‘Reggie’ is a 37-year-old married man. He and his wife have two children. He works as a warehouse worker where he was recently injured in a shipping dock accident. He recently returned to work after being on worker’s comp for several months during which time he was prescribed opioids for his pain. He was sent to his employer’s EAP provider for evaluation after returning to work and struggling with coping with the continued pain and poor job performance.
Reggie T’s responses illustrate another profile often seen in people who acknowledge that they use drugs excessively and that it negatively impacts on their functioning and relationships.
Given Reggie’s high level of drug use and consequences, you might consider a more comprehensive evaluation to determine whether he may need supervised detoxification or other intensive intervention.
You may find Reggie ready to acknowledge that he uses drugs frequently and that he may also drink too much. However, he may not see that his behavior varies dramatically from others who don’t have a substance use disorder. Feedback on where his scores fall on the profile sheet may help him see that his behaviors are not typical. It may be useful to know that Reggie’s wife is currently in treatment for drug and alcohol abuse due to a DUI. Their mutual abuse of substances may help promote their beliefs that their substance use is normal. Examining the items that Reggie endorsed on the FVA, FVOD, SYM and Rx scales may provide useful insight into his motivations for using and help him see the consequences that result from his use.
In this first video watch Reggie’s initial EAP visit in which he was asked to take the SASSI.
This second video is the follow-up session where he discusses his SASSI results with the EAP provider.
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.
Last month, Dr. Hugh Marr, a longtime trainer on the SASSI and clinical psychologist in the private practice of psychotherapy in the Washington, DC area gave an interview on the Shrink Rap Radio podcast. Dr. Marr has taught both substance abuse counseling and psychotherapy at area universities; and has worked in all phases of community mental health, culminating in running a partial hospital program for clients with the co-occurring disorders of substance use and major mental illness. He is the author of A Clinician’s Guide to Foundational Story Psychotherapy: Co-changing Narratives, Co-changing Lives (Routledge, 2020); and the coauthor of the books What Story Are You Living? (CAPT, 2009) and Introduction to Archetypes (CAPT, 2002). His forthcoming workbook for a general audience, also to be published by CAPT, will be titled Finding Your Story. You can view a clip from that interview here or a link to the interview in its entirety can be found here.
The SASSI Institute is excited that Dr. Marr has developed a workshop based on his five-star rated book: A Clinician’s Guide to Foundational Story Psychotherapy: Co-changing Narratives, Co-changing Lives. This workshop is being offered through The SASSI Institute’s Professional Development Platform. A link to a flyer with additional information on the workshop can be viewed here.
We hope you enjoy the interview and that you will join us for this informative webinar.
Now in its fourth iteration (SASSI-4), this article discusses the SASSI screening tools’ utility with criminal offenders and reviews a case study of a young male’s clinical evaluation while incarcerated. While SUD is not the only contributing factor to criminality, it significantly increases the likelihood of legal infraction and violations, placing these individuals at a higher risk of re-offending. Thus, identifying SUD as early as possible in the clinical relationship helps provide tailored treatment to those who need it, while simultaneously reducing the risk of future legal difficulties.
For this case study, we reviewed the SASSI-4 screening results of a 24-year-old male. The case presents an excellent example of the value of early identification of substance use disorder and potential problems in criminal justice settings.
We hope you enjoy the article, and as always, we look forward to your submissions and comments.
Carlos C. is a 36-year-old Mexican-American male who’s Spanish SASSI results indicate that he has a high probability of having a substance use disorder based on “yes” answers to Rules 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6 and because his FPOS score is 5 or less (FPOS=2). Validation studies indicate that 86% of the people who have substance use disorders are correctly classified by the Spanish SASSI based on the Decision Rule (High Probability) and the False Positive Check (5 or less).
In addition, Carlos has an SCS score of 8 or more (SCS=9) indicating that he is more likely to have a substance dependence disorder than substance abuse. In validation studies, the majority of people (77%) who are test positive on the Spanish SASSI and have SCS scores of 8 or more have a substance dependence disorder rather than substance abuse or no disorder.
The Administration and Scoring Instructions and Development and Validation of the Spanish SASSI provide detailed information on interpreting the Decision Rule results, the False Positive and False Negative Check (FPOS and FNEG) and the Supplementary Classification Scale (SCS).
Three of the Spanish SASSI scales, FVA, FVOD and SYM, are composed of “face valid” items that address substance misuse in an apparent or obvious manner. Some questions address inability to control usage. For example, on one of the FVA items, Carlos acknowledged that on several occasions he has had more to drink than he intended to. Other items on these scales reflect usage in order to better cope with negative feelings or other problems. Carlos, for example, reported on one of the SYM items that when he is anxious, he feels the need to drink. The face valid scales also include items that address negative consequences of substance misuse, such as physical, emotional and relationship problems. Carlos indicated on an FVA item that on several occasions his drinking has led to problems with friends and family members, and on a SYM item he acknowledged that he has had a drink first thing in the morning to steady his nerves or get rid of a hangover.
