Author Archives: Diane

Nonverbal Cues Related to Culture

nonverbalculturalcluesI recently had a first session with a client who immigrated from India last year. I’m Caucasian and haven’t lived outside the United States. My client didn’t seem as receptive to therapy as most of my other clients, and I assume this has to do with our cultural differences. What can I do to make it easier for her to benefit from therapy?

It is good for you to begin this therapeutic relationship with an awareness that you will need to make some adjustments in your usual therapeutic practices in order for this client to benefit from therapy. When we have significant cultural differences from our clients, it is our clinical responsibility to learn about the implications of these differences for establishing a therapeutic relationship.

The first step I would suggest is to get some education and consultation on your own, with supervisors, professors, and colleagues and by accessing professional publications in print or online. Since there are many cultural groups within India, it will be important to know your client’s geographic, religious, and class identifications. The easiest aspects of this education will be general information about views of health and mental health, symptoms, and treatment. Your client will also be able to tell you about her understanding of these aspects of her culture. Issues and struggles for first generation Indian clients are reflected in movies and books. The movie “Bend It Like Beckham” and the book “Life’s Not All Ha Ha Hee Hee” by Meera Syal are examples.

In general, boundaries within the Indian culture are very different from those in the West. Many generations live together, elders are expected to be cared for, and daughters in law are expected to bear the brunt of the work in traditional homes. Explore your client’s family structure and expectations, including the family members and living arrangement she left in India and whether she lives with family members or has acquaintances in the U.S. Approach these discussions with openness and keep in mind that individuation may not be the goal of therapy for your client. The structure of a family system that fosters both a sense of connection and a sense of individual wellbeing for this client may look different than for your clients who come from traditional Western culture.

The more difficult aspects of your need for education will be learning about the relational expectations of your client’s culture including nonverbal cues (i.e., eye contact and other gestures) and boundaries. It may be helpful to supplement your education about your client’s specific culture by consulting with colleagues and acquaintances who have immigrated from other cultures. They may be able to share their observations about the unspoken practices and expectations of U.S. culture which are outside of your awareness.

Regarding Indian culture specifically, clients are likely to present as cautious, anxious, or even timid with limited eye contact. These nonverbal cues are not a reflection of avoidance or resistance to therapy, but are signs of deference. The client will expect guidance and direct instruction and will feel comfortable knowing that the clinician is the expert. Therapy initially should be somewhat structured and have clear goals.

If your client immigrated in midlife or later, be aware that many older generation Indians are not psychologically educated and as a result present with somatic problems. They may be referred by a physician rather than self-referred. Consider spending time understanding how the somatic issue affects the client’s life and overall sense of wellbeing including how it affects their spiritual practice, diet, and family life.

In addition to education and consultation, your attentiveness to your client in session will give you valuable information. You mention that she didn’t seem as receptive to therapy as other clients, so I recommend giving some thought to what you observed or inferred in her behavior. Notice the nonverbal aspects of her interactions with you, and see if you can match her level of engagement in terms of expressiveness and eye contact. This may increase her comfort by reducing the interactional discrepancies between you. Be attentive to times in the session when she seems more or less comfortable and think about what may have been different in your relational style at those times. Emotions are often communicated through nonverbal gestures as much as or more than our words, so be careful about making interpretations about her emotional state based on your cultural assumptions. Note that the meaning of nonverbal cues is different across cultures; for example, a nod of the head that indicates saying “no” in western culture means “yes” for Indians.

It may also be useful to have some direct discussion with your client about some of the structural aspects of therapy that are unfamiliar to her. Interpersonal boundaries are experienced very differently in different cultures, so the meaning of professional behavior may be different for your client than you intend. Consider telling your client about the meaning of your professional boundaries and the therapeutic frame, acknowledging that these practices may be unfamiliar to her and may even seem odd. Invite your client’s comments and be open to shifting some aspects of your boundaries in minor ways if that will facilitate the development of the therapeutic relationship. For Indian clients, examples of appropriate differences in boundaries are accepting a small gift or a hug offered out of gratitude from the client, joining in the use of humor to bring warmth to the session, and using a double-handed hand shake.

