For a proven intervention to be effective in the field, clinicians must use the intervention with adherence, meaning it is used as designed, based on extensive support from clinical trial research. Clinical adherence challenges are particularly prominent when conducting a randomized controlled trial (RCT)—which is the gold standard methodology for proving an intervention is effective.
The Importance of Adherence in Randomized Controlled Trials
Within RCTs, researchers must ensure that an experimental treatment is reliably provided with adherence and that there is fidelity between experimental treatment arms (i.e., that in fact the targeted treatment and control treatment were administered as intended). There are currently six published and four active CAMS RCTs — three funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and a fourth funded by Veterans Affairs.
Across these RCTs, members of The Catholic University Suicide Prevention Laboratory (SPL) that I direct take the lead in training CAMS to RCT study providers. In turn, we are also responsible for watching digital recordings (on secure platforms) of clinicians endeavoring to provide CAMS with adherence with patients who are suicidal.
The Role of Adherence Feedback in RCTs
To do this with scientific rigor, we use two expert SPL coders rating each session using the CAMS Rating Scale (CRS) with high inter-rater reliability. In addition, SPL graduate students also watch comparison control sessions (e.g., clinicians providing “treatment as usual”—TAU) to ensure that these clinicians are doing the comparison control treatment—and not doing CAMS—confirming experimental fidelity.
To this end, over the fall semester of 2022, the SPL has been working hard to support the three NIMH-funded CAMS RCTs which means beyond the initial CAMS trainings that I lead, we all watch a lot of digital recordings of clinicians working diligently to provide CAMS with adherence.
This means SPL members watch dozens of sessions each week. I personally watched 15 recordings over the past few weeks. It’s a busy time for members of the SPL supporting providers across three RCTs to fully meet our criteria for adherence to CAMS. Once study providers are determined to be adherent, our workload decreases significantly as we do random spot checks to confirm that clinicians do not fall out of adherence (which can require training remediation work with providers if this occurs).
10 Tips for Becoming Adherent to CAMS
With this immersion of training and adherence it is inevitable that we encounter common challenges when providers are learning to use CAMS. With a bit of constructive CRS feedback and consultation coaching with our teams of providers, many of these issues quickly become a one-trial learning experience. Moreover, other providers on our consultation calls benefit from hearing about our constructive adherence feedback with their colleagues.
Within a matter of weeks, we usually get most of our clinical providers to meet adherence criteria to effectively provide CAMS. I would note that learning to use CAMS is not as challenging as learning other proven approaches in mental health. Dialectical Behavior Therapy, for example requires labor intensive training that may take months to achieve. But while CAMS is typically learned in fairly short order, there are still common mistakes when first using CAMS that can delay achieving adherence to the framework.
This blog is intended to help other beginning CAMS providers avoid some mistakes that we see among clinicians learning this model. Based on this adherence work let us thus consider 10 of the best tips for becoming adherent to CAMS.
1. Dive Right into CAMS
We often see a hesitancy on the provider’s part to dive right into using the Suicide Status Form (SSF) at the start of each session, especially with clinicians unfamiliar with CAMS. From the first session through interim care, there is too often unnecessary small talk or avoidance of starting into the SSF assessment using up valuable session time (particularly in the labor-intensive first meeting). The feedback we get is that clinicians feel that they have to form some sort of relationship with the patient before they can broach the sensitive topic of suicide. However, our extensive clinical trial research and one meta-analysis show that patients welcome SSF engagement getting to the heart of their struggle with suicide.
Indeed, when clinicians experience the patient feeling validated and understood by the SSF assessment, the temptation to avoid getting into the SSF assessment at the start of each session of CAMS quickly dissipates. Bottom line, suicide is serious business and there is no need for chit-chat at the start of each session of CAMS—let’s get down to business!
2. Interact During Suicide Status Form Core Assessment
The SSF Core Assessment is used at the start of every session of CAMS. Too often we see the clinician have the patient complete their SSF ratings of pain, stress, agitation, hopelessness, self-hate, and overall risk of suicide in silence. Using this approach, providers then typically review patient’s ratings and have some observations or some comments after the ratings are made.
In contrast, the completion of the SSF Core Assessment ratings offers a superb opportunity to discuss the patient’s ratings as they complete each SSF rating scale. This approach creates more of an ongoing dialogue about the ups and downs of suicidality and underscores the importance of candid and collaborative discussion of what the patient is experiencing as they complete these ratings.
3. First Session—Focus on Reasons for Dying (Instead of Reasons for Living)
Ever since I created the Reasons for Living (RFL) versus the Reasons for Dying (RFD) assessment as a major focus in the first session of CAMS, I have observed that clinicians often enthusiastically focus on the patient’s RFL responses. Understandably clinicians focus on RFLs as potential protective factors that might mitigate the patient’s suicide risk. However, based on two studies that we did with a large clinical trial sample in Switzerland, I have now come to see RFLs as a clinician assessment because patients we have studied are actually more focused on their RFDs in their first session!
When I train the model I therefore discourage RFL “cheerleading” because for some patients emphasizing their RFLs can invalidate their current struggle. At its worst, pushing RFLs can even be shaming! It is not uncommon to see inexperienced CAMS clinicians pointing out possible RFLs that the patient has not spontaneously generated — “What about your kids?” or “Isn’t your wonderful wife a reason to live?” Given the clinical trial research findings, we do not want clinicians pointing out RFLs that the patient has not listed.
