Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Gift of Secrets

As we find ourselves in the season of gift giving, I recalled a great lesson I learned from a man with a simple but profound idea.

“We keep our secrets in a box. Sometimes we bury them deep like a coffin. Sometimes they are like a gift that we open up and share with others,” Frank Warren, founder of PostSecret, said to a packed audience of college students who participated in this year’s Active Minds Annual Conference in New Jersey.

Frank Warren at Active Minds Conference

As a mental health speaker, I love to hear other speakers share their ideas on how to help people thrive. I was especially transfixed by Frank Warren, America’s most trusted stranger, talk about the power of secrets in our lives. Frank started with a simple idea: letting people unburden themselves of their secrets by encouraging all to send their anonymous secrets to him on postcards. What has evolved over the years is a compelling project with a strong suicide prevention message.

Frank has had secrets mailed to him on sea shells, a potato, even a death certificate. Of the millions of secrets he has received from all over the world, he has learned a few things about what we hide about ourselves and how we are very curious to know these potent pieces of information about each other.

“At the center of these secrets there is a kernel of wisdom we can grow from,” Warren states. “When we think we are carrying a secret, sometimes it is actually carrying us. Blocking us from what we might otherwise be.”

Frank has learned one of the important tenets of my resiliency talks – sharing our personal struggles helps us to create intimacy and community with others. When we go beyond “the mask” we wear each day, we create a deeper channel of knowing and a stronger bond. This sense of belonging can help us withstand future challenges we might face. Frank closes his talks by training students on some basic suicide prevention skills: ask the direct question “are you thinking about suicide?” and know your resources for mental health help, like the 1-800-273-8255 Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Frank has also witnessed how we can overcome our brokenness and become more resilient by rising above our hardships in live, “the children almost broken by the world become the adults most likely to change it tomorrow.”

Thank you, Frank, for a wonderful example of how a simple idea can move the world to action.

What are your thoughts on the power of secrets?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Social Entrepreneurship Part II Working Minds for Youth: Social Enterprise for Suicide Prevention

The other night our high school social entrepreneurs were amazing. After serving them pizza, we gave them a 20-minute challenge: to work together to develop a t-shirt or mural idea that would help prevent suicide in their community. We mixed students from different schools into small groups, gave them pens and paper and let them go.

Social enterprise students brainstorming ideas for suicide prevention
Now these students aren’t new to the ideas of suicide prevention or social enterprise. They have been working with the Carson J Spencer Foundation and Junior Achievement since September to gain mastery in both areas and have been thinking about how the two missions might best work together. Every week for at least an hour they receive coaching on business skills like marketing, finances, and product development and on suicide prevention skills like how to be a suicide prevention gatekeeper, how to conduct a needs analysis and how to promote safe messages to increase awareness. They are a passionate, dedicated crew.

The challenge this week was just a warm up, and you can see some of their excitement and creative ideas by viewing this 3-minute video montage.

In February each school participating in this project will have developed a viable business plan for a social enterprise for suicide prevention. In other words, they will have dreamt up a sustainable product or service that will raise money and create a positive change for this life-saving cause. They will then pitch their ideas before the Carson J Spencer Foundation’s Board of Directors, competing for seed money to launch their business. Winners will go on to use the money to implement their plans during the spring semester. At the end of this second semester another round of competition will take place – this time the winners will be rated on both the financial profit and the social profit earned through their work. They will be rated on: innovation, effectiveness, sustainability, and revenue.

Green Mountain High School students cheering after winning business plan competition

I love this project because it just works on so many levels. By partnering with Junior Achievement, we are engaging a new audience for suicide prevention: our future business leaders. Students are passionate about suicide prevention because even at their young ages, many of them have already been touched in some way – either their own mental health crisis, or someone they love. The project is also just plain cool. Social enterprise is a great new trend – a creative blend of the efficiency of the business sector with a heartfelt mission of the non-profit sector. Students are empowered to use their creativity and be leaders in their community. Win, win, win.

Check back in February to see how they did…

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Social Entrepreneurship Part I: Using Business Skills to Solve Social Ills

Recently, I joined a group of social entrepreneurs sitting around a crowded table at the Women’s Bean Project headquarters in Denver for a historic moment in the social enterprise movement: the group voted to launch a Colorado chapter of the Social Enterprise Alliance. As someone who has championed social entrepreneurship education among our young people for the past five years, this is great news. Together, we can forge the power of a coalition to increase the capacity of social enterprise initiatives around the state and to expand public consciousness, embracing and promoting these cutting edge ideas.
Lisa Nitze, President & CEO of Social Enterprise Alliance charges the group to dream big
as we launch our Colorado chapter.

What is Social Entrepreneurship?

In his documentary series on social entrepreneurs called The New Heroes, Robert Redford described social enterprise as “Applying business skills to resolving social ills…part saint, part politician, part business person.”

While an entrepreneur thinks in terms of results and profits, a social entrepreneur seeks results that will change people’s lives simply, quickly, and profoundly. Social entrepreneurs use innovation and strategic partnerships to address root causes of social problems ranging from poverty to pollution, from mental illness to youth-at-risk. The “social profit” of a social entrepreneur is sustainable human and economic development.

Social entrepreneurs conduct gap analyses in their communities – looking to address needs and build on strengths. They look to seize an idea that fills a unique niche and has potential for scalability. And just like in the business world, social entrepreneurship is linked with risk. Social entrepreneurs are courageous, unconventional and able to see new opportunities when others see nothing but hopelessness.

