Cultivating Perspectives | Managing Suicidal Risk, 3rd Edition

Over decades of teaching clinical psychology Ph.D. students in graduate courses on clinical assessment, treatment, and theory one inevitably develops certain adages. One of my favorites that is central to successful psychotherapy is the “cultivation of perspective.” In other words, successful psychological care invariably includes a series of shifts in perspective in relation to how the patient thinks and feels which shapes and guides behavior over time. While this notion is central to effective psychological transformation, I also find it relevant to writing books.

The 3rd and Final Edition of Managing Suicidal Risk

A couple of weeks ago, I submitted the 3rd edition manuscript of Managing Suicidal Risk: A Collaborative Approach, which is now going into production to be published by Guilford Press in 2023. This is the final edition of a series for the source book on the Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicidality (CAMS). With this newest edition, I’ve now written seven books on suicide prevention & treatment, and may continue to write more in the future. But this 3rd edition is special and feels like a fitting end of a 30+ year journey. With four ongoing randomized controlled trials (RCTs) underway and new trials in the works, there will be more journal articles and book chapters about CAMS. But for me, the 3rd edition feels like a final concluding paragraph to a story that I have been writing across the course of my professional life. Completion of this manuscript also marks the end of a yearlong sabbatical from my “day job” as a university professor. I can attest that sabbatical leave is one of the single greatest perks within academic life. As a university professor one is always immersed in the ebb and flow of ideas, data, theories, and constantly shifting perspectives—these are the stock and trade of a scholar’s life. So, to step away from that life to immerse oneself in a singular focused year of reading, researching, and writing is a meaningful alternative reality. As this sabbatical concludes, I am awash in musings about life, death, suicide, hope, hopelessness, purpose, meaning, and what ultimately makes life worth living during these trying times in the world.

The History Behind the First Edition of Managing Suicidal Risk

In 2004 I was elated to land a contract to write the first edition of my book with Guilford. In those days, my SSF clinical research and the nascent development of CAMS was garnering some attention. I was thus eager to promote key CAMS ideas that were novel and controversial in some quarters at the time. For example, the overt goal within CAMS to keep a patient who is suicidal, out of the hospital was not a widely embraced idea. The idea of making suicide the singular focus of clinical care (no matter the diagnosis) was greeted with wary skepticism. Eschewing the use of no-harm contracts in lieu of focusing on stabilization was only beginning to gain some traction in the field at that time. My research mentor, Marsha Linehan, was dismayed that I wanted to write a book before I had definitive randomized controlled trial (RCT) support for CAMS. While there were articles about the assessment aspects of the SSF, there was only one modest non-randomized controlled comparison trial of CAMS with U.S. Airmen who were suicidal. While the data was encouraging, Marsha flatly reproached me, “…you’re jumping the gun, get some RCT data and then write your book!” On the heels of being admonished by Marsha, I reached out to Ed Shneidman—another seminal influence—who was extremely enthusiastic about the prospect of my writing the first book, and instantly offered to pen the foreword to the first edition. For the record, Ed was always keen about the writing of books! In fairness to my friend Marsha, she would have been right had I only written the first edition. But I argued that I could write about the work to date while also pursuing future CAMS RCTs. Marsha saw my point and was extremely supportive of all my efforts to fully test CAMS with grant funded RCTs. Notably, she readily agreed to write the foreword to the 2nd edition of the book published in 2016, remarking on the importance of two published RCTs of CAMS at that time.

The Evolution of CAMS

The 2006 first edition of the book was frankly my version of a “hard sell” for what CAMS could become, largely based on the strength of our SSF assessment research. And while there are still those who mistakenly think of CAMS as a mere assessment tool (focusing on the first page of the SSF’s first session), I’m only too happy to dispel the misconception. I am regularly encouraging people to catch up to the 2nd edition which presented CAMS as a major clinical intervention focused on identifying, targeting, and treating patient-defined “drivers” of suicide. The 2nd edition therefore made a strong case for CAMS being seen as a suicide-focused therapeutic framework increasingly supported by the burgeoning RCT support in the U.S. and abroad. As of this blog’s writing in June 2022, there are now ten published open/correlational trials and five published RCTs. Importantly, a 9-study meta-analysis of CAMS published 2021 marked a watershed moment in the development and empirical support of CAMS. There are two supportive CAMS RCTs now under review for publication, and four more rigorous CAMS RCT’s are ongoing. Needless to say, I took Marsha’s feedback to heart! Moreover, I would say in hindsight that writing that first edition clearly spurred interest in the approach and poured fuel on the fire of CAMS clinical trials by my lab and other investigators.