For example, perhaps a patient sincerely believes they are a burden to their kids or their spouse and that their death may actually be a “gift” to these people. Denying this perspective prematurely can be dismissive of something that the patient may feel deeply. However, within CAMS we absolutely do emphasize RFLs, but we wait to do it later in the course of care when potential clinical progress has been made and the patient is more open to such considerations. Remember, the capstone of successful CAMS-guided care is a focus on the pursuit of a life that the patient actually wants to live. But to push a RFL agenda prematurely risks overriding the patient’s experience and may invalidate what they are going through at the start of care.
4. First Session—Move on Through Section B
Within the first session of CAMS, providers often get bogged down in Section B (which should take only 10 minutes) at the expense of completing the CAMS Stabilization Plan (CSP) and the CAMS Treatment Plan. We advise in the RCTs that if a first session provider is falling behind, Section B does not need to be fully completed (as it can be completed later). That said, within Section B, it helps to get through the patient’s suicide attempt history, but then move on to the CAMS Treatment Plan focusing on the CSP and the two problem drivers in the remaining time.
5. First Session—CAMS Treatment Planning Always Begins with the CAMS Stabilization Plan
A huge error that even experienced CAMS providers make in the first session, is addressing Problems 2 and 3 before completing the CAMS Stabilization Plan! For adherence to the proven model, the CSP is always addressed first, then Problems 2 and 3 are completed as the final steps at the end of the first session of CAMS.
The reason that the CSP is the first step in the CAMS Treatment Plan is that establishing a sound CSP is the foundation for the entire treatment plan. An ability to satisfactorily complete the CSP may be an indication of imminent danger that might warrant an inpatient admission. However, if we can establish a solid CSP then the goal of CAMS to keep someone out of the hospital can be realized as we then shift the focus to problems/drivers that are usually quite treatable.
6. Have the Patient Identify Their Own Drivers for Suicide
Beyond the initial establishment of the CSP, all CAMS treatment planning should center on the patient’s identification of their problem/drivers for suicide. In other words, the clinician should not point out the patient’s problem/drivers for them. In turn, the clinician should help the patient identify treatment goals and objectives before taking the lead identifying the full spectrum of interventions to address each respective problem/driver.
Ideally, we like to have more than one intervention for any one problem/driver of suicide. The more interventions we have to offer, the more hope we instill in the patient. Bottom line, the message to the patient is that there are many potential ways for effectively addressing the issues that compel the patient to consider suicide as a solution for their struggles.
7. Interim Sessions—CAMS Treatment Focuses on Crafting the Stabilization Plan and the Patient’s Suicidal Drivers
Across CAMS-guided interim care, all sessions begin promptly with Section A, the SSF Core Assessment. There should then be a check-in about the previous week in terms of the presence of suicidal thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. The clinician should always ask about the CSP sometime during the course of each interim session (often at the start but it can be at the end as well). The focus of all CAMS interim care centers on patient’s problems/drivers and possible updates or revisions to the CSP.
8. Interim Sessions—Treatment Plan Updating
Across CAMS-guided interim care, every session ends with updating the CAMS Treatment Plan. The treatment plan update should be done from scratch and potentially change in each interim session depending on what is happening in the course of care. But too often inexperienced clinicians complete Section A and Section B at the start of the session.
Section A should always be completed at the start of each interim session and Section B at the end of each interim session of CAMS. Moreover, we know from our clinical trial research that CAMS Treatment Plans that change across clinical care lead to better outcomes (in contrast to CAMS Treatment Plans that basically do not change from session to session).
9. You Can Delay Resolving CAMS if Needed
A patient may continue to be engaged in CAMS even when CAMS resolution criteria are technically met. To clarify, just because criteria are met, does not mean that you must necessarily move to the outcome-disposition session. Sometimes deferring the final session can help reassure both members of the clinical dyad that the patient’s apparent recovery is holding up and feels well-established.
10. Emphasize the Goal of Managing Suicidal Thoughts and Feelings to Achieve Behavioral Stability
As a clinical intervention, CAMS can be resolved even when some suicidal thoughts are present. In other words, the treatment difference that CAMS often enables a patient to better and more reliably manage suicidal thoughts and feelings while achieving behavioral stability.
From clinical trial research, we know that CAMS reliably increases hope while reducing hopelessness and overall symptom distress (i.e., general misery and despair). We thus know that CAMS significantly reduces suicide-related suffering and in so doing it can open the door to hope and the pursuit of life that the patient wants to live.
How to Use CAMS in a Clinical Setting
Working with patients who are suicidal is invariably challenging and can be daunting. Frankly, far too many clinicians endeavor to simply avoid such patients. Given this, we in the CatholicU SPL are humbled by and grateful to the clinicians across clinical trials who aspire to use CAMS with adherence.
Imagine having your clinical works viewed and rated with patients that many providers seek to avoid. It is not easy. It requires being open to constructive feedback and inevitable tweaks and suggestions to help one master CAMS. As clinicians in our trials courageously work to learn the intervention, members of the SPL do everything we can to be positive, supportive, validating, and reassuring as we give our constructive CRS feedback. In truth, we deeply admire these providers and clinical trials of CAMS could not be conducted without them. Consequently, the adherence work that we do inspires constructive tips like the ones described in this blog to help other providers achieve adherence to the framework.
The adherence work we do is challenging but worth it. Seeing clinicians quickly master the intervention is incredibly rewarding. When we provide thoughtful guidance on common mistake and provide instructive tips, we will have done our part in helping providers deliver a potentially life-saving course of care that has been proven to decrease suicidal suffering and overall misery. In turn, each RCT we publish increases the evidence base which we hope will may inspire more providers to learn and master this proven suicide-focused clinical intervention.
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