When contrasted to charity, social enterprises don’t rely entirely on community support for their own sustainability; social enterprises work to generate the earned revenue needed to keep their operation going. Social enterprises also don’t just serve immediate needs, like food and shelter, without addressing the underlying causes perpetuating these needs. Social entrepreneurs view the marginalized as the solution not as a passive beneficiary. The social enterprises they build begin with the assumption of competence and resources in communities they are serving.
In the words of Bill Drayton, CEO, chair and founder of Ashoka, “Social entrepreneurs are not content just to give a fish or teach how to fish. They will not rest until they have revolutionized the fishing industry.”

I got interested in social enterprise while I was getting my Masters in Nonprofit Management a few years ago. My instructor and founder of Triple Bottom Line Partners, Nancy Fell, inspired me to apply these concepts to the work of the Carson J Spencer Foundation (CJSF) and the leadership development courses I was teaching at the time. In 2007, CJSF won a business plan competition for our gift basket enterprise that tied into our work promoting mental health, but we found it was too labor intensive for our human resource capacity. Today, this gift basket concept has evolved to what we call “iCare packages”: books, comforting music, and other resources we attractively package and send to families recently bereaved by suicide. We have solved our human resource problem by forging strategic partnerships to assist with the distribution. From 2006-2009, I taught a sophomore seminar that challenged the students to create social enterprises for suicide prevention, and most rated this activity the most useful learning of the whole course. Today, CJSF works with high school youth through a program we call "Working Minds for Youth" to expand these ideas and support the development of the next generation of socially entrepreneurial suicide prevention advocates – stay tuned…

Next blog:

Social Entrepreneurship Part II: Working Minds for Youth – Raising Money and Awareness for Suicide Prevention

How have you seen social enterprises impact communities?

Monday, December 6, 2010

Spirituality and Suicide Bereavement Part II: Spiritual Signs from Loved Ones

Because I have walked the path with many survivors of suicide loss, I know that there is something survivors talk about all the time that is rarely, if ever, explored in scholarly publications, so I will open the door in the context of discovery here in the hopes that others will find ways to further its research. What I am referring to are the signs that many of us experience in the aftermath of our loved one’s death that in every cell of our bodies feels like a communication from our loved ones. On the eve of 6th anniversary of Carson's death, I share some of my experiences in the hopes of connecting those in the survivor community who have also experienced the unexplainable. I also hope that this sparks a conversation among those interested in suicide bereavement that leads the field of suicidology into further research on this topic.

During the first six months after Carson’s death, I had several spiritual experiences that to me felt like nothing I had ever experienced before. While I can believe, that perhaps these were the manifestations of a traumatized brain, I also hold open the possibility that they were more than that. While all of the experiences played important roles in my healing journey, I will share with you the last and most profound one – his “goodbye visit” to me while I was on my second honeymoon in Hawaii.

It was only six months after Carson’s suicide when my husband Randy and I gently opened the spring-loaded door that swung back upon us and entered this place of dreams: an old cottage on the beaches of Kauai. Bang, bang, bang the door retorted behind us as we eased onto the wise, creaky floors that carried the footsteps of history before us. This cozy plantation home had been relocated from the sugar fields of Kauai to its new resting place on the sometimes sandy, sometimes grassy Hawaiian shore near Wimaya Canyon. Its musty scent held the mystery of sun and sea as we tenderly placed our bags upon its well-worn wooden floor and set off to explore. On the back porch, the salty breeze was laced with the celebratory, syrupy scent of flowers just past their prime, and we slid into the oversized Adirondack chairs that engulfed us and whispered gently, “relax.” When started planning this trip to celebrate our 10-year anniversary well before my brother’s death, this was exactly what I had imagined. We leaned into the place, longing for the warmth of the sun, and delighting in the hoppy and deep-fried air wafting from the brewpub behind us, “Ah, peace.”

That night as we went to bed, the muffled murmurs of the other tourists returning from big adventures drew closer and then farther away as their sandals crunched the gravel of the path past our cottage to theirs. As I drifted off to sleep, Randy’s deep breathing rose like the comforting sweet steam from a home-cooked stew and lulled me into a vivid dream state.

In the dream Carson appears before me and I am once again instantly struck with a sucking feeling just below my sternum that radiates both terror and awe to my extremities like an electric shock. He is an adult this time, dressed simply in a “red dirt t-shirt” and jeans. The red dirt t-shirts were a touristy souvenir of the region where we were staying, dyed from the red tinted earth on the Wimaya land, so I knew this was his way of telling me he was here with me. His face expressed gently worn nuances of eyes that knew more and were both sad and reassuring and a mouth that raised tentatively on the edges. We found ourselves at the swimming pool that was built between the cottages and the ocean. On the day Randy and I had arrived at the plantation cottages, the water in this pool had been too cold to swim. In the dream the water was soothing and perfectly tepid. Carson approached this simple rectangular in-ground pool with blue water and wide edging, and slowly walked down its steps toward me. We met in the middle of the pool and he gave me an engulfing hug. In slow-motion, we sank into the viscous liquid, deeper and deeper as if being pulled by an anchor to the bottom of the pool. Then, thud. We landed on the gritty pool floor.

“This is the last time,” he whispered.

I felt his large, powerful body start to dissolve in my arms.

“No, no, no, no, no!” I screamed until I could feel him no more. And I woke up with a startle and the strange but familiar cocktail of fear and rage burning like acid in my esophagus. My thoughts were racing, “this may be the last visit in a plantation cottage in Kauai, but not the last time you will visit me!”

