We frequently receive calls requesting clinical interpretation of profiles done on Department of Transportation (DOT) clients. These clients have failed their drug/alcohol screening and their license to drive has been suspended pending an evaluation. In this particular case, the client is a 68-year-old female whose alcohol level registered above the DOT threshold. Her SASSI result indicated a high probability of a substance use disorder based on Rule 9. As you see on the graph, most of the scale’s clinical results fall within the norm. DEF, at 11, is above the 98th percentile and FAM, at 12 is above the 85th percentile. The OAT score of 1 falls in the 15th percentile. The high-DEF score is not unusual in DOT evaluations. It is incumbent on the evaluator to determine what the defensiveness is about. The SAM scale is no help in this case because it is not elevated. An elevated DEF coupled with an elevated SAM indicates the defensiveness is related to substance use. The elevated FAM score indicates someone who is not comfortable looking at their own issues. And the low OAT score indicates someone who has difficulty acknowledging their personal limitations and shortcomings. The combination of these three scales provides information to the evaluator that most likely, this client is not going to be forthcoming in disclosing issues or problems. During the evaluation, another piece of information disclosed was the client’s admission of trying to manage or monitor her drinking to try to stay below DOT’s threshold of alcohol use. That certainly may be a red flag.
Since the SASSI is a screening inventory and does not diagnose, the evaluator needs to reference the DSM-5 to determine if, indeed, the client meets the criteria for a substance use disorder and if so, what level – mild, moderate, or severe. Based on that, the evaluator has a couple of options to consider. If possible, work individually or refer to an individual substance abuse counselor to establish rapport and work to get the defensiveness down. Motivational Interviewing is a good asset to pull out in this case. Another option is to refer her to an outpatient group setting with the goal of connecting her to other clients and also have access to individual counseling as well. Regardless, outpatient treatment seems to be the most likely intervention.
It would be helpful to acknowledge the financial impact on the client that suspension of driving privileges is having on her. That certainly could be triggering the extreme defensiveness we see in the results and the consequences for the client could be significant.
We hope these reviews are helpful and whether you are a new user or a very experienced one,
clinicians are here to help with any questions you might have. Clinicians are available M-F, 11-5 (EST). Call us at 800-726-0526 or 888-297-2774.
This sample profile is about a 27-year-old, Sally, who is a single mother of two small children. Sally was ordered by the court to report for a substance abuse assessment following an arrest for illegal possession of a controlled substance. Sally is also being investigated by the county’s Child Protective Services Agency, who has placed her children into foster care pending the outcome of the case.
An initial review of Sally’s scores indicates that, although she apparently understood the SASSI items and most likely responded in a meaningful way (RAP=1), there is evidence of significant defensive responding (DEF=9). Despite her defensiveness, the results indicate that she has a high probability of having a substance use disorder (SUD) based on Decision Rule 8 and 9. To put it another way, there is a 93% chance that Sally will meet the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for having a substance use disorder once a more comprehensive evaluation is completed.
For now, however, the SASSI has provided us with important information concerning Sally’s illegal act; her behavior is likely to be related to a serious addiction problem. In this light, we can now shift to looking for additional features on her profile that might help us to understand Sally better and develop a more empathic point of view. Learning more about her perspective and how she is dealing with this entire process, including the new information from the SASSI, certainly is one way to provide supportive and effective care to her during a mandated process of evaluation.
A prominent aspect of Sally’s SASSI results reflects her similarity to people with SUDs who were instructed to conceal and minimize any evidence of their substance use problems (DEF=9, SAM=12). In addition, an elevated DEF coupled with an elevated SAM indicates her defensiveness is related to her substance use. One inference that can be drawn from this is that she is likely to have significant difficulty in disclosing personal information about her misuse of substances, as well as other problematic behaviors. Other SASSI scale scores may be reflecting this mind set. For example, she does acknowledge some misuse of alcohol and other drugs but no more so than the average person in the general population (FVA=5, FVOD=7). Her SYM score of 2 is also average, indicating no significant similarity to people with substance use disorders who do report experiencing many of the behaviors correlated with addictions. However, given that each of these scales is derived from face valid items that can be easily manipulated, it would be reasonable to suspect that Sally may be underreporting or misrepresenting problems in each of these areas.
It is easy to imagine that Sally may harbor some resentment towards the evaluation process and the practitioners involved. After all, she stands to lose not only her freedom but her two children as well. Underlying the overt anger and resistance may be an extreme sense of fear, apprehension and powerlessness in the face of feeling helpless to influence decisions that will undoubtedly affect the rest of Sally’s life. When viewed from her standpoint, it then becomes easy to see Sally’s defensiveness as a somewhat natural response to the threat she must be feeling. It’s no wonder that she is having difficulty acknowledging her substance use problems.