As you can see, by reading clients’ answers to specific questions on the FVA, FVOD, and SYM scales, it is possible to gain greater understanding of the types of problems they may be having with alcohol and other drug usage. Also, providing feedback to clients on the types of problems they have identified on the face valid items of the Spanish SASSI may be useful in the process of establishing treatment goals.
The remaining scales, OAT, SAT, DEF and SAM are subtle scales — i.e., the items that comprise these scales do not address substance misuse in an obvious or apparent manner. Therefore, Carlos’ responses to questions on those scales cannot be readily interpreted. The SASSI Institute provides guidelines for interpreting four similar scales as they appear on the English versions of the SASSI. However, the subtle scales on the Spanish SASSI are not identical to the English scales, and there is not enough information available to formulate guidelines for interpreting them for clinical purposes. The SASSI Institute, therefore, does not recommend interpreting scores on the subtle scales for clinical purposes. We will however, be delighted to help you with scoring or administering the questionnaire.
Bob is a 43-year old male who was referred by his attorney for a substance evaluation following a traffic fatality in which he was driving under the influence. Bob seems to have understood the items and responded in a meaningful way (RAP = 0). There is no significant evidence that Bob was defensive (DEF = 7).
The most salient feature of the profile is the significantly elevated SAT score, which is a key feature in both decision rules that lead to a test positive on the SASSI (Decision Rules 4, 5, 6, and 7). His responses were highly similar to substance dependent individuals regardless of their ability or willingness to report symptoms relevant to substance misuse. Given the lack of evidence of defensive responding, it’s likely that Bob falls in the category of those who are unaware of the full impact of substance use problems in their lives.
Individuals with this configuration of scores are often willing to acknowledge some behavioral problems related to their substance use. Bob demonstrates this by acknowledging significant current and/or past alcohol (FVA=14) and drug (FVOD=12) use. His pattern of responding also indicates some awareness of behavioral problems that are commonly associated with individuals with substance use disorders: low frustration tolerance, self-centeredness, grandiosity, etc. (OAT=7). However, given the elevated SAT, he will most likely not be able to make any connection between his acknowledged use and behavioral problems and their impact on other areas of his life.
He also responds in a fashion similar to individuals who live in an environment dominated by substance abuse (SYM=6). Although the SYM is not extremely elevated, it does tend to support the notion that Mr. B. may view his substance use as normal. Further content analysis may reveal additional factors about his life circumstances that might be important to consider in treatment planning.
Bob may be relatively well presented. He may also appear to be emotionally detached while maintaining a sense of pragmatism regarding his situation. Relatively poor insight and self-awareness are commonly present in these types of profiles. It’s not that Bob refuses to understand or is intentionally resistant; he literally doesn’t grasp that his substance use may be a problem that requires further exploration. In his mind, external factors or stressors may be to blame for his current predicament. The possibility that this tragic incident may be directly related to a substance use problem would be quite difficult for Bob to understand at this time.
This has been an interesting year hasn’t it? I’ve worked in the behavioral health field, primarily substance use disorder, since 1989. During those 31 years I’ve never come across the types of challenges I’ve seen this year, for those struggling with substance addiction and for those healthcare providers trying to help them.
“Social isolation” is the new mantra in the culture and yet it is the very thing that is anathema to behavioral health counselors trying to help individuals coping with addiction. Resources are going out of business and events which once brought enjoyment, support, solidarity and an alternative to substances for having fun are being cancelled one after another. Fear is paramount, and it’s drastically shaping the face of addiction and recovery. We are seeing more initiation of substance abuse, more cycles of relapse and overdose, and more barriers to successful recovery in order to cope with a world in chaos. While outpatient treatment programs have successfully used technology to transition to online counseling groups, this has presented a barrier for those without the resources to purchase the technology needed to participate. For the last 10 years, I’ve worked for a local non-profit treatment center for women and adolescent girls here in Dallas, Texas called Nexus Recovery Center. Recently, the Executive Director, Heather Ormand, wrote the following in a blog post:
“COVID-19 has stripped so many sober women of our community. Twelve-step meetings are no longer being held in churches. Churches are closed or access is limited and people are afraid to sit shoulder to shoulder right now. For those with long-term sobriety and a strong support system, we can probably get by with Zoom twelve-step meetings, reading literature and connecting with other sober women via text or calls. But what about the woman struggling in her disease? The woman isolated in an unsafe home without the resources to leave and get treatment? The woman without a place for her children to go while she tries to piece together continuous days of sobriety and start rebuilding their lives?”