I hope you find these suggestions helpful in understanding the nonverbal aspects of the therapeutic relationship in a cultural context. Please email me with comments, questions, or suggestions for future blog topics.

My colleague, Fenella das Gupta, LMFT, Ph.D. Neuroscience, provided consultation in developing the content of this blog post.  See Fenella’s website at http://www.innermirror.com for more information about her practice.

 

 

Steps to Developing a Diagnosis

My agency requires assigning a diagnosis after the first session, and this is very hard to do.  How can I give a diagnosis to my client when I don’t have complete information about them?

This agency requirement is probably related to third party billing and the need to document the medical necessity of the services you are providing to the client. While this requirement ensures that your clients have access to the services they need, it can be frustrating as a clinician to assign a diagnosis when you haven’t had a chance to develop a comprehensive understanding of their symptoms. I will suggest a couple of strategies regarding the notation of the diagnosis itself that may alleviate your concern and then  outline a three-step process for arriving at a diagnosis after the first session or after a more thorough assessment.  My comments are based on using the DSM-5, and may need to be adapted if your agency is using the DSM-IV.

One strategy is to check with your supervisor or the billing manager about the use of diagnoses marked “Provisional” when you have incomplete information.  If this is allowed by the third party, it is a way to acknowledge that your diagnosis is tentative.  Situations in which a “provisional” diagnosis are appropriate are when you know a client meets most of the criteria but haven’t confirmed the full set of criteria required for the diagnosis or when the client reports a diagnosis given by another health care provider that you haven’t verified independently. Also ask about the use of “Other Specified” and “Unspecified” diagnoses when you have determined which category the client’s symptoms fit but don’t know whether they meet the criteria for a specific diagnosis within that category.  These diagnoses are often useful when your information is incomplete, if they are acceptable to the third party.

A second aspect of diagnosis that may alleviate some of your concern is to view diagnosis as an ongoing process rather than a decision that is made once for the duration of the client’s treatment. The diagnosis you assign after the first session may not be the diagnosis that accurately reflects the client’s history and symptoms that emerge as you complete an assessment. This will be most likely if you have used “provisional,” “other specified,” or “unspecified” in your diagnosis, but there are other times when the client’s initial presentation differs from the impression you get after four to six more sessions. I also suggest reviewing the diagnosis every six months or whenever you update the treatment plan. This allows you to update the diagnosis if appropriate, to reflect changes in the client’s symptoms or new historical information you have learned.

I have developed a three-step process to help new clinicians develop a diagnosis, and the worksheet reflecting this process is available for download in an online workbook. I find that new clinicians often have difficulty prioritizing the different pieces of information they have about clients, and this leads to confusion in identifying the most accurate diagnosis. A more detailed description of the diagnostic process is contained in Chapter 5 of my book, available through Amazon or Routledge.

My recommendation is to begin by listing the client’s current symptoms and past symptoms reported as part of the history. This ensures that you consider all of the data that is relevant to the client’s diagnosis rather than prematurely focusing on one aspect of the presentation that may lead to an inaccurate diagnosis or may neglect a secondary diagnosis that is clinically important.

Second, make note of the categories in the DSM-5 that fit your client’s symptoms, being as comprehensive as possible.  In the worksheet, I suggest that you note the categories in which symptoms are present (or are part of the history) and then note whether these symptoms are relevant to the current treatment, i.e., part of the reason for the client seeking treatment. This notation will serve as a reminder to address the relevant symptoms in your treatment goals.  Remember to include the “Other Conditions” category if your client has psychosocial stressors, relationship difficulties, or a history of trauma.

The third step is to look at the specific diagnoses within the categories you have noted to see whether your client’s symptoms meet the criteria for one or more diagnoses. If you noted the “Other Conditions” category, review these codes to determine which situational factors are important to include in your diagnosis. Often, your client’s clinical presentation may be best described by one or more diagnoses and one or more Z codes.  If this is the case, choose the diagnosis that best represents the reason for treatment as the primary diagnosis which will be reported for billing purposes. The other diagnoses will be included in your assessment to provide a comprehensive view of the client’s symptoms, history, and current psychosocial stressors.