If further diagnostic evaluation for substance use disorder does indicate that Sally has an SUD, the following treatment approaches may prove useful based on insight gained from Sally’s SASSI scores. Despite Sally’s lack of ability and willingness to recognize the impact of her substance use on her life, it is our ethical responsibility as counselors to use our knowledge, skills and experience to lead her to an accurate understanding of the nature of her substance use disorder. This should be accomplished in a climate of respect and acknowledgement of the pressures that she is currently facing. An attitude of respect is particularly important when attempting to build a therapeutic alliance with clients like Sally that are mandated for assessment and treatment.
One way to engender open communication in a respectful way is to invite Sally to join you in a process of reviewing her responses on the SASSI face valid items. Acknowledging that it is important for you to understand her point of view, perhaps asking for further clarification or details as you actively listen is one way to cultivate trust and rapport. This communicates genuine concern and interest that may help Sally feel supported and empowered as she describes her experiences. Empathic responses that demonstrate a good understanding of the difficulties she is facing while helping her to gain insight regarding the nature of her substance use problems would be useful in making her an active partner in creating a treatment plan that she can accept.
Another effective way to increase Sally’s awareness of her substance use problems while maintaining a respectful relationship is to provide cognitively based educational programming. Didactic presentations of alcohol and drug information generally are viewed by clients as less threatening and often tend to elicit a more favorable response. Sally may particularly benefit from content that describes the impact of substance abuse on families and how, with proper treatment and aftercare, recovering individuals are often able to be reunited with their children and other family members.
We regularly get inquiries about the acceptability of reading the questionnaire to a client who may have difficulty with their reading skills. We discourage the evaluator from reading the questionnaire to the client for a variety of reasons, but the primary one concerns the validity of the results. No matter how careful the reader might be, the tone of voice or emphasis on a particular part of the question may lead the client in one direction or another. Or the client may interrupt with a question regarding the meaning of a word or intention of a particular question. This is why we offer a professionally read audio CD of the SASSI-4, Adolescent SASSI-A3 and Spanish SASSI paper and pencil versions for clients who have reading difficulties. We hope in the future to be able to offer this for the online platform as well. Please contact our customer service department for ordering information.
Another frequent question is related to the clinical interpretations of the “low” scores on the profiles. These mostly relate to the subtle scales which include the OAT, SAT, DEF and SAM scales. Most callers know what a low DEF indicates. And SAM has no clinical interpretation.
So what about those low OAT and SAT scales? What does “low’ mean? A low score is anything below the 15th percentile on the graph. In the example to the right, the caller indicated that she was doing an assessment on a health care professional who had been arrested for her one and only DWI the previous year, had completed her alcohol education class and needed this evaluation as a final step for probation. She was not in trouble in her job and in fact, highly regarded in her profession. Given the client was at the end of her requirements, the evaluator was somewhat concerned with the results and what it meant. The instructions were given to answer the FVA/FVOD side for the last twelve months. Her RAP is zero. Her Prescription Drug Scale is zero. She has ‘no’ on all the rules so came up with a Low Probability of having a Substance Use Disorder. However, her DEF of 9 is highly elevated. Elevated DEF scores increase the possibility of the SASSI missing individuals with a substance use disorder. Elevated DEF may also reflect situational factors. Note that the SAM is within the norm so it is probably more likely that her DEF is situational given the context. She also has an OAT score of ‘O’ and a SAT score of ‘2’. Both are below the 15th percentile. A low OAT indicates someone has difficulty acknowledging personal limitations or shortcomings. A low SAT indicates someone who might have a ‘chip’ on her shoulder, a hypersensitivity to others or feelings of rejection.
So even though this client is nearing the completion of her probation requirements, we still get a picture of someone who is highly guarded (DEF), has a hard time acknowledging shortcomings (OAT) and may continue to exhibit resentment (SAT) for the situation she is in. Perhaps this is due to her profession, or perhaps it is her personality. What the results give the evaluator is clinical direction on how to approach the client to help reduce her defensiveness and give her permission to open up. Affirming how demanding her job is and how on top of things she must be could be a pathway to discussing her feelings of shame related to the DWI and how it might be affecting her self-esteem. Could she be minimizing her use of alcohol and drugs? Perhaps, but as we strongly express, the SASSI is only one part of a clinician’s assessment. Hopefully, with the input of all the information you have, the clinician can evaluate the results which fit the context for this client.