Perseverance and the importance of Clinical Trial Investigations

I share this not as a self-congratulatory exercise but as a testament to both perseverance and the importance of clinical trial investigations. At 63 I feel blessed to have had such success raising CAMS from its infancy, and nurturing and parenting it into what it has become today.. For me, this work has always been first and foremost about the patients and their clinicians. Beyond this clear priority, the importance of scientifically proving that CAMS works has always been paramount. What we now know from clinical trial data is gratifying; in 6-8 sessions CAMS reliably shifts the patient’s perspective on suicide, creating a different way to think and feel about it, and experience life anew. The single biggest effect-size from the CAMS meta-analysis is the fact that CAMS significantly decreases hopelessness while significantly increasing hope (compared to control treatments). CAMS also reliably reduces overall symptom distress across clinical trials. In other words, CAMS does not necessarily eradicate every vestige of suicidality. Instead the data show that CAMS helps make the patient’s suicidal thoughts and feelings more manageable which makes them more behaviorally stable while it opens the door to consider life in a different way. When this occurs, it is a profound clinical achievement that clearly decreases suffering and can help save lives as well.

3rd Edition Highlights

Given all that has happened over the past 25 years, writing the 3rd edition has been a joy. I am delighted to have Thomas Joiner writing the foreword and it is a pleasure to report out what we now know about CAMS—how it works and what it does. The forthcoming SSF-5 has a few tweaks but much of it remains unchanged because of the extant empirical support it has garnered. One tweak is moving from an overall judgment of risk (mild, moderate, high) to a new clinical judgment related to concern about the patient’s relative stability (none, mild, moderate, serious, and extreme). There is a new Stabilization Support Plan (SSP) that can be used with significant others that complements the patient’s CAMS Stabilization Plan. There is further consideration of CAMS driver-oriented treatment planning and a major revision of the optional use of the CAMS Therapeutic Worksheet. There is further exploration of a “post-suicidal life” and a new optional Living Status Form (LSF) that completely mirrors the first page SSF used in the first session for successful CAMS outcomes. These are but a few highlights of the 3rd edition that includes an update of the clinical research literature, particularly the ever increasing CAMS-related studies.

Research is Hard, Expensive, & Endlessly Challenging

As I now reflect on the perspectives I have cultivated in writing the 3rd edition over the last year, a few observations surface. First, I am fortunate to have known Ed Shneidman, Bob Litman, Norm Farberow, and Jerry Motto—our founding fathers—who each influenced me deeply. The early support of Lanny Berman and giants in the field including Aaron Beck, Marsha Linehan, and Don Meichenbaum has been immeasurable. Second, there is nothing quite like clinical trial research. Studying a suicide-focused treatment is frankly harrowing; it is hard to do, expensive, risky, and endlessly challenging. Each study is a gamble; results do not always turn out as we would hope. Yet we always learn and find new ways to persevere based on what we find. And third, writing a series of books is a hell of a way to develop, support, and promote a new clinical intervention. Across three editions I have learned so much, and I have done my level best to translate that learning into helping patients who suffer and their providers who struggle to care.

The Cultivation of Wisdom

As I return to the classroom this fall, I will be heading into my final lap of my long academic run. Another seven years—one more blessed sabbatical—and then a transition into emeritus life and a well-earned retirement (God willing). Given the aches and pains, and various affronts of getting older, there are still certain virtues of becoming senior within our youth-obsessed culture. Among the virtues that rise to the top for me is: wisdom. In my view, wisdom is a remarkably underappreciated construct. In terms of perspective, wisdom is a pinnacle attainment within the pursuit of perspective-cultivation. Wisdom only comes with experience and the accrual of time; it is the operational culmination of an amassed perspective that is reflected in finely-tuning sound judgment. Wisdom is something that is best shared in a focused and measured way, always with a sense of patience and an experience-informed sense of timing. It often involves listening more and speaking less. But when words of wisdom are rendered, such words can carry the gravitas of a well-earned and valuable informed perspective. Simply stated, wisdom is cultivated perspective, par excellence! Having meaningful work, great love, and playing hard and well over the years all seem to contribute to an overall accumulation of experiential wealth that can directly inform one’s perspective and one’s sense of hard-earned wisdom. And apparently writing a few books along the way seems to help too! But for my part, with the time I have left, I will endeavor to listen more and speak less and endeavor to make my words count for the greater good.