I bolted out of bed and shuffled my way through the darkness to the bathroom, where the grounding coolness of porcelain tile, started to erode my agitated state. I sat there, my head on the toilet cover, heart slowly returning to my chest, and relayed my latest dream to my husband who, as usual, listened politely, without comment.

The next day was our final day in this magical place, and we had decided to take a cruise around part of the island, but our boat did not leave the dock until much later that afternoon, so we decided to walk around the touristy shops of the town. And of course, we quickly ran into a store called the “Red Dirt T-Shirt Shop.”

I turned to Randy, “Let’s go in.”

On one level I was thinking I needed to get just one more present for our littlest boy, Jackson. I had bought our other two sons little Hawaiian shirts, but I had not found one small enough for our 8-month old. On another level, I was hoping for one more mystery to emerge. I turned to the back rack and flipped through the options until I found what I was looking for, and then I headed to the counter.

I stood in line behind a woman who was speaking with the clerk behind the counter loud enough for me to hear. She spoke of the clerk’s daughter who apparently had just died, and of the doctor who had taken his life, apparently out of remorse for not saving the girl.

Then it was my turn at the counter.

Before I had even put my purchase up, and with a line of people behind me, I said, “I had a dream last night. My brother who died by suicide was in it wearing a red dirt t-shirt, and now I am here, I just overheard your conversation, and I think I am supposed to talk to you.”

Without missing a beat she said, “Your brother is fine.”

I felt the air releasing from my lungs, like a balloon that has been untied.

“The man I was just speaking about…the doctor….He also visited me in my dreams after my daughter died, asking for my forgiveness. And I said, of course.”

I thanked her, paid for my little Hawaiian suit and as I walked out the door, I turned to Randy and said, “See! I just can’t make this stuff up!”

Since that dream, I have not had the same intensity of what I believe to be a connection with Carson. What those experiences gave me, however, was a belief that there is more than we can understand in the spiritual realm while we are in our current existence. I believe that my brother was doing his best to ask for forgiveness and say the goodbyes that he didn’t get to in life. I am reassured that his spirit is okay, that his soul has moved on to other things, and that I will be seeing him again when my life is over. Before my brother died, I did not have a spiritual framework that supported these beliefs, but now I do. This was his gift to me. Because of these experiences, I find myself talking to him often – asking him for clarity and courage, like others might talk to God. Like many others, I am learning to develop a new relationship with my loved one. He isn’t gone, our relationship has just changed.

For those of you bereaved by suicide – have you received signs from your loved ones? Please, share your stories here.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Yesterday I Wore Purple: Suicide, Gay Youth and Bullying

Photo by Nono Fara
Purple happens to be my favorite color, but yesterday when I went to put something purple on, my heart was heavy. Yesterday, people all over the country chose to wear purple to honor the young gay teens who took their lives because of bullying. People wore purple to show solidarity in standing up against hate.

Will wearing purple erase homophobia? Will it bring back those that we have lost? No. But never underestimate the power of the masses to bring change. When someone is struggling with suicidal thoughts or feels confused about their identity, one of the biggest lifts they can experience is to know they are not alone. To know that others have struggled and come out the other side. To know that “it gets better.”

In the past few weeks, the collective grief around these losses has been everywhere, and people with influence to do something about it are also being visible and vocal:

• An openly gay Council Member from Fort Worth Texas speaks candidly about his experiences with bullying and lets teens know that things can be different. His powerful taped testimony goes viral on YouTube.

• The Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Secretary of Education release an op-ed piece taking a stand on the issue.

Ellen DeGeneres makes several public remarks expressing her concerns.

Last year, the Carson J Spencer Foundation and Regis University developed a suicide prevention campaign to empower allies to “come out” and save lives by actively working to create safe spaces for gay college students. This social justice campaign was called “Allies in Action” and components of it are now being replicated on other campuses.

Together, as our collective voices become louder, we will reach the ears of the struggling teens to let them know, “there is something on the other side of your distress.” And we will reach the minds of the bullies to let them know, “you are wrong, and we will not tolerate hate.”

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Suicide and Spirituality Part I: The Roles of Faith and Faith Communities

The day after my brother died, my family reached out to my faith community to see if they would be willing to allow his memorial service to be held at my church just six days later. My brother and parents were not members of my faith community, but the church welcomed us with open arms anyway. On December 13th, 2004, the church was filled with hundreds of mourners, most of who had traveled to Colorado by plane, and the service beautifully honored my brother’s life without looking away from the horrible tragedy of his death.

In the days and weeks following my brother’s death, the faith leaders and pastoral-care counselors of my faith community reached out to my parents and me to offer support and assistance. The following year, they allowed me to host our first annual candlelight healing ceremony during the holiday season to support families who might be struggling with loss or life challenges – a tradition we continue to this day. Each year the event grows as more people find this a safe place to grieve during and otherwise celebratory time of year. After the pastoral leader shares some words on the important role of grief in our lives, we light candles in honor of our loved ones, listen to spiritual music, and share responsive readings on loss. Almost everyone stays long after the service is over, eating refreshments and talking with each other and the pastoral counselors present. It has become a very powerful tradition in our church.

Now our church has engaged in public advocacy for suicide prevention. Our youth group turns out by the dozens to walk in the largest suicide-prevention event in the country – all proudly wearing t-shirts that identify their connection to our church and the cause. This past year we started a “mental wellness advocates” group made up of consumers, attempt survivors, and those bereaved by suicide. We work toward helping to support those going through tough times, educating our church members about mental health and suicide, and advocating for positive change in our community.

