Trust, conversations and the ‘middle space’: A qualitative exploration of the experiences of physiotherapists with clients with suicidal thoughts and behaviours

Abstract

In Australia, physiotherapists are registered healthcare practitioners who possess the knowledge and skills to care for clients with poor physical health as a result of musculoskele- tal, neurological, and respiratory conditions. Although physiotherapists are not considered a primary profession in the Australian mental health workforce, the association between sui- cide and poor physical health suggests that they may encounter clients with suicidal thoughts and behaviours. We used a qualitative approach inspired by phenomenology to explore the experiences of nine physiotherapists who encountered clients with suicidal thoughts and behaviours. We used a combination of focus groups and in-depth interviews to collect this data. The data were analysed inductively using framework analysis. The main themes identified in the data were: i) the importance of trust, ii) the mechanism of conversa- tion, and iii) the ’middle space’. The middle space refers to the experience of working with cli- ents at risk of low or medium risk of suicide. A trusting practitioner-client relationship was reported to be essential in facilitating the disclosure of suicidal thoughts and behaviours. Physiotherapists also reported that less structured subjective assessments encourage cli- ents to talk more openly, which in turn facilitates the disclosure of suicidal thoughts and behaviours. Once the disclosure of suicidal thoughts and behaviours occurred, physiothera- pists reported a lack of confidence regarding role clarity and issues associated with this. Dif- ficulties were most evident during encounters with clients with low to medium suicide risk due to a lack of confidence in the accuracy of assessment of these clients. The findings suggest that physiotherapists are well placed to detect and/or receive disclosure of suicidal thoughts and behaviours, as well as the need for physiotherapists to be trained in how to support clients who disclose suicidal thoughts and behaviours.

Reference

McGrath, R. L., Parnell, T., Verdon, S., MacDonald, J. B., Smith, M. (2020). Navigating the ‘middle space’: A qualitative exploration of the experiences of physiotherapists with clients with suicidal thoughts and behaviours. PLOS ONE, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0238884