I hope you find these comments helpful in working with DSM-5 and diagnosis. Please email me with comments, questions, or suggestions for future blog topics.

 

Having Difficult Conversations in Supervision

I have finished my first semester in a new practicum site, and my supervisor’s evaluation of me was less positive than I expected.  She’s been very supportive of me, and I expected her to understand why I’ve had some trouble keeping up with paperwork and applying the theoretical orientation used by my agency.  Should I talk with my supervisor about her evaluation of me?

This is the third blog in a series on difficult conversations.  Click here for the blog related to client conversations and here for the blog related to colleague conversations.  As I have mentioned in the previous blogs, growing into the role of clinician means developing skills to talk about issues and areas of conflict in a way that is different than our usual social conversations.  When we can expand our repertoire of skills in managing these difficult conversations, we are capable of being effective in a broader range of clinical challenges.

One of the issues raised by your question is the inherent tension that is felt by both supervisors and supervisees between two necessary aspects of supervision: 1) providing support to facilitate professional growth and 2) giving corrective and constructive feedback in areas needing further development.  Both of these aspects of supervision are required for you to gain skill and confidence in your clinical work, but most supervisors and supervisees are more comfortable with the support side than the corrective feedback side.  I will suggest a few issues for reflection before returning to the question of talking with your supervisor about her evaluation of you.

First, I would suggest that you examine the degree to which you experience support and feedback as polarized or incompatible.  Think about other relationships you have had with instructors and other authority figures and whether it has been hard for you to receive guidance or suggestions on assignments or work performance.  This may also relate to your experience with your parents, bringing up issues to discuss in your personal therapy.  You may be looking for nurturing and support from your supervisor without recognizing the need for correction and guidance.

Second, it sounds like you have some assumptions about what it means for your supervisor to be supportive.  Consider your supervisor’s position of responsibility for your clients’ care and for insuring that your clinical work meets acceptable standards in your agency as well as the mental health field.  She may or may not understand the reasons you have struggled in the particular areas you mention, but either way she has a responsibility to evaluate your performance accurately and to give you appropriate feedback.  Being supportive doesn’t mean that you’ll be held to a more lenient standard than your peers.

Third, I recommend reflecting on your own standards for yourself as you learn a new set of skills.  It is often uncomfortable to be a beginner especially when you have developed confidence in other areas of your life.  You may be looking for positive feedback from your supervisor partially in order to counter your own discomfort or self-criticism as you grow in a new profession.  You may also be unfamiliar with being rated as average or even below average, even though this is a predictable part of the clinical learning process.  Mastering clinical work is different from learning academic material, and you may have expected an evaluation from your supervisor that reflects your success in the classroom.

After reflecting on these three areas, give thought to how you might approach a conversation with your supervisor.  I would suggest focusing on the corrective feedback she gave you as an opportunity for you to establish goals for your next semester.  Make sure you understand your supervisor’s expectations and ask her for examples of the changes she wants you to make.  If you are uncertain about how to make these changes, ask for suggestions of ways you can improve.  It will probably be helpful to have a series of conversations about the areas you mention, so you can get progressive feedback on your performance.  It may be hard to focus your attention on areas of growth rather than areas of greater skill, but your clinical work will improve as you bring those weaker areas in line with your strengths.

I hope you find these suggestions helpful in having difficult conversations in supervision.  Please email me with comments, questions, or suggestions for future blog topics.

Having Difficult Conversations with Colleagues

I’m seeing a heterosexual couple in couples therapy, and a colleague at my agency is seeing the wife individually. Last week my colleague made a critical comment about the husband and questioned how helpful couples therapy could be. She said this in front of several of our peers, and I didn’t respond because I was shocked and hurt. I think I need to say something to her, because her negative view of the couples therapy will undermine the wife’s participation. There is a lot of conflict in the relationship but they have both expressed a commitment to work it out and stay together.