I am lucky -- my faith community got it right. But many others aren’t so lucky, and often find their faith communities are less than supportive during their deepest time of need. As the front line responders for many memorial services, faith leaders need to know that their communication can facilitate healing or it can facilitate confusion and isolation. Faith leaders may inadvertently even cause additional pain and increased risk of further suicide among the bereaved or among other vulnerable individuals in the community.

Suicide is not just a mental health problem, it is a public health problem, and as such a coordinated prevention effort with other systems outside of mental health is required – including our faith communities. Faith communities are a critical piece of the prevention puzzle. Too often faith communities and mental health providers operate independently of one another as if they were relegated to their own silos of expertise. Individuals who seek out spiritual pursuits as a part of their coping and mental wellness would likely benefit from a collaborative approach between faith communities and mental health services.

Barb Roberts, a local pastoral care provider from a neighboring evangelical Christian church, shared with me her story of how she was impacted by a youth suicide early in her career. “Matt,” a 14-year-old church member, returned from a youth group retreat and took his life in his parents’ bedroom. Within hours scores of kids and traumatized staff and family started to converge on the church. Barb recalls how she and the other pastoral care staff just sat with those kids all night.

“Where was God?” they asked over and over again.

That experience motivated her to look deeper into the tenets of faith and how they viewed suicide. She discovered that the early church – 354-430 AD under Augustine – took a pretty harsh view of suicide, and for many years following that, the church had an approach against those who died by suicide and family left with not much comfort or hope. More recently, she discovered churches recognize people need to be helped not punished. Still, many have lingering questions, “How could this happen? Where is God in the midst of my pain? Is there any hope for the future?”

She said, “There used to be a mistaken belief that Christians just didn’t commit suicide. When a Senior Pastor took his life recently, our community was shaken. I have no doubt that he was a Godly man. What happened? Tragedy knows no bounds. Christians seem more ashamed, like suicide is a personal affront, and somehow a statement of a lack of faith. This statement has no authenticity. But it is hard. Christians can have chemical imbalances like anyone else and keeping the faith isn’t always easy when your life has been shattered and stripped bare.”

Many resources exist to help faith communities provide appropriate support for those bereaved by suicide. Stephen Ministries helps pastoral counselors and lay people by training them to support, reach out, and develop a whole model of care giving in many different denominations. The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill also has created a Caring Community certification process to help leaders support those in mental health crises. SPRC has published two documents on faith communities – one on memorial services and one on faith perspectives. Finally, in our work as a Garrett Lee Smith Grantee, the Carson J Spencer Foundation developed a series of posters, videos and guidelines for faith communities – see http://peoplepreventsuicide.org/spiritual-leaders for more information. We also published a booklet called “The Role of Faith Communities in Suicide Prevention: A Guidebook for Faith Leaders” (available on Amazon).

In reflecting on the role of her church in bereavement support, one faith leader representing mainline Protestant church said to me, “The gift our church brings to the issue of suicide is the idea of community. We help people to develop deep meaningful relationships where we journey through life together, where we lean on each other. All of us face those dark moments, those dark times when we are questioning, doubting and fearing. We need one another to hold us up and remind us that the tomb is empty, that every storm we face, God will get us through. God will make us stronger on the other side and even use us then in the lives of other people.”

If you have been bereaved by suicide, what are the ways faith communities been helpful or harmful to you?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

On Breathing...

Photo by Szlea
On the past few posts I have commented on a number of major events in suicide prevention – some good news, some bad. This week offered another round of heartbreak as two more suicide deaths made headlines – both of them openly gay men, just days apart from each other. I find myself in tears again. More senseless death. The news can be overwhelming for those of us on the frontline. We care deeply and are putting everything we have into solving these problems from all conceivable angles. But honestly, there are too few of us, and our capacity to help is limited by so many obstacles.

I can’t tell you how many people have told me to “breathe” in the last month. As my roles in the suicide prevention field have become broader and deeper, I see so much work that needs to be done. At the national level, the Action Alliance is full steam ahead as some major players in the public and private sector weigh in on broad systemic change. On the local level, the Carson J Spencer Foundation is writing grants, conducting trainings, and expanding programs left and right. Last week I was working with the student affairs team at Johnson and Wales – speaking to their students and training their staff on building a comprehensive suicide prevention program. This week they are reeling from the aftermath of a suicide and implementing the crisis response suggestions we discussed just days before.

I feel so much despair and see so many promising opportunities. Others have noticed my rising anxiety as I work feverishly on one initiative and then another. Breathe, they tell me, breathe. The field needs you well, your organizations need you focused, your family needs you present. Breathe.

Photo by Darkpatator

So, today I took the dog for a run in the wooded trails near my home. This weekend, I made it a priority to breathe in the pine-scented air. I decorated the house with Halloween décor. I helped my boys find library books. I went to church and prayed; the sermon: “Creating Peace.” I cooked a dinner. I watched my son’s soccer tournament. I planned a vacation. I read non-work related books. I slept in. The anxiety lingers, but the soul is grateful. Breathe.

