Being A Psychotherapist: Things School and Books Can’t Really Prepare You For Part Two: Suicidal Clients

Another thing school and books can’t really prepare you for are suicidal clients. Sure they cover the subject of suicide in graduate school, but the training of dealing with suicidal patients is usually very brief. There are many great books on working with suicidal clients and I have read a few, but I don’t think anything can really prepare you for sitting face to face with and working with a suicidal patient.

From my experiences, there are many types of suicidal clients and they all have to be taken seriously.

There’s the client who doesn’t really want to commit suicide, but they like to self-injure and that self-injurious behavior may lead to an accidental suicide. These are often the most common types of clients, often called “cutters” and they tend to be the most frustrating since a lot of them have cluster b type personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder.

When I worked in a high school I had a whole group full of students who self-injured and ended up involuntarily hospitalizing at least one every month because while they said they weren’t suicidal, they were definitely at times flirting with death.

This picture was taken of one of my former students who likes to cut. The next day she had twice as many cuts on her arm and I was forced to involuntarily hospitalize her.
This picture was taken of one of my former students who likes to cut. The next day she had twice as many cuts on her arm and I was forced to involuntarily hospitalize her.

There’s also the suicidal client who is extremely depressed or emotionally unstable and talks about death and suicide a lot. They typically don’t self-injure and have never tried to commit suicide and don’t think they ever would, but they talk about it so often and their emotional pain is so deep that when they leave your office you often wonder if this will be the last time you ever see them.

These type of clients can also be very stressful to deal with. Often when I have had clients like this I found myself worrying about them when I wasn’t even at work, when I was on vacation,  when they didn’t show up for an appointment and sometimes I even dreamt about them.

One patient in particular was diagnosed with a terminal disease and she didn’t want to die a slow death. She didn’t think she would kill herself, but all she talked about was death and dying and her depression was so deep that it was hard to not be concerned about her when she missed an appointment. Eventually I had to hospitalize her after one particularly draining and emotional session when she couldn’t promise me she wasn’t going to go home and try to kill herself. Everything inside of me was screaming she would. She was angry that I hospitalized her against her will, but told me in later sessions that she had every intent of going home and killing herself that day and thanked me.

Another type of suicidal client is the one who never talks about suicide. Some are impulsive, but many just keep their thoughts and feelings buried deep inside.  They may never even tell anyone that they are in pain. They just attempt or commit suicide without any real warning signs. These clients take not only you by surprise, but everyone else in their lives too.

I once worked with a student for two years dealing with the grief of a parent and then one day he gave me a card thanking me for helping him. It was our last session, he was doing great. Less than a week later I got a call from his family telling me he had attempted suicide and was in critical condition at a local hospital. I was stunned. I rushed to the hospital and nearly broke down in tears as I looked down at his lifeless body. I kept replaying our last sessions together, our last interactions, his last words to me, trying to figure out what did I miss. Thank goodness he came out of his comatose state after a few days and I was grateful that he not only lived, but that I had the opportunity to process his suicide attempt with him. I didn’t miss anything. He had suddenly decided he didn’t want to live any more and wanted to be with his deceased parent.

A couple of years before that I had been part of a crisis team that was sent to two different schools after two students had killed themselves apparently out of the blue. One was a popular jock that killed himself and stunned the whole community because no one, not even his closes friends knew that he was in so much emotional and psychological pain. His friends, family and even school staff members were blaming themselves for not seeing signs that weren’t even there.

The other student apparently killed himself on impulse in the midst of an angry dispute with his girlfriend. He told her he was going to hang himself. She didn’t believe him, but that’s exactly what he did. He had no history of being suicidal and no one saw it coming.

In my nearly 8 year career as a psychotherapist I’ve dealt with hundreds of suicidal clients. My main job right now is interacting with inmates who have been flagged as suicidal. Luckily I have not had one client commit suicide although I have had a few who have made serious suicide attempts landing them in the emergency room.

Studies suggest that:

  • 1 in 4 interns/trainees will have a patient who attempts suicide at some point during their training and 1 in 9 will experience a completed patient’s suicide.
  • 25% of psychologists and 50% of psychiatrists will experience a patient’s suicide.
  • 1 in 6 psychiatric patients who die by suicide die in active treatment with a healthcare provider.
  • Approximately 50% of those who die by suicide in America will have seen a mental health provider at some time in their life.
  • Work with suicidal patients is considered the most stressful of all clinical endeavors. One third of psychotherapists who experienced a patient’s suicide subsequently suffer from severe emotional distress. Several factors may contribute to such severe distress including failure to hospitalize a suicidal patient who then died; a treatment decision that the therapist may feel contributed to the suicide; negative reactions from the therapist’s institution; and the fear of a lawsuit by the patient’s relatives.
  • 25 % of family members of suicidal patients take legal actions against the patient’s mental health treatment team.