This is my second blog on the topic of having difficult conversations. It may be helpful to read the prior blog about client conversations if you didn’t do so already. This situation with your colleague is an example of difficult conversations that can arise when we share cases or consult with colleagues about our work. Growing into the role of clinician means developing skills to talk with colleagues as well as clients about uncomfortable issues and areas of conflict. You’ve already made an important first step in deciding that you need to talk with your colleague rather than avoiding a challenging interaction. I would agree that having a disagreement between the individual and couples therapists can be harmful to the client, and I would add that it can also be informative to both the individual and the couple therapy.

I would suggest that you engage in personal reflection before you approach your colleague. It is important to identify 1) the nature of the conflict or difficulty you are experiencing with your colleague, 2) assumptions you may be making about the reasons for the conflict, and 3) the desired outcome of a conversation. During this process, it may be helpful to consult with another trusted colleague or your supervisor to sort through your feelings and hear some alternative explanations or outcomes you may not have considered.

When you reflect on the nature of the conflict, identify the content or issues of disagreement as well as the emotions associated with the conflict. In this instance, you mention shock and hurt, but you may notice other emotions that have arisen since then. If you find that the issue and associated emotions are similar to interactions that have been a struggle in your personal life, it may be helpful to take this to your own therapy as well as getting supervision and consultation.

After you feel clear about the conflict itself, reflect on the assumptions you have about why your colleague made this remark. Usually an emotionally charged interaction leads us to develop explanations for our hurt or angry feelings, and these explanations often include criticism and judgment of yourself or the other person. For example, you may wonder whether your colleague doubts your skill as a couples therapist or whether she has a bias in favor of separation for couples in conflict. Consider other explanations as well, possibly with the help of your supervisor, therapist, or colleagues. One possibility is that the wife is describing her view of and feelings about her husband and marriage differently in her individual therapy than in the couples therapy. This would mean that you and your colleague are holding two disparate parts of the wife’s experience that she hasn’t reconciled.

Third, identify the outcome you desire for your conversation. There are a number of possible outcomes when approaching a colleague about a difficult interaction: expressing your point of view, engaging your colleague in understanding your difference of opinion, and sharing your view of possible reasons for your differences in perspectives are a few. Make sure that the outcome you identify is something that is focused on your communication and is collaborative in nature. A desired outcome of changing your colleague’s point of view establishes a more adversarial tone and is likely to lead to a deterioration of your collaboration rather than strengthening it. If you have difficulty identifying your desired outcome, check with your supervisor, therapist, or another trusted colleague who can maintain neutrality.

Once you have moved through these steps in understanding the interaction with your colleague, you are ready to plan a conversation with her. I would recommend letting her know you’d like to talk and planning a specific time and plan for the conversation. You’re more likely to achieve your desired outcome if both of you have set time aside and if your colleague knows what you want to talk about. Make sure you describe the purpose of the conversation in neutral terms by saying something like “I’d like to talk further about our work with X and the questions you raised last week about the couples therapy.” Follow that statement with some suggested times and a private location where you can talk without disturbance. When you come to the designated time and place, you may benefit from having a clear opening statement about your reason for wanting to have the conversation, setting the tone as positive, curious, and collaborative. An example of an opening statement in your situation might be “I was surprised to hear what you said last week about X’s husband and the couple therapy. I’d like to compare our perspectives to see if we can make sure the two therapies are beneficial to her.” The preparation you have done will enable you to listen to your colleague’s point of view, express yours, and work to establish common ground in understanding your client.

I hope you find these suggestions helpful in addressing difficult conversations with colleagues in your clinical work. Please email me with comments, questions, or suggestions for future blog topics.

Having Difficult Conversations with Clients

Mother and daughter having an argumentI have a client who has been 10-15 minutes late to every session since we started meeting three months ago.  My supervisor says I need to talk with her about this, but I’m afraid she might stop therapy if I confront her.  Is it possible to continue seeing her in therapy without talking about why she’s late?

I sometimes say to my supervisees and people I am training that as mental health practitioners we are in the business of having difficult conversations.  Growing into the role of clinician means developing skills to talk about issues and areas of conflict in a way that is different than usual social conversations.  I’ll discuss first some of the steps that can help us in having these conversations, then address the specific situation you describe.