The client, Carol, is a 43-year-old married female, a successful business woman and mother of two children. She recently was arrested and charged with her first DWI after leaving a business dinner with sales associates. This is the first significant consequence related to her drinking. She claims that she does not have a drinking problem; however, she characterizes her mother as an alcoholic.
As we take a look at her scores, first notice that Carol appears to have responded in a meaningful way to the items on the SASSI-4 (RAP=0). However, there is some evidence that she may have approached the assessment process in a defensive manner (DEF=8). Despite her apparent defensiveness, the SASSI results indicate that she has a high probability of having a moderate to severe substance use disorder (SAT=7 leading to a positive on decision rule 4).
Given the elevations on the SAT and DEF, we get the sense that Carol may have some difficulty recognizing (high SAT) and acknowledging (high DEF) the nature of her substance-related problems. Yes, it is true that she reports significant problematic use of alcohol (FVA=10). However, it will be important to review with her the content of her responses on the face valid alcohol scale in order to gain some understanding of how she views these consequences. Our experience with the SASSI and our knowledge of the nature of the addictive process suggest to us that individuals who have elevated SAT and DEF scores (especially when OAT is average or below, as is the case here) often have difficulty seeing the manner in which their drinking has pervaded other areas of functioning. Therefore, it is reasonable to expect that much of what she has reported on the FVA may be flavored with a theme of, “I’m so embarrassed about these things, but thank God I don’t have a problem.”
Carol’s FAM score is elevated (13), suggesting that her responses are similar to individuals who have a history of being in relationships with others who are substance dependent. This is often related to a tendency to focus on others and a need to try to control the external environment. Elevated scores on SAT, DEF, and FAM suggest that Carol is likely to have an exceptionally strong tendency to deflect attention away from any suggestion that it is important for her to make significant changes in her life. Carol’s lack of awareness and insight may not only be rooted in her own addictive disorder but may also be fostered by a long history of trying to cover up for her mother and feeling responsible for the family’s welfare.
Despite Carol’s inability to see her substance misuse as a serious problem in her life, the SASSI results clearly indicate that she is likely to meet the diagnostic criteria of a substance use disorder. Therefore, effective treatment planning will need to include some form of addictions therapy, most likely at the outpatient level of care. The therapeutic challenge for the treatment provider will be to establish a working relationship with Carol that is conducive to helping her explore the substance abuse issues in her life. This usually means starting where the client is and moving her in a direction of increased awareness and insight regarding the nature of her own substance use problems and the changes that can help her begin a process of healing and recovery.
Carol comes to the treatment setting with recognition of her mother’s alcoholism. She has a desire to disclose information about her life growing up with an alcoholic mom. This gives the treatment provider a naturally occurring place to begin. As Carol bonds with her therapist in the work of resolving the pain of her childhood, the therapist can help her examine the significance of her own alcohol usage. The therapy can be augmented by support groups in which Carol can learn from the experiences of others who come from similar home environments and from other people who have had to struggle with the reality of their own addiction problems. Ongoing assessment will be helpful during this process to monitor her progress and make adjustments in the treatment plan as necessary. For example, if she is unable to refrain from using, has additional alcohol-related social or legal consequences, or becomes non-compliant in the treatment process, it may be necessary to move to a more intensive level of care.
The emotional impact of growing up in an environment that is dominated by the pain and shame of addiction takes many forms and can exert its influence throughout a person’s life. Carol’s DWI can be a gift. With appropriate intervention, Carol can begin a process of self-examination and growth that will lead to a freer, richer life.
The client is a 38-year-old male named Jim (not his real name), who was referred for a substance use evaluation following a second arrest for domestic violence. The practitioner calling in the profile reported having collateral evidence substantiating a significant history of alcohol abuse for this client.
The SASSI results indicate that Jim has a low probability of having a substance use disorder. He is not acknowledging any significant problematic use of alcohol (FVA=0) or other drugs (FVOD=2). In fact, he denies having any of the symptoms commonly associated with individuals who have substance use disorders (SYM=1). However, note that Jim’s responses are highly defensive (DEF=9) and significantly similar to individuals who are instructed to minimize and conceal problems. Given that his report on the FVA and FVOD is in direct conflict with information from other sources, it is likely that he is minimizing the degree to which he has experienced alcohol and other drug problems or related symptoms. This increases the risk that the SASSI classification of low probability may be in error – in other words, the accuracy of the decision rules may be slightly decreased. As in most assessment situations where the client is relatively defensive, augmenting self-reported alcohol and drug history with data from external sources is advisable before ruling out substance use problems.