So many of us are overwhelmed with our lives. What do you do to find your center among the demands?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

In the Aftermath of a Bronco's suicide: A Town Hall of Hope

During the month of September, the news about suicide has bounced back and forth between good news and bad. First, we heard the concerning news about an increase in suicide rates in Colorado to the highest we have seen in decades. Then we honored our loved ones lost to suicide during World Suicide Prevention Day and celebrated the launch of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. Last week, suicide made the headlines again. This time, suicide has stolen one of our Colorado stars, a young NFL player for the Denver Broncos, Kenny McKinley. The Denver Post has done a remarkable job covering this story with compassion and honesty -- in particular, Woody Paige, a columnist for the Post wrote eloquently about his response to McKinley's death and how he understood this experience, for he had been suicidal himself.

Photo by Zoetnet Photo

On Friday, the local news had reason again to pay attention. This time, it was because 75 leaders in the community converged for a Town Hall of Hope at the Carson J Spencer Foundation headquarters in Genesee. Elected officials, hospital administrators, funeral home staff, school personnel, and even a leadership business class came together to hear suicide prevention experts share information on the critical state of suicide in Colorado and offer solutions for change. Some of the recommended strategies for change include:
  • Better data collection on suicidal behavior -- thoughts, attempts, and response to suicide bereavement in particular
  • Better research on programs and treatment -- we must get a better sense out what is working and why
  • More screening for depression and other mental illnesses -- we need to catch people earlier on the progression of these life threatening diseases
  • More advocacy for public policy changes -- to increase funding for our Office of Suicide Prevention and mental health services around the state
  • More training in our schools, workplaces, faith communities, and other systems to help more people learn how to identify risk factors and warning signs and know what to do to get people help.
  • Better social marketing campaigns that help change the culture around suicide and mental health
  • Better support services for those bereaved by suicide
  • And finally...more town hall meetings to help educate the leaders of our communities and convince them that enough is enough -- it is time to cultivate a tipping point of change!
Everyone can play a role in suicide prevention -- what is your role?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Feeling the Power of a Historical Moment and World Solidarity in Suicide Prevention

Photo by Alaskan Dude
Last week I found myself in an internet café near the Duomo in Florence, Italy weeping as I watched the press conference of the launch of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention ("Action Alliance")steaming live on my computer. It was September 10th – World Suicide Prevention Day, and I was in Italy after just presenting at the European Symposium on Suicide and Suicidal Behaviour. As I sat there watching President Obama’s cabinet members – Secretary Sebelius of the Department of Health and Human Services and Secretary Gates of the Department of Defense – speak so passionately about the critical need for suicide prevention in our country, I could not help but feel I was watching a turning point in our field unfold.

Suicide prevention is a relatively new field. In the United States focused efforts in research, advocacy and clinical developments began as recently as the 1960s. We move forward slowly in small pockets around the country, often fueled by the dedication of a handful of committed people. For decades the suicide prevention field has suffered from a lack of funding for and coordination of these efforts, and these barriers have hampered our progress. Last week, when we launched the Action Alliance, the field now has hope that things will be different.

The Action Alliance is a public-private partnership whose mission it is to advance the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention (NSSP) by championing suicide prevention as a national priority, catalyzing efforts to implement high priority objectives of the NSSP, and cultivating the resources needed to sustain progress. On September 10th the 41 members of Action Alliance’s Executive Committee (“EXCOM”) came to the National Press Club to hear the Secretaries and others acknowledge the historical launch on World Suicide Prevention Day. (Click here for full video coverage of the press event).

Following the press event the EXCOM convened for their orientation to the work that lies ahead. Each of them will select objectives from the NSSP and find ways to leverage resources and political will at the highest levels to achieve these broad goals. With this strategy, all boats rise.

These Executive Committee members were selected because they are top leaders from the key governmental agencies -- like the Center for Disease Control, the Army and Veteran’s Affairs, the National Institute for Mental Health and more, and the from the private sector including major philanthropists, business leaders, faith leaders, researchers, and advocates. These are the people who make things happen. As I watched it all unfold on the other side of the world, I could not help but be in awe of the potential for what lies ahead. I am so honored to be playing a role in this effort.

This launch event came on the heels of another awe-inspiring experience – the European Symposium for Suicide and Suicidal Behavior had been held in Rome, Italy the previous week. I presented five times on issues like men and suicide, positioning suicide as a social justice issue, suicide prevention in the workplace, suicide and spirituality, and the Action Alliance. I love attending these international forums – there is something so humbling about the world coming together to solve this very tragic human problem. Through linguistic and cultural differences, we work together to learn from each other and find opportunities to collaborate.

Photo from NASA Goddard Photo and Video

And the world came together again on September 10th for commemorate World Suicide Prevention Day. Not only was this the launch day of the Action Alliance, but it was also the day when hundreds of countries participated in activities and awareness-raising efforts that acknowledged the impact of suicide and promoted efforts to prevent it. Because I was abroad as this was all happening, I could not help but feel the interconnectedness of our efforts and the intimacy of our planet. Together, we are better, and we have a chance at figuring this out. Our call to action?: “Take 5 to save lives.” Everyone can reach out to help. Join the movement.

What did you do on World Suicide Prevention Day?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Working Minds Contest Winners

Each year The Carson J Spencer Foundation welcomes Colorado businesses, nonprofit, for-profit or governmental agencies to compete in the Working Minds Contest. This contest is designed to showcase workplaces in our community that practice innovative and effective approaches in promoting mental health at work. This year The Denver Center for Crime Victims won the contest and will be honored at the Shining Lights of Hope Benefit Auction Evening on August 28th, 2010 (for information and tickets go to event website).
The Working Minds Contest seeks to promote workplaces that are focused on the emotional well-being of their workforce – through policy, practice and overall culture. In a time when lots of workplaces are becoming increasingly distressed, some workplaces are making a concerted effort to keep their teams thriving. We are excited to hold up the practices of our top three nominees as a model for others.

