georgia.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org