But there is hope. Treatment staff have proven that they are indeed essential, and programs like those at Nexus Recovery Center are showing that recovery staff are willing to risk getting sick themselves in order to help another human being break the cycle of addiction. They are showing that empathy and compassion and hope can still be conveyed through a mask or through a live, online group or individual counseling session. We can still find innovative ways to connect and share our experience, strength and hope with those who are struggling to find someone who cares.
I’ve also been associated with The SASSI Institute as a trainer for the past 25+ years and have found them to be an organization that strives hard to give agencies effective and easy to use resources for helping identify individuals struggling with a substance use disorder and guiding them to the most appropriate path for their recovery journey. I’m also proud to have been allowed to help people on The SASSI Institute’s Clinical Helpline for the past few years. One consistent thing I hear from callers is how much they appreciate the fact that they can reach out in frustration or puzzlement over a client they are working with, and how those on the Clinical Helpline are always there to help them work through a SASSI screening result, craft how to phrase the results to the client or in a report, and guide them in helping clients discover things about themselves, in order to initiate their recovery process. The SASSI Institute, though at a “social distance,” is there for me like a warm blanket on a cold night and for many other behavioral health workers in the US and in other countries who sometimes just need a willing ear to process some of their cases and SASSI results. Working together we can get through 2020 and beyond, despite any obstacles.
One of the trickier aspects of incorporating the SASSI results in a substance use assessment is extracting the clinical interpretation of what elevated scores mean and the relationship between the scales. If you have taken SASSI training, especially the Clinical Interpretation session, you were introduced to ‘Profile Configurations.’ This section gets more in-depth into interpreting the scales and clinically drawing on information that can better inform how to work with your client as well as consideration of treatment modalities.
Starting with the Face Valid Alcohol and Other Drug Scales versus Subtle Scales, which when one of those is elevated can make a big difference on how you approach your client with the results. A high probability result based on only Face Valid scales can indicate good treatment readiness, life-style issues (that is, how they are functioning at work, school, home, etc. and been acknowledged by the client), with behavioral consequences being greater than psychological addiction. The client can readily tell you how their life has become unmanageable. With this client, group therapy and/or support groups could be considered.
A high probability result based only on Subtle Scales is going to feel more like a brick wall. The client exhibits less awareness and may not be able to, or doesn’t want to acknowledge a problem. This could be based on having experienced only a few negative consequences so they do not feel the impact of their addiction. They could also come across as defensive. Finally, they could be ‘sincerely deluded’ and at this point, unable to connect the dots for themselves. This client will need a lot of support to become aware that their use of substances is having an impact on their life functioning. Individual therapy may be the initial therapeutic intervention working towards other modalities as needed.
If you have attended Session II of SASSI Training, you received an outline of scale interpretation. But we would like to make sure all SASSI users have access to this valuable resource. You can download a copy by clicking the following link: “SASSI Scales in Interpretation & Feedback.”
Hope this information is instructive and assists you in your practice. And remember, as usual, we are here to help, so give the clinical line a call at 888-297-2774 or 800-726-0526, press 2.
The Substance Abuse Subtle Screening Inventory (SASSI) has been used successfully in correctional screening in multiple settings since its release. These include outpatient evaluations of offenders as well as assessments of incarcerated individuals in federal, state, and local correctional centers.
Many clients served in behavioral health and substance abuse treatment programs have histories of involvement with the criminal justice system in addition to mental health and substance use disorders. Samples in the SASSI-4 validation study included assessments in community corrections, probation and parole and drug courts, as well as cases from DWI and DOT education and screening programs. SASSI-4 overall screening accuracy in criminal justice settings was 95%; in DWI and DOT education programs SUD screening accuracy was 91%, and these accuracy levels were found not to differ significantly from the overall accuracy rate for all settings (92%). In addition, many cases included routine information on clients’ number and types of arrests and blood alcohol levels. Analyses revealed that SASSI-4 screening accuracy was 92% for clients with a history of criminal offenses, and 90% for clients who had no such histories.[i]
Interestingly, of those who had been diagnosed with a substance use disorder, criminal offenders acknowledged significantly less illicit drug use and consequences as well as less alcohol use and consequences on the SASSI-4 face valid scales than did clients with diagnosed substance use disorders in settings other than criminal justice programs — suggesting offenders minimized reported use and substance-related problems. By contrast, offenders with substance use disorders showed no differences in their endorsements of subtle items on the SASSI-4 compared to individuals with substance use disorders in other types of assessment settings. Despite offenders’ attempts at minimization, SASSI-4 overall accuracy in the offender samples was 94%. Together these findings illustrate strengths of using SASSI-4 to screen criminal offenders as compared to entirely face valid screens such as the AUDIT, CAGE or DAST. That is, the inclusion of subtle items on the SASSI-4 as well as a scale to identify clients’ level of defensive responding strengthens the ability of the SASSI-4 to accurately identify clients with substance use disorders.