As a coincidence, just as I was finishing this post I was informed that an inmate just purposely swallowed 18 Ativan pills in an attempted suicide and is being rushed to the hospital.

Mental Health Awareness Week: Borderline Personality Disorder

istock_000008463493xsmall-243x300Perhaps out of all of the different types of personality disorders, borderline personality disorder is the most studied and most known as it seems like more and more people today are being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) and it was definitely one of the most common personality disorders I run into when working with teenage girls.

People with borderline personality disorder are said to stand on the threshold between neurosis and psychosis. They are characterized by their incredibly unstable affect, behavior, mood, self-image and object relations (how they relate to others).

Borderline personality disorder is thought to represent about 1 to 2 percent of the population and is twice as common in women compared to men.

People who have borderline personality disorder seem to be in a constant state of crisis. They experience almost every emotion to the extreme and typically have mood swings. They can go from being very angry and confrontational one moment, to crying the next moment to feeling nothing at all the very next. They may even have very brief periods of psychosis known as micropsychotic episodes that are generally not as bizarre as those who have full-blown psychotic breaks and may even go largely unnoticed or written off as “strange”.

The behavior of people with BPD is highly unpredictable and they generally do not achieve everything they can to their full potential. Their lives are usually marred by repetitive, self-destructive actions.

These individuals are very often associated with cutting and other self-injurious behaviors as they may harm themselves as a way of crying out for help, to express anger or to feel pain or numb themselves from intense and overwhelming emotions and affect. As a matter of fact, most of the young women I ended up counseling who had BPD were referred to me for their self-injurious behaviors and/or their intense mood swings.

They may feel both dependent and hostile which creates an environment for stormy interpersonal relationships. They can be dependent on the people they are closest to, yet lash out with intense anger at the smallest perceived slight or frustration. They basically pull and push people away all the time, yet they can not tolerate being alone and will prefer chasing and trying to have relationships with people who are not good for them, even if they themselves are not satisfied in the relationship. They tend to prefer that roller coaster over their own company.

They will complain about being treated like crap in their relationships, discuss leaving their partner, yet if their partner doesn’t respond to their text or phone call they will panic and do whatever it takes to track them down.

When they are forced to be alone, even briefly, they will take a stranger as a friend or become promiscuous to fill the loneliness they feel. They are often trying to fill the void of chronic feelings of emptiness, boredom and lack of a sense of identity. They may even complain about how depressed they feel despite all the other emotions that they usually display.

People with borderline personality disorder tend to distort their relationships by characterizing people to be all good or all bad. They will see people as either nurturing or as evil, hateful figures that threaten their security needs and are always threatening to abandon them whenever they feel dependent. The good person, even if they really are not a good person, then gets idealized while the bad person, even if they really are good, gets devalued. More often than not, the same person can be seen as good one moment and bad the next, meaning that a woman can see her husband as perfect and caring today and tomorrow he is the most evil man in the world and she hates his guts, even if nothing really changed between them over the last twenty-four hours.

This aspect of BPD I found extremely frustrating at times because one moment a client would see me as the only person in the world who could understand and help her and the next session she would treat me like she hated me and like I hadn’t ever helped her. One client in particular for instance was chatting with me like I was her best friend one week, the next week when I was redirecting a negative statement she made about herself she said “F*ck you” out of the blue and walked out of the room, only to come back the next week and apologize, but this cycle repeated itself over and  over again. It wasn’t uncommon for her to tell me in one session that she “couldn’t stand me” and the next session tell me that I was the only one who understood her.

Another reason people with BPD are trying even for therapists is that they are very good at subconsciously projecting a role unto someone and getting that person to unconsciously play that role. It can be very draining and even scary trying to deal with someone who has BPD as their impulsiveness and instability as well as their dependency needs can make them overwhelming for many people.

For the most part, this particular client and all other clients I’ve dealt with who had BPD were overall pleasant people with great personalities whenever they were in a good mood and I generally enjoyed our sessions, but there were times when they made therapy so difficult that although I enjoyed working with them, I was relieved when I was able to discharge them, not that I was happy to get rid of them so to say, but it was draining and by then I felt like I had given them everything they could have learned from me and now needed to practice the skills they built up with others.