Each of us comes into the clinical role with interpersonal skills that are familiar and comfortable, and these familiar strategies involve avoiding some type of discomfort.  As we work with different kinds of clients, we find that these interpersonal skills are helpful in some of the situations we face but not in others.  We also face situations with supervisors, peers, and colleagues that may challenge our familiar strategies for coping with conflict or distress.  When we can expand our repertoire of skills in managing these difficult conversations, we are capable of being effective in a broader range of clinical challenges.

In working toward greater interpersonal flexibility, it will be helpful to take some time to reflect on the situation and your emotional responses to it.  Supervision and personal therapy are good resources to use in developing greater self-awareness.  Some steps to consider are to identify 1) the specific nature of the conflict or discomfort you feel, 2) the benefits and limitations of your familiar strategy for managing this type of conflict or discomfort, 3) the fears or worries that arise when you consider handling the situation in a different way, and 4) a small step you could take to expand your skills.  Remember that change usually happens in small steps, so think about developing your interpersonal skills incrementally rather than pressuring yourself to do something dramatically different.

Applying these steps to the specific situation you mention, we start with the nature of the conflict.  It seems your supervisor is suggesting something that you perceive as confrontational, but it isn’t clear whether you perceive the client’s lateness to be a problem and why discussing it would become adversarial.  A starting point would be to explore more of your own response to the client being late and the potential meaning it might have.  This would be something to discuss in supervision as well.  It seems that your familiar strategy with managing this type of conflict is to avoid discussing it directly, so the next step would be to consider the positive and negative results of this type of avoidance in other situations in your life.  It may be that this was the most effective way to respond in your personal relationships, but remember that your job as a clinician is to help your client face and resolve the issues that are interfering with her life.  A limitation of relying solely on avoidance of potential conflict is that your client will not have an opportunity to gain insight into a pattern that may contribute to her difficulties outside of therapy.

A third step to consider is the nature of fears and worries you have about responding differently to this situation.  You express a fear that your client will stop therapy if you discuss her lateness.  This seems to reflect an assumption that she will feel judged or criticized by you and that your therapeutic alliance isn’t strong enough for a conversation about something that affects your work together.  Consider approaching the conversation with curiosity rather than judgment.  You can talk about the issue without requiring that she begin coming on time.  A small step you could take toward handling this situation differently would be to say something like “I notice that you usually come a bit later than our scheduled time and I wonder if there is anything about that you’d like to discuss.”  The client may simply say “no” and move on to another topic, but taking this step moves you into an area that has previously been fearful for you.  You can then look at the meaning of your client’s pattern and additional ways you might discuss it with her.

I hope you find these suggestions helpful in addressing difficult conversations with clients and other professionals in your clinical work.  Please email me with comments, questions, or suggestions for future blog topics.

Education as a Therapeutic Intervention

I’ve been seeing a client for about six months, and she recently told me about witnessing domestic violence between her parents when she was young. I used to volunteer at a DV family shelter, so I have a lot of information about how she may have been affected by this. Is it appropriate for me to share what I know as part of her therapy?counseling

This is a good question and brings up a common situation in therapy. You have information that may be useful for the client in understanding and resolving the difficulties that led her to seek therapy, and you are wise to think through the decision to take an educational role. I will share some of my thoughts about the factors to consider in deciding how and when to bring educational information into therapy.

First, I would affirm your sense that providing education can be a useful therapeutic intervention. As mental health professionals, we have knowledge about trauma, relationships, communication, human development, family dynamics, and many other topics that are relevant to our clients’ concerns. This particular client has introduced the topic of domestic violence, and it could be empowering for her to gain knowledge that she can apply to her life.