Finalists 2010

The Denver Center for Crime Victims’ (DCCV) purpose is to provide culturally and linguistically responsive services to crime victims and crime prevention education. We are the beacon of hope and safety net for more than 6,000 people each year. Our services are broad, supporting survivors of simple theft, domestic and sexual violence, to suicide/homicide survivors. We provide crisis intervention, brief therapy, case management, financial assistance, crime scene clean up and more, all without cost to victims.

Innovative and effective approaches to promoting mental health:

  • “Our self care philosophy is an integral part of our workplace culture and is discussed with potential employees and volunteers and included in all job descriptions and orientations.” 
  • “Staff creates confidential, results-oriented stretch goals addressing five areas: physical, emotional, financial, intellectual and spiritual health. These goals are supervised twice a month and included in annual evaluations. Thus, staff gets paid to take care of themselves!”
  • Generous leave policies and flex-time including the opportunity for a 30-day paid sabbatical
  • Proactive measures to prevent vicarious trauma and burnout among staff

 OUTCOMES: Lower burnout and compassion fatigue rates and a higher sense of compassion satisfaction compared to the national average (as measured by Professional Quality of Life Scale)

  • “Compassion satisfaction is about the pleasure derived from being able to do your work well. The national average score is 37. The average score of the DCCV staff is 40, indicating a higher rate of employee satisfaction.
  • Burnout is associated with feelings of hopelessness and can be associated with a very high workload or a non-supportive work environment. The national average score is 22. The average score of the DCCV staff is 17, indicating a lower rate of burnout.
  • Compassion fatigue is the effect of work-related, secondary exposure to extremely stressful events. The national average score is 13. The average score of the DCCV staff is 11, indicating a lower rate of compassion fatigue or secondary trauma in response to our work.”

Second Place: Bayaud Enterprises

Bayaud’s mission is to provide Hope, Opportunity and Choice, with work as the means through which people with disabilities and other barriers to employment can more fully participate in the mainstream of life.

Innovative and effective approaches to promoting mental health:

  • “In our commitment to mental health, Bayaud has carved out money in an already tight budget to provide weekly life skills and support groups lead by a therapist. In addition, Bayaud will sponsor one on one mental health counseling for those in urgent need. Counseling services are provided through a partnership with Mindful Therapy. Bayaud is currently seeking funding to support expansion of “in-house” mental health services. Time off and schedule changes are accommodated as necessary to access mental health treatment, including extended absences from work, as required.”
  • “Staff meetings end with time dedicated to ‘Taking Care of Self’ where staff members discuss their stress levels and what they have planned to balance their stress. In addition to everyday supports and openness regarding mental health, Bayaud has also started a Healthy Families Program that provides information weekly regarding various Health and Wellness topics. Topics discussed are broken into four quarters of the calendar year to include Mental Health Awareness, Healthy Eating and Exercise, Disease Prevention, and Financial Health.”
  • “Financial struggles can also add to the stress of everyday living so Bayaud has partnered with AmeriCorps to provide onsite financial counseling services, education and free income tax services. Bayaud has also started an official Toastmaster’s group to promote confidence and the ability to give/receive criticism appropriately.”

OUTCOME: Turnover rate is less than 5%.


Compassion and Choices improves care and expands choice at the end of life. We support, educate and advocate.

Innovative and effective approaches to promoting mental health:

  • Employees are also encouraged to recognize the contribution of other employees by anonymously placing the employee’s name and accomplishment or kudos on a card and putting it in a lock box. Each month these cards are read at an all-staff meeting and all named employees get to choose from a selection of $10 gift cards as a reward.
  • Belongingness encouraged through regular staff lunches and project partnership
  • Special events such as “Pimp Your Patio” – “we happen to be in an office complex that has balconies and employee teams are put together to see who can create the most outrageous patio display.”

OUTCOMES: “High laughter and low turnover”




Saturday, July 17, 2010

Lights in the Darkness and the Symbol of our Star

Just weeks after my brother died in 2004, our family and his friends from across his lifespan started holding conference calls as we brainstormed our vision for the Carson J Spencer Foundation. The calls were as therapeutic as they were productive. While all of those participating loved him, not all of the friends knew each other at the beginning of our planning since they were acquainted with my brother at difference ages and places in his life. As we shared stories and ideas, we came together in our grief and our shared mission.

One of the early tasks of the group was to come up with a logo for the organization. Because Carson was such a prominent business man in Denver, the Rocky Mountain News, one of Denver’s main papers, interviewed several family members for a featured obituary following his death. The article closed with a quote from Carson’s mother-in-law, “he was a star who shone so brightly that he just burned out too quickly."

[Photo courtesy of BM01 via Flickr]

Indeed, my brother was a star in many ways. A shooting star who rose quickly as an entrepreneur in his industry and gained the admiration of many. He also had the ability to light up any room with his charming smile and pee-in-your-pants humor. His spirit was brilliant. And when stars die, their light shines on in the darkness.

