Clinical strategies for the psychiatric interview
Strategies for managing the clinical interview with patients who have paranoid personality disorder are equally useful in the more general setting of paranoid states. These strategies are summarized in the following points.26,27 The detection of discreet delusions with nonbizarre content essentially requires a high index of suspicion. Because of the plausible nature of the delusion and the reticence of the individual, detailed serial examination is sometimes required. Attention should be given to the presence of a delusion that may appear to be an overvalued idea that is particularly intense in the context of anxiety or depression. Nonbizarre delusions require assessment of the reasoning process in addition to the elaboration of thought content.
Fixity of belief that rises to the level of a delusion may be experienced by the patient as a feeling or intuition rather than a thought per se. The patient may be unable to explain why he is certain of this belief. A tendency to jump to conclusions and extrapolate from improbable features of the story may indicate a lack of flexibility in internal logic that is fundamentally impervious to counterexample. Individuals may have some superficial ability to integrate data that run counter to the delusion, but this should not be mistaken for a dialectical capacity to question the basis of their suppositions in a nondelusional manner.
Some general strategies may help the clinician exercise appropriate judgment in the interview and maintain safety when speaking with an acutely paranoid patient. The following includes key points elaborated on by McWilliams26 and Gabbard27 regarding patients with paranoid personality disorder, grouped into 5 main principles:
Establish a therapeutic alliance, without expecting trust. Paranoid patients are by definition distrustful. To promote a constructive clinical encounter, the interviewer often must tolerate the patient’s suspicion and reticence. Acknowledgment of the patient’s hostile attitude may be reassuring to him, in that the interviewer thereby conveys an acceptance of the patient’s psychic reality centered on fear. Paranoid patients may require a sense of control over the interview and over treatment decisions, when this is possible. Efforts of the interviewer to ensure the personal safety of both parties may provide additional comfort for the patient, who often fears his own destructive impulses arising from paranoid ideas.
Let the patient recount his theory—and listen. Whether delusional or a set of overvalued ideas, paranoid thinking is an attempt to create meaning that serves a purpose for the patient. The patient has an explanatory theory of events that surround him, an account that is impervious to ordinary reason or reassurance. Attempts to reassure the patient or correct delusional beliefs may lead him to feel humiliated or result in the incorporation of the interviewer into the delusional system.26
Lacan28 described the listener’s stance as that of being “a secretary to the madman,” learning, registering the patient’s account, and helping shape the thought content into a form that is more tolerable to the patient. Interpretations by the clinician are likely to be experienced by the patient as destabilizing or invasive, and result in an increase in persecutory ideation. Conversely, simply naming the emotions that are close to the surface of the patient’s discourse (for example, fear and anger) may attenuate the intensity of persecution. In general, allow the patient to speak of the paranoid ideas, to the extent that this is not disorganizing, and focus on his experience, without expressing an opinion on the ideas themselves.5
Maintain optimal distance. Readily threatened or invaded by the presence of another person, paranoid patients tend to benefit from having greater physical space between themselves and the interviewer than would ordinarily seem appropriate. Physical movements should not be sudden or unexpected, and any movements, such as reaching into a desk drawer, should be explained beforehand.27
Although empathy and recognition of the patient’s expressed feelings is generally beneficial, clinicians should exercise caution by maintaining careful emotional distance. Levels of empathy that are appropriate for other patients may be felt by the paranoid person as intrusive or humiliating.
Separate thoughts and speech from actions. Paranoid patients who experience the urge to act on persecutory ideas often fear their own impulses and are reassured when the clinician reminds them of the distinction between thoughts, fantasies, and speech, on the one hand, and action on the other.26 Verbalization of feelings and thoughts is often constructive, and patients should be encouraged to express themselves in words rather than action. Verbalization may also allow the individual to identify stressors and triggers of violence that he may then choose to avoid, as well as to clarify strategies for managing overwhelming anxiety or impulses.
Maintain a position of ethical integrity. Patients with paranoid ideas and attribution bias are particularly observant of and sensitive to the reactions of others. The interviewer should strive to be fair and consistent, as well as straightforward. Equivocal or hesitant statements may be interpreted in a persecutory manner. Countertransference issues may pose significant obstacles, leading the clinician to avoid asking about topics that may be uncomfortable for the patient but that require assessment, such as a history of violence.26
The interviewer may feel afraid or angry in the patient’s presence, and should be attentive to excessive fear that may accompany the escalation of the patient’s hostile or threatening attitude. Careful observation of boundaries along with the clinician’s willingness to honestly acknowledge his or her own mistakes (when these occur) allow the paranoid patient to feel safe and in the presence of a clinician with credible authority who will not abuse the power he has over the patient. It is essential to maintain a nonjudgmental attitude, to treat the patient respectfully, and to take his paranoid ideas seriously to the extent that they are a central feature of his subjective reality.
Specificities of violence risk assessment in patients with paranoid ideation include the evaluation of intent to take action in the immediate future. Of particular relevance for this assessment is the presence of a designated persecutor or an intended victim, or whether a conflict has been endured to the point where the patient feels there is no other solution but to act in a violent manner.
Paranoid thinking is likely to be stimulated or worsened by triggers that are highly idiosyncratic and embedded in the life history and experience of the person. Clinicians who provide ongoing psychiatric care to such individuals have the opportunity to learn over time about these particular characteristics. From the perspective of research, detailed case studies of violent offenders may help clarify the specific mechanisms by which an individual acts on ideas or feelings of persecution, and may lead to refinement of our understanding of how to prevent future violence.