As you consider talking with your client about the impact of witnessing domestic violence as a child, pay particular attention to the timing of her decision to share this with you and to your countertransference feelings in learning this new detail of her history. She chose to wait six months before telling you about this powerful and traumatic experience, so this means she has been waiting to feel a sufficient level of trust before disclosing this to you. Think about what it means for her to have chosen this moment in the therapy to share the domestic violence and reflect on what she wants and needs from you in response. Notice how you felt when she told you and what you feel as you anticipate giving her educational information. There may be an intense emotion you are avoiding or attempting to modify by introducing psychoeducation, especially if it represents a shift from your usual therapeutic style. Consider the possibility that your client will benefit from education about the impact of domestic violence at a later time in the therapy after you and she have talked about the meaning and feelings she has about telling you now.

Another factor to consider in your decision is your client’s culture and what this means for her expectations of you and the therapy. She may view you as an expert who has knowledge that she is lacking, and it may be more therapeutic for you to work on developing a more collaborative alliance before you adopt an educational role. Alternatively, it is possible that conforming to her expectations of your role may help her to feel more safe and trusting. Reflection on the therapeutic process so far and consultation with your supervisor will help you to sort out the cross-cultural implications of sharing your knowledge about this topic. If your client comes from a different cultural community than you, also give thought to her cultural values and norms for family relationships and the presence of physical violence in the home. Providing education requires sensitivity to cultural differences and to her current relationship with the cultural values of her childhood.

Last, I would recommend thinking about your client’s general description of her relationship with her parents and how your use of education may provide a different experience for her. If she experienced her parents as unavailable and preoccupied, you will provide a different experience by being engaged and attuned to her needs and questions. If she experienced her parents as intrusive and acting on their own agenda, it will be helpful to introduce your ideas tentatively and ask for her responses and thoughts about the information you provide.

I hope you found this blog post helpful in considering the use of psychoeducation in therapy. Please email me with comments, questions, or suggestions for future blog topics.

Sharing Client Information in a Team

Teachers TalkingI am a counselor at a high school, and the teachers often ask me about my clients’ progress. I know they have good intentions, but I’m uncomfortable answering their questions. How much should I share and how do I explain the reason I can’t answer some of their questions?

This is an example of working in a team with other professionals who have different expectations and requirements regarding confidentiality and privacy of information. Your client work is probably covered by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which carries more limitations on sharing information than the regulations applicable to educational information. It is likely that the teachers know you can’t share fully with them, but your role in the school supports the students’ academic success so it is important to find ways to communicate productively with teachers. This requires that you create a collaborative working relationship with the teachers and other staff in the high school. I will recommend several steps you can take to establish yourself as part of a professional team.

One step is to have a short response regarding confidentiality requirements that you can use when a teacher asks you for specific information. An example is “you probably know I can’t share any details about the counseling, but I’d like to work together within the constraints I have to follow.” This establishes the limits of confidentiality while also communicating your desire to collaborate. Remember that teachers are often working in difficult circumstances and may be looking for support. When you can express your understanding of their concern for the students and the challenges they face in the classroom, the teachers will see you as an ally even if you can’t answer their questions. Follow your statement about confidentiality with an acknowledgement of their concern and desire for the student to get the help he/she needs.

Often, the next step will be to open a conversation with the teacher about how the student is doing in class. You might say “has anything happened lately that I should know about?” or “I’m interested in your perspective on how things are going.” The teacher’s question to you about the student’s progress may represent a desire to tell you something about the student’s life or a recent incident in the classroom. This information can be valuable background in your understanding of the student. Your client may present very differently in your counseling sessions than in the classroom or with teachers and peers. HIPAA limits the information you can share about treatment, but it doesn’t limit what you can hear from others.

You may also want to schedule a more formal conversation with one or more of your student’s teachers to ask specific questions that will aid in your assessment and treatment planning. It is wise to prepare a list of questions in advance so you can be focused in your discussion with the teacher and insure that you get the information you need. As treatment progresses, check in with the teachers periodically to get updates on the student’s progress in the classroom both academically and behaviorally. This information will enhance your review of treatment goals and help you to shape the direction of treatment.