Experienced SASSI users working in criminal justice, EAP, DOT, child protection, and other similar settings will recognize this profile as relatively common for clients who are mandated for assessment. Indeed, Jim has been charged with assaulting his partner for a second time. One possibility is that he fears a harsh punishment may be coming if he does not present himself in a favorable way. He may also be convinced that he is not to blame for his behavior, explaining that his partner provoked him or that he was acting in self-defense. While the SASSI does not reveal the exact cause or reason, the high DEF score is a strong indicator that Jim approached the assessment in a defensive manner.
Notice also that Jim’s OAT score is significant given that it falls below the 15th percentile (OAT=1), meaning that only 15% of the general population would score this low. A score in this range usually indicates a person does not identify with any of the problematic behaviors typically associated with substance abuse (for example, anger management problems, negativity, self-centeredness, etc.). Jim is not likely to acknowledge having these behaviors and probably wants to be viewed as being completely different from people who do. Individuals with a family history of addictive or violent behavior often cope by distancing themselves from the addict or perpetrator as if to say, “I’m nothing at all like my alcoholic mother or physically abusive father.” In fact, the caller reported that Jim’s mother is an active alcoholic.
Jim’s FAM score of 12 is also significantly elevated (above the T 60 line or the 85th percentile). His responses are similar to family members of substance dependent individuals. It is likely that he shares many of the characteristics and traits commonly associated with individuals living in addictive family systems – obsession with controlling the thoughts, feelings and/or actions of others, lack of adequate or healthy psychological, emotional and physical boundaries in relationships, and inability to trust others. Certainly, one theme for individuals with high FAM scores involves their sense of happiness and self-worth being dependent on fixing or controlling the behavior of others. Jim may have learned early on the false perception that the only way he can have a sense of well-being is when he is in complete control of his partner. This need often can result in the perpetration of violence in cases where poor interpersonal boundaries and lack of trust exist in a person with serious impulse control problems. Thus, like other perpetrators of domestic violence, Jim may feel enmeshed at every level with his partner, seemingly unable to restrain himself when he feels like he is losing control of his partner’s behavior.
To summarize, Jim’s profile is similar in many ways to that of other known perpetrators of domestic violence who have completed the SASSI. Although he is classified as having a low probability of a substance use disorder, his responses are characterized by a significant degree of defensiveness. This, along with other assessment evidence, increases the risk that he has minimized his alcohol and other drug problems and that the SASSI results of low probability of substance use disorder may be inaccurate. Jim does not recognize or accept responsibility for his own behavioral problems. Like other domestic violence offenders, he tends to focus almost exclusively on controlling his partner’s behavior as a way of achieving happiness and contentment in life. Jim’s family history of alcoholism is likely a significant contributor to his behavioral problems and also increases the risk that he may have, or may be developing, a substance-related disorder.
Ongoing assessment will be necessary to completely rule out the possibility of a substance use disorder. Because of the impact that most psychoactive substances tend to have on reducing impulse control, Jim’s risk for reoffending is greatly increased if he has a substance-related disorder that is left untreated. Collateral sources of information concerning Jim’s alcohol and drug history seem to indicate that his problems with alcohol and other drugs may be more serious than he is reporting on the SASSI. If further assessment results confirm a diagnosis of a substance use disorder, his treatment plan would need to include some form of addictions therapy. In addition, a no-use contract and regular toxicological screens could be useful ways to lower his risk of using and support a period of abstinence.
Jim’s defensiveness could be a serious barrier to engaging him in a therapeutic relationship, let alone making any significant progress in helping him to change any of his problematic behaviors. Establishing rapport and gaining Jim’s trust and confidence would be important steps in creating and maintaining a therapeutic alliance with him. Didactic, cognitively based educational approaches are often viewed by defensive clients as less intrusive and non-threatening. Initially, he may respond more favorably to presentations, films, books, etc., emphasizing the impact of addictions on the individual and their families. This may help to increase Jim’s awareness of his own misuse of substances and provide him with some insight into the dynamics of his own family’s behavior, including his alcoholic mother. Family involvement in his treatment may also be beneficial.
Referral to a practitioner or program that specializes in treating perpetrators of domestic violence should be strongly considered. Remember that Jim may have little or no awareness that he is responsible for his own violent behavior. His perceptions may be completely dominated by the belief that he has a right to behave in this manner with his partner. Such deeply ingrained patterns of thought and associated impulse control problems are often difficult for clients to begin to recognize, much less change. Support and process groups facilitated by behavioral health professionals trained in the treatment of domestic violence offenders are often an effective approach in helping perpetrators begin to acknowledge their behavioral problems and to effect some healthy changes.