In addition to legal offenses and possible substance use disorders, offenders also often have other mental health problems, which can affect their responses on many types of assessments they are given. Research on the SASSI-4 has shown its screening sensitivity is 98% in dual diagnosis clients; specificity is 93% in persons diagnosed with nonsubstance-related psychological disorders only, for an overall accuracy rate of 97% in people suffering from other psychological disorders. Moreover, accuracy was shown to be unaffected by ethnic background, and other demographic variables such as age and education.
For information on integrating the SASSI-4 into correctional programs, contact us at 800.726.0526.
[i] For additional validation information please refer to: Lazowski, L.E. (2016). Estimates of the reliability and criterion validity of the Adult SASSI-4. Springville, IN: The SASSI Institute.
Through the years, we have had the opportunity to share inspirational stories with our colleagues about their experience using the SASSI. One such story came recently from a psychologist who uses the SASSI in his practice. This was a gratifying story for us to hear and we are pleased that he has allowed us to share it with you.
The mother of a 22-year-old woman called me because she felt very strongly that her daughter Aimee (not client’s actual name) had an alcohol problem. But Aimee was adamant, no question about it, “I don’t have a problem.”
After some persuasion, Aimee agreed to come into my office, and I invited her mother to stay in the office during the interview, with Aimee’s permission. I really think Aimee was very certain that there wasn’t a problem, and that having Mom there during the process would convince her mother of this, too. I said, “You know, Mom can be a bit of a reality check here, but I’m listening to what YOU are saying.” Aimee’s mother agreed to just listen, since she had had her say when making the referral.
We talked about it, and Aimee restated that she didn’t have a problem. She was just not aware of any bad consequences coming from drinking. Aimee really seemed to believe what she was saying, “My friends and I, we don’t have any consequences; we just enjoy drinking.” I told her that was fine and asked, “Would you like to find out if you, in fact, do have a problem, or would you rather not know?” Of course, this is right in front of Mom. And she thought about it, seeing herself as being free to say “no.” But she did say, “Yeah, I think I would want to know.” When asked about each of the DSM diagnostic criteria for substance use disorders, Aimee answered no to all symptom questions.
Then, I brought out the SASSI-4, and told her a little bit about how it would compare her responses to two known groups of people: those who have a problem and know it, own it, and the other group that is just as aware that they do not have a problem, and own that. And we will see how your responses go. She agreed that that sounded good. She took the SASSI-4, and her responses showed a high probability of having a substance use disorder. This was very surprising to her. Then I went back and showed Aimee her scores on the FVA and the SYM.
When she looked at those scores, she could see by the profile that the consequences she was getting were way out of line compared to ordinary people who drink. She runs with folks whose norm is to drink a lot, and there is a history in her family of substance use issues. She just said, “It’s almost like thinking about it and realizing that you are surrounded, and your best bet is to give up!” She surrendered to the idea that, “Yes, I’ve got a problem.” From there on she was willing to do something about it. Aimee made an appointment to see me again, and we went on from there.
Let’s say that the SASSI did not exist, and I would have had only the DSM criteria and her history. I would have had her mother’s reflections and thoughts and observations, and—I don’t feel certain, but I’m guessing—she would have walked away with the understanding that she did not have a problem. She would have gone on as she had been—because I would not have been able to make a case that she did have a problem, because there would have been no data to base that on. She may well have been one of those who left the interview, and for the rest of her life said, “No, I don’t have a problem, so get off my back.” In a sense, I really believe that the SASSI saved this young woman’s life, or at least spared her significant pain. I have always been impressed by the accuracy of the SASSI. It picks up on people who really are “sincerely deluded.” It’s interesting that her score on the Defensiveness (DEF) scale was not particularly elevated, so it was not that she was being defensive, she was just unaware of how her drinking and symptoms associated with it were beyond the norm. Her elevated SAT score – at the 98th percentile – supports the interpretation that Aimee has little insight into what may be motivating her to drink with her friends, or the negative consequences that follow from spending time that way. I am very grateful for the SASSI, and I wouldn’t do an assessment or a screening without it. I literally would refuse, because just the verbal reports can be so misleading, although not intentionally misleading, necessarily. Clients will compare themselves with the people they know who are much further along in the addiction process, and not really understand that their own behavior is a problem, just because their own behavior is not yet as severe as what they see in others. The SASSI can put a client’s use into a broader, and often more realistic context.
Original depiction, written by Nancy Winningham, M.A. based on an actual experience a clinician had using the SASSI with a client. Adapted to reflect SASSI-4 information.