Last, there may be times when you feel it would be helpful for you to share your impressions of the student with one or more teachers. You might have suggestions that the teacher could implement in the classroom or you might be able to provide an explanation for some of the student’s behavior that is otherwise confusing or creates conflict. If this is the case, you will need to have written permission from the parents and/or your client. Generally, parental consent is required for sharing treatment information for children under 18, but some states allow a minor to consent to treatment which would require that you get the student’s permission to share information. Even if it isn’t required by law, it is clinically sound to talk with the student about what you plan to share with the teachers and the reasons you think it would be helpful.

I hope you find these suggestions helpful in working as part of a team. Please email me with comments, questions, or suggestions for future blog topics.

Evaluation of Client Appropriateness for Treatment

worried therapistA client was recently assigned to me, and when I contacted her to set up an appointment she told me she had been in the hospital a month ago because of suicidal thinking. I’m not sure whether I should take on this client since I’m in a practicum and have only seen clients for a few months. What should I do?

It is a very good idea to ask the question of whether a client is appropriate for treatment with you before you begin with anyone new. This situation poses particular challenges because of the client’s recent suicidal thinking, but it is a good idea to take some time to evaluate that question with all new clients assigned to you. I will outline some factors to consider in the evaluation of your client’s risk.

Since you are in a practicum setting, the first step is to consult with your supervisor. She/he needs to know about your client’s hospitalization to determine whether she/he is comfortable supervising the case and proceeding with an initial appointment. If not, you’ll get suggestions on how to refer her to another resource either within or outside your agency. If you get approval to schedule an initial appointment, ask for your supervisor’s guidance about how to make an evaluation that will guide your decision to proceed with ongoing treatment.

Some of the factors I would consider in evaluating your client’s risk and the appropriateness of outpatient treatment are 1) her history of suicidality and hospitalization, 2) her ability to describe the precipitants and current strategies for managing suicidal thinking, 3) her level of engagement in treatment, and 4) the availability of other resources both within your agency and outside. I will discuss each of these factors briefly.

Your client’s history of suicidality and hospitalizations will assist you in determining whether you can help her to manage her symptoms on an outpatient basis. Her risk is lower if this was her first episode and is greater if she has had prior episodes especially if they occurred within the last year. Another area for evaluation of risk is her ability to describe the suicidal episode with some insight into the contributing factors and how she will manage suicidal thoughts that may recur. You’ll want to know whether she has a safety plan and how she has used it since being discharged from the hospital. Outpatient treatment is likely to be more successful if she has developed some insight into the recent episode and if she has strategies for managing recurring symptoms. Some clients adopt an attitude of distance from their symptoms after a hospitalization and are unwilling to talk about a safety plan, stating things are different and the symptoms aren’t going to recur. Although it may seem reassuring to hear this from a client, it is actually indicates a greater risk of future escalation.

While you are meeting with your client, you can assess her level of engagement in treatment by noticing whether she interacts with you in a collaborative manner and has ideas about her needs and plans for using therapy. If she is more passive or doubtful about the usefulness of therapy, it is less likely that you’ll be able to work with her productively. This is especially true if she is unable or unwilling to access other resources in addition to your individual outpatient treatment. Seeing a psychiatrist for medication management, attending a support or psychoeducational group, engaging in couple or family therapy, and/or receiving assistance with financial and housing needs are often vital to the success of therapy with someone who is recovering from an episode of suicidality.

A final step I recommend in evaluating the appropriateness of this client for your case load is to reflect on your experience with suicidality in your personal life as well as in a professional or volunteer capacity. This case may bring up past memories and difficult feelings if you have personal experience, and this is an area to discuss with your supervisor before and after your initial session. At some point, you will need to face this area of difficulty, but you should do this at a time that you feel as prepared and supported as possible.

I hope you find this helpful in evaluating the appropriateness of a client for treatment. Please email me with comments, questions, or suggestions for future blog topics.

Cultural Values in Treatment Goals

counselingI just completed my first session with a 21-year-old Latina who is a first generation American. She seems to rely too heavily on the opinions of her parents and other older members of her family in making decisions about her career and dating life. She said she wants to feel less anxious, and I think that will only happen if she becomes more independent of her family. How shall I talk with her about this?

