102: Helping the Suicidal Patient

The Prediction and Prevention of Suicide

Dr. Maor Katz, the founder of the Feeling Good Institute in Mt. View, California, asked if we’d do a show on the Prediction and Prevention of Suicide, so his staff could learn about the unique approach I have developed. Dr. Fabrice Nye and I were delighted to devote today’s show to this topic.

Suicidal thoughts and urges are very common among depressed patients. The vast majority of depressed individuals have thoughts of suicide from time to time, and some struggle with serious suicidal urges. The experts tell us that 10% to 15% of chronically depressed individuals do eventually commit suicide, even if they are receiving treatment for depression. It is hard for me to believe that suicide is that common, but even if it is only 2% or 3%, that’s still very significant, especially if you have a large clinical practice and you treat lots of depressed individuals.

Suicide attempts are shocking and devastating for the patient, for the family, and for the therapist as well. The loss of a patient through suicide is the dark side of our profession. The loss of life is a horrible and unnecessary tragedy, since the feelings of hopelessness that trigger suicidal urges are always the result of cognitive distortions; the belief that you are hopeless and cannot improve is never valid. Yet, the depressed patient does not realize this, and sometimes turns to suicide as the only way out of his or her suffering.

Sadly, clinicians’ capacity to assess suicidal urges in patients they are treating is very poor. In fact, in a research study I did, experts estimated how suicidal patients were feeling at the end of a several hour diagnostic interview at the Stanford Hospital. The patients recorded how suicidal they were actually feeling at the exact same time. Surprisingly, the patients’ and experts’ assessments were not significantly correlated. In other words, the experts accuracy in detecting suicidal fantasies and urges was zero. that’s one reason so many patients in treatment do commit suicide–because the therapist simply did not realize the patient was feeling that way.

In this podcast, I describe how you can solve this problem with the use of the EASY Diagnostic System and a systematic suicide interview, if needed, at the initial evaluation, and the use of the Brief Mood Survey at all subsequent sessions, with no exceptions.

In this podcast, I focus on two things. First, how can the clinician identify and evaluate a new (or old) patient who is struggling with suicidal thoughts and fantasies and determine if the patient is at risk for a suicide attempt? Second, how can the therapist make the patient accountable and guarantee that the patient will not now, or ever, make a suicide attempt?

The “defensive psychotherapy” I recommend will sound unfamiliar and maybe even shocking to many therapists but can save lives and make your practice far more peaceful and rewarding. The approach to the suicidal patient involves Paradoxical Agenda Setting techniques, including the Gentle Ultimatum, Sitting with Open Hands, and Fallback Position.

I hope you enjoyed today’s podcast on a very serious topic!





4 thoughts on “102: Helping the Suicidal Patient

  1. Therapy 101 for clinicians with no empathetic skills! Apparently only a sociopathic-like approach can out manouver patients with Borderline Personality Disorders.

    • Hi ron, I didn’t quite “get” your comment, but it is true that empathy skills are vital in the treatment of individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder, along with Paradoxical Agenda Setting skills. It can be challenging for therapists to treat this diagnosis, but in a large study at my clinic in Philadelphia, we reported in a research journal that the 28% of our patients with this diagnosis at intake recovered from depression at nearly the same rate as patients without this diagnosis, which was encouraging. The treatment of individuals with BPD was what led, in part, to the evolution of TEAM-CBT. Thanks for your comment, and feel free to share your thinking any time! Appreciate the chance for dialogue. david

  2. Pingback: The website of David D. Burns, MD | The Dark Side of Clinical Practice–Protect Yourself and Your Clients | Feeling Good

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