 DSM-IV-TR Diagnostic Criteria for Borderline Personality Disorder

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is what we use in the mental health field to diagnose mental disorders and personality disorders and it list the criteria for BPD as:

A pervasive pattern of instability of interpersonal relationships, self-image and affects, and marked impulsivity beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:

1)   Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment.

Note:  Do not include suicidal or self-mutilating behavior covered in Criterion 5.

2)   A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between  extremes of idealization and devaluation.

3)  Identity disturbance:  markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self.

4)   Impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self-damaging (e.g., spending, sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, binge eating).

Note: Do not include suicidal or self-mutilating behavior covered in Criterion 5.

5)   Recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, or threats, or self-mutilating behavior.

6)   Affective [mood] instability.

7)   Chronic feelings of emptiness.

8)   Inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger (e.g., frequent displays of temper, constant anger, recurrent physical fights).

9)   Transient, stress-related paranoid ideation or severe dissociative symptoms.

 Treatment

Psychotherapy has had the best results for treating individuals with borderline personality disorder, especially when combined with pharmacotherapy. Reality-oriented and social skills training are ideal in order to help people with BPD see how their actions affect others. Intense psychotherapy on an individual and group level is often recommended to help clients work on their interpersonal skills and to deal with their self-destructive and self-injurious behaviors.

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is a specific type of psychotherapy that works great with people who have borderline personality disorder, especially those who do self-harm behaviors like cutting. It has perhaps gotten the best recognition for being high effective with people who have BPD.

I mostly used psychotherapy in the form of cognitive behavioral therapy, but later started utilizing much of DBT and it proved to work faster if not better than traditional cognitive behavioral therapy.

More Information

There are some great books on borderline personality disorder, but I recommend the classic, I Hate You- Don’t Leave Me: Understanding Borderline Personality Disorder by Kreisman MD, Jerold J. and Hal Straus as a great place to start.

www.borderlinepersonalitydisorder.com  is another great resource and they even have a list of movies with characters who have BPD and they include:

Fatal Attraction (1987)

In “Fatal Attraction,” the infamous femme fatale character played by Glenn Close displays the emotional instability and fear of abandonment that are symptomatic of someone with Borderline Personality Disorder. Her character also exhibits the BPD symptoms of self-harm, intense anger, and manipulation as she stalks her former lover and his family.

Single White Female (1992)

Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character in “Single White Female” exhibits the Borderline Personality Disorder symptoms of fear of abandonment, impulsivity, and mirroring as she attempts to take over the persona and life of her roommate (Bridget Fonda).

Girl, Interrupted (1999)

“Girl, Interrupted” is based on the memoir of Susanna Kaysen, who struggled with mental illness and Borderline Personality Disorder as a teenager and young adult. The film, which stars Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie, centers around Kaysen’s 18-month stay at a mental hospital.

Hours (2002)

The three main characters in “The Hours,” which include author Virginia Woolf, all struggle with Borderline Personality Disorder, depression, and suicide. The movie, which links women from different generations to Woolf’s book “Mrs. Dalloway,” stars Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, and Julianne Moore.

Monster (2003)

Charlize Theron transformed into the role of female serial killer Aileen Wuornos in “Monster.” Wuornos was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, which may have contributed to the unstable and angry behaviors that led to her killing at least six men.

My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006)

One of the few comedy movies that features a character with Borderline Personality Disorder is “My Super Ex-Girlfriend.” In this movie, Uma Thurman portrays a woman with superpowers and a secret identity who also displays the BPD symptoms of impulsivity, unstable interpersonal relationships, and poor self-image.

Inside The Thoughts of a Cutter: A Poem

The other day one of my students who used to cut herself, but hasn’t cut in several months, shared a poem with me she wrote that I thought would be beneficial to share.

I think it gives a quick glimpse into the mind of those who self-injure.

Although she and most of everyone else who was a part of her group I treated for self-injurious behavior have stopped cutting, many of them still fight with the urge to do it when they are faced with certain stressors.

With her permission, I share this poem that has no title.

Depressed and suicidal

Need to escape the misery

Not caring to continue this life

Blood loss has me weary

Scars show my painful past

As the stained blade opens up

Areas of my skin torn and scarred

To be a reminder of a dark past

Mind torn between love and hate

Will I ever be free?

Everyday is a struggle

To be free from this depression

Lost in darkness and misery

Puddles of dried blood stains

From every deep cut that is made

Full of depression and misery

Not worth saving this life of hate.