Before talking with your client about her goals, I would suggest doing some exploration of your views and how they differ from your client’s. This situation highlights the impact of cultural values on treatment goals, and it is important that we examine our values and assumptions before recommending a treatment approach.

The first step in this situation is to recognize that you have developed an agenda that is different from your client’s. Any time this happens, you need to pause, examine the discrepancy, and work to understand your client’s perspective on what is best for her. In this case, you seem to have made some assumptions about your client’s relationship with her elders that will interfere with the therapeutic alliance. Her alliance with your depends on experiencing your respect and support for her in working toward her priorities. Over the course of time, your client may come to desire greater independence from her elders, but your task at the beginning of treatment is to join with her in working toward reducing her anxiety. Otherwise, she may feel undermined in defining what she needs.

The second issue to recognize is the extent to which values and beliefs about developmental goals and relationships are embedded in a cultural context. Your view that independence from parents and other family members is a desirable goal for young adults is no doubt consistent with the values of your cultural community, but your client comes from a cultural community that values interdependence and respect for elders. Talking with your supervisor and other colleagues about these cultural differences will help you to identify the strengths and benefits of your client’s values rather than assuming that she should come to share yours.

Another more complex issue to consider is the extent to which your response to your client may reflect her own conflict about her family relationships. It is helpful to reflect on your countertransference feelings and to talk about them in supervision. If you usually find it easy to join with your client’s agenda, it is possible that your strong opinion about this client’s need for independence represents your resonance with a part of herself that she is reluctant to articulate. If this seems plausible, you can support your client to recognize and sort through the complicated nature of her feelings toward her parents and other family members. This will work in her best interest if you can express an attitude of curiosity rather than judgment and if you help her identify and honor the mixture of different feelings she holds.

I hope you find this helpful in working with clients whose initial treatment goals are different from yours. Please email me with comments, questions, or suggestions for future blog topics.

Tips for Establishing an Alliance

imgresI’m starting my first practicum placement next week, and I’m both excited and nervous about having my first session. How should I prepare for my first client to make sure the session goes well?

This is an exciting time, and it is understandable that you have some mixed emotions. You have been preparing for this moment for a year or more while taking academic courses, and you may have had this career in mind for many years. As you move forward in your career, you’ll look back on this time as one of tremendous growth. You may find it helpful to look at my blog posting on general suggestions for orienting yourself to a new training site. I’ll focus here more specifically on preparing for your first client session. Research has shown that the quality of the therapeutic alliance is the most powerful predictor of successful psychotherapy outcome, and following the tips below will help you establish a positive alliance.

I recommend that you start by paying attention to the thoughts and emotions that are present for you as you learn about your new client assignments and begin to schedule appointments. It is often easier to think about the logistical steps or to focus only on the client’s issues than it is to notice our own experience. However, it is valuable to begin now to cultivate an attitude of self-awareness in your client work. Feelings of anticipation, excitement, nervousness, and fear are common at this stage. Talking about these feelings with your supervisor will give you support for managing your emotions in this early phase of your work.

Another strategy that helps with preparing for a first session with a client is to approach every contact with your client as part of the treatment. This means being aware of your role as a clinician in all aspects of the work, including an initial phone call to schedule an appointment and reviewing the intake information you receive before that appointment. Notice how the client talks with you in the phone call and how you are affected by your interaction. Imagine what the client may be expecting or fearing from the session based on what you know about her/his current situation and history. You can begin to develop a clinical understanding or formulation of your client even before you have seen her/him in person. Talk about these phone calls and intake assignments with your supervisor even before you have had an appointment so you can benefit from your supervisor’s experience and guidance in developing a formulation.

Last, use your preliminary understanding of the client to guide how you interact with her/him. You are probably familiar with the general principles of empathy and reflective listening that help with building an alliance. In addition to these general principles, think about what will be particularly helpful with this client. Some clients benefit from expressions of warmth and others prefer more reserve; some clients begin talking right away about their lives and others have a slower pace and need subtle encouragement. Your supervisor’s guidance will help you adapt your style to each client.

I hope you find these suggestions helpful in preparing to see your first client. Please email me with comments, questions, or suggestions for future blog topics.