One Yale professor once speculated, “…starlight, traveling in space forever, could be interpreted as an expression of immortality….long after stars have ‘died,’ photons of their energy – i.e., their light – continue to exist….It has been said that humans are made of the same stuff as stars – and we share the same energies.” --Schwartz, Garry (2002). The Afterlife Experiments. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc.
We wanted the Carson J Spencer Foundation to be the light of his legacy, carrying on his goodness and his spirit. Carson’s expressed legacy before he died was to help young emerging entrepreneurs get to college, so we started the Rising Star Scholarship to honor that wish. As we also acknowledged his gift of helping others and our desire to prevent what happened to him from happening to others, we began a number of programs in a social entrepreneurial spirit that are designed to prevent suicide, promote mental health, and assist those bereaved in our community. His light shines on.

The idea of stars in the dark is also the message we are trying to extend to those suffering in silence. Many have told me that being depressed feels like being trapped in a dark place with no way out. Loving, caring people can provide those inspiring points of light in the dark by offering connection and support as they hold the hope for the hopeless. Sometimes, those who are suffering can’t feel the warmth of the glow of these supporters initially, but they can be reassured by their presence and the realization that others care.

For these reasons, we have called our annual gala “Shining Lights of Hope” and we aim to recognize those individuals and organizations in our community who support the work of suicide prevention and provide compassionate assistance to those in pain. Each year we award those who have stood above the others as stars. The “Shining Lights of Hope” award goes to an individual or group that has been bereaved by suicide or who has experienced a mental health crisis and has turned that suffering into a passion to make a difference. The “Shooting Star” award goes to a organization that has selflessly gone out of their way to help our cause. Our “Volunteer of the Year” award celebrates the volunteer who has contributed significantly to moving us forward, and of course, our “Rising Star Scholar” is our chosen high school entrepreneur who receives our scholarship to help with four years of college tuition.

It’s been five years since Carson’s death, and many of us still feel the pain of his loss on a daily basis. We are comforted in part, knowing that we are living in the light of his legacy and that we are bringing forward a galaxy of stars who shine their light in the darkness for others.

…and lights shine on.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Working Minds Contest -- Celebrating Mentally Healthy Workplaces in Colorado

With so much focus on toxic workplaces and the stress of the economy on the employee, the Carson J Spencer Foundation decided to do something a little bit different: focus on the workplaces that are getting it right. While we know many workplaces are suffering under intense pressure resulting in bullying, depression, and dissatisfaction among the ranks, other workplaces have found ways to not only survive this rough spot, but to help their staff thrive. In recognition of this, the Carson J Spencer Foundation is hosting a contest to acknowledge mentally healthy workplaces, application due date is July 22, 2010.


  • Must be a Colorado workplace (nonprofit, for-profit or governmental)
  • Innovative and effective approaches that promote mental health at work
    • New and creative methods
    • Positive outcomes
Contest Guidelines: Submit 500-word essay that answers the question: How is mental health promoted at your workplace? What do you do and how do you know that the strategies are effective (case studies and statistics are both welcome as evidence)? Consider the following questions:
  • How do you educate your workforce about mental health as part of overall wellness?
  • What are the practices and policies that minimize distress at work?
  • How does the workplace support those who are experiencing mental illness, trauma or bereavement?
  • How does the workplace promotes a sense of purpose and belonging?
First, second and third place awards given. Recognition at our Shining Lights of Hope Benefit Auction Evening on August 28th at LeMay Auto Museum. Awards include: complementary seats at our event, one year membership to the Working Mind Network, a free Working Minds Toolkit and training, and recognition as a "mentally healthy workplace" in local media outlets and on the Working Minds website.

Applications should be sent electronically to Sally Spencer-Thomas: Sally@CarsonJSpencer.org. For more information or to get an application call 720-244-6535.


Friday, June 25, 2010

Working Minds: Gaining Momentum for Suicide Prevention in the Workplace

“The workplace is the last crucible of sustained human contact for many of the 30,000 people who kill themselves each year in the U.S. A co-worker’s suicide has a deep, disturbing impact on work mates. For managers, such tragedies pose challenges no one covered in management school.”

Shellenbarger – Wall Street Journal
In the suicide prevention field a gap exists: the majority of people who die by suicide are men of working age, and yet very little prevention work is targeting this demographic. While 85% of middle managers believe part of their responsibility is to identify and help employees with depression, only 18% of those managers had received training that would prepare them to do so. Since we noticed this gap, the Carson J Spencer Foundation has been on a mission, and in 2010 our vision is quickly gaining momentum.

When we formed the Carson J Spencer Foundation in 2005, our goals were two-fold, to honor the life of the man who was the foundation’s namesake and to help prevent others from going through the unimaginable mental anguish he faced as he battled a mental illness that ultimately proved fatal. When we spent 18 months or so examining the needs of the field and our unique position to fulfill them, we discovered a much-needed niche to be filled: suicide prevention in the workplace. We then spent the next couple of years developing the “Working Minds” program – a multifaceted suicide prevention program for employers. And now, as we face our 5th year anniversary, the program is gaining momentum at every turn.

The goals of the Working Minds program are three-fold:
  1. to increase awareness that suicide is a public health issue that is preventable and that workplaces have a responsibility to respond and a vested interest in prevention and mental health promotion
  2. to increase skills related to suicide prevention, intervention and postvention in the workplace
  3. to offer models of recovery at the individual level and mental health promotion at the organizational level
The program components include an interactive website (www.WorkingMinds.org), a toolkit for managers, and a network of organizations that are focused on promoting mental health at work. The Working Minds Toolkit, a cornerstone of the program, offers employers an off-the-shelf curriculum to begin to change the conversation workplaces are having about mental health and suicide. The toolkit, published in November 2009, is available on Amazon and through the Working Minds website.

