I recently recorded a two-hour workshop on Zoom for a virtual presentation at the Psychotherapy Networker Symposium Conference that is held every year in Washington DC (in non-pandemic times). This conference is a major professional event for psychotherapists across disciplines and I was thrilled to be invited to do this workshop.

To my delight, the organizers proposed the following title: “Treating Suicide Risk with Competence and Confidence: How to Move Beyond our Fears.” I liked this title for many reasons but mostly because of the emphasis on competence and confidence which is critical for effectively working with patients who are suicidal.

I also loved the idea of “moving beyond fear” because for many practitioners, fear is what drives defensive practices and/or avoidance of patients who are suicidal. Clinical fears include fear of litigation should there be a bad outcome, fear of not being able to control the patient’s self-destructive behaviors, fear of investing in therapeutic care and concern for patient only to lose them to suicide. As I have previously blogged and written about many times, clinicians’ fear and avoidance of patients who are suicidal is a major barrier for patients receiving effective and potentially life-saving care.

Upon reflection the presentation turned out well, I think? One never knows talking at their laptop for two straight hours. In the virtual workshop I did my usual tour, beginning with the field’s historic mishandling of people who are mentally ill, which is frankly a pretty horrifying story of marginalizing persons who suffered, seeing them as deviants possessed by evil spirits. It is noteworthy that every major world religion has some form of ritual exorcism. Long before effective treatments took root, societies around the world largely responded to abnormal behavior through prayers, exorcism rituals, and crude interventions such as waterboarding and trephination (drilling large holes in the cranium to release evil spirits). Critically, people who were mentally ill were marginalized to the fringes of society as they were literally chained up in dank cellars, imprisoned in appalling jails, and ultimately sent to asylums.

There was a movement in the late 18th century led by Dr. Phillipe Pinel outside of Paris to liberate people who were mentally ill from their chains with the advent of so-called “moral treatment.” While philosophically compelling with some who aspired to make asylums a genuine kind of sanctuary (e.g., the 19th-century Kirkbride asylums in the United States) the reality of moral treatment was not reflected in the reality of “care” for those who struggled with mental disorders.

In fact, “lunatics” where warehoused, restrained, assaulted, and later in the 20th century given brutal treatments of electroconvulsive therapy (often breaking bones as patients convulsed) and the horrific use of “icepick” lobotomies. The latter was particularly crude and inexact—a Washington DC physician name Walter Freeman performed thousands of lobotomies, driving from hospital to hospital performing up to a dozen lobotomies per visit. He would take a sharp steel tool resembling an icepick that was hammered through the orbit of the patient’s eye through the cranium to sever—rather ineptly—portions of the frontal lobes. The procedure was initially celebrated as a wonder cure because patient behavior changed dramatically (despite patients dying and some receiving multiple “treatments”). Bottom line, not good.

Taken together it is a horrifying history that reflects a fundamental fear of mental illness and a societal desire to control abnormal behaviors by any means. Professors largely sought to dominate, control, and restrict potentially undesirable behaviors—bizarre movements, violence, and of course suicide.

I take pains to share this sordid history because it is truly relevant to contemporary care. Certain patients—such as people who are suicidal—can evoke intense fear and be experienced as a threat, an adversary, and someone to be avoided. But in the clinical life-saving business it is extremely difficult to help save a life from suicide if the clinician is fundamentally afraid of their patient. And as I have noted in this blog there is a significant historic lineage of non-therapeutic fear.

The presentation then delved into my review of screening for suicidal risk, the use of assessment tools, and the relative limits—and problems—related to clinical judgement, not the least of which is the notable overconfidence that clinicians have in their “gut” judgement and their general aversion to assessment tools therein.

Next, I reviewed interventions that focus on the management of acute suicidal crises (e.g., safety planning, use of the National Lifeline and Textline, and lethal means safety). Having reviewed these topics, I then delved into the evidence-base of suicide-focused treatments (DBT for self harm, CT-SP, BCBT) which are supported by rigorous randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and the notable limits and lack of RCT support for medications in relation to suicidal risk. It follows that a good portion of the second hour focused on CAMS as a patient-centered, evidence-based, suicide-focused, clinical treatment supported by five published RCTs.

Here is the point. I do workshop talks all the time; I can expand, or contract the content, as needed depending on the forum and audience. But what really struck me about this Zoom-based workshop was that it targeted an audience that may feel fearful of suicidal risk,  which led to my sponsors’ proposed title. They expressly wanted me to address an audience of practitioners who need to move beyond fear to better help patients who struggle with suicidal thoughts.

Within this simple realization a few things struck me. I learned years ago in graduate school about the critical role that fear plays in our lives. Fear is limbic-based (the “older” part of our brain) and primitive. Fear is central to our “fight or flight” response that kept our ancestors alive. But fear also has the  power to paralyze—the proverbial deer in headlights. I also learned early on with a patient who was profoundly traumatized and diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder (i.e., multiple personality disorder).

Together we discovered a wonderful therapeutic “fairy tale” book about dissociation that noted the following key idea:  behind every fear is a legitimate need. Thus, if an ancient ancestor was chased by a  sabretooth tiger, it evoked tremendous fear and a clear need for safety from the predator so as to not be devoured. It follows, that in a contemporary sense, if we fear working with a person who is suicidal, there is a fundamental need for clinical competence (to do something that works) and confidence to work effectively with this inherently scary issue.

Fortunately, CAMS can offer a reliable path to clinical competence and confidence, which is the best way to deal with the clinical fear. Competence is rooted in doing something proven effective; with competence, confidence can follow. And here is the thing about confidence: it creates a placebo effect in the patient. If we can therefore be competent and confident, patients feel it and it changes their brain chemistry (as proven by placebologists who study the effect and changes that are seen in MRIs). And here is another thing about confidence: we know that training in CAMS significantly increases clinician confidence as per a rigorous study of trainings conducted by Dorian Lamis and his research team in Georgia (Associations of Suicide Prevention Trainings with Practices and Confidence among Clinicians at Community Mental Health Centers).

In summary, in the face of our fears about working with people who are suicidal, we can realize and embrace our need to practice with competence by using evidence-based approaches like CAMS. Moreover, we also know that training in CAMS significantly instills confidence in mental health providers, which changes brain chemistry and may play a critical role in in helping to clinically save lives.