In 2010, we continue to see the momentum for the Working Minds Program build:
  • The Anschutz Family Foundation funds the Working Minds Program implementation among organizations that serve homeless populations.
  • Mountain States Employer’s Council, the go-to organization for HR training in the Rocky Mountain Region, agrees to offer Working Minds training to its members
  • The Working Minds Toolkit is accepted to the Best Practice Registry after being reviewed by national experts who determine that it adheres to standards of care
  • Presentations are made at the Navy’s Suicide Prevention Conference and other national and regional conferences touching leaders in the military, risk management and suicide prevention fields.
With the increasing strain of economic hardship and the challenges of reintegrating returning military from active combat into a civilian workforce, mental health concerns will continue to confront employers in many ways. The Working Minds Toolkit helps give them skills to proactively address these problems rather than just react to them.

How is your company promoting mental health and preventing suicide?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

How to Organize an Inspiring, Engaging and Informative Suicide Awareness and Prevention Week

The poet Robert Ingersoll once said,
“In the night of death, hope sees a star. And listening love can hear the rustle of a wing.”

How can we create hope on our campuses, when many students are suffering in silence?

Many campuses conduct a number of awareness weeks during the year, and as the mental health concerns at our colleges and university increase, many more are participating in the National Suicide Awareness and Prevention Week. Nationally this week is recognized during the second week in September while World Suicide Prevention Day is September 10th -- but really, this week can be scheduled at any time that works for your campus.

...and the time to start planning is now!

Awareness weeks are great for creating energy and for sharing information, but if you never do anything else for suicide prevention all year, you will not create significant and lasting change on your campus. Think about your Suicide Awareness and Prevention Week as a tool to gain momentum to help implement other strategies that will offer a comprehensive approach. The Suicide Prevention Resource Center offers a model that can help you figure out where to start.

[MODEL adapted from SPRC/JED Comprehensive Approach to Suicide Prevention]

In the following 15-minute podcast, I offer the: who, what, when, where, why, how and how much suggestions on how to organize an inspiring, engaging and informative Suicide Awareness and Prevention Week.

What have you done on your campus for Suicide Awareness and Prevention Week? Please share your successful programs.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Daddy Whisperers: Why Dads Need their Kids

The Daddy Whisperers: Why Dads Need their Kids

“Michael” hunched over his paper – partly showing me his responses and partly hiding them. I could see the words “crying, mad, sad” scribbled on the lines where he should’ve been writing the reasons why he loved his Dad. This second grader was participating in a new project called The Daddy Whisperers developed by the Carson J Spencer Foundation (CJSF). The mission of the project is to help protect fathers from feeling isolation and distress by strengthening the bond they have with their kids.

One of the things I learned through my research with men who had been suicidal, but who are now doing well, is the protective power of the fathers’ relationship with their children. Some of these men credited their children for “saving their lives” – whether it was the responsibility Dads felt for their kids or the concern they had about the legacy they would leave should they die by suicide, children factored into the Dads’ decision making process. Because of this, the CJSF staff spent a full day at a local elementary school, working with preschoolers to sixth graders and helping them communicate why they felt their Dad (or other father figure) was special.

We set out to create a Father’s Day project to bolster this bond. Because Mother’s Day falls within the school year, Mothers often receive special school-supported projects that honor motherhood, but fathers, whose special day falls in June, often do not. We adapted the model of PostSecret, a hugely successful viral on-line network where people share their secrets by communicating them in the form of an artistic postcard. For our project, we asked kids to share with us the secret reasons they love their Dads – things they think are really special about their Dad that maybe their Dad doesn’t know about.

So, I asked Michael why he was writing the words “crying, mad, sad” on his Daddy Whisperers worksheet and he told me, “My parents are getting a divorce, and they are not getting along. I see yellow trucks everywhere, and I wonder if they are my Dad coming to see me.”

I told him, “Your parents might not be getting along, but you can still love your Dad. Why don’t you start by drawing a yellow truck?”

Fifteen minutes later he brought his postcard to me. On it was a yellow pick up with a smiling boy in the back. “Can you help me write the words?” he asked.

“You bet,” I said. “What is it you want to say to your Dad?”

“Please write, ‘I love my Dad because he lets me play with him, he is the Wolf Den leader, and I like hanging out with him a lot.’”

I wrote down his messages and patted him on the back, “Good work,” I said.

He nodded and walked away smiling and my heart swelled. I hope his Dad can cherish this too.

To follow additional discoveries from our Daddy Whisperers Project, please follow: http://thedaddywhisperers.blogspot.com/

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Bridging the Divide – Suicide Awareness and Prevention Summit

What is it about the Mountain and Desert regions of the U.S.? Why do our states consistently trade off for top-ten spots of states having the highest suicide rates in the country (minus Alaska)? How can it be that in such beautiful, majestic country, so many people are fighting with such strong urges to die?

About 200 people came together this past week to try to figure it out at the 3rd Annual Bridging the Divide Suicide Awareness and Prevention Summit. Colorado State University hosted this event featuring a diverse selection of five plenary sessions and 18 breakout workshops – topics ranged from:

the Myths about Suicide (Thomas Joiner) to

how pets provide grief support (Linn-Gust) to

• strategies to dovetail fall prevention for older adults with suicide prevention (Guard).

Formats varied from Nancy Rappaport’s dramatic reading of her memoir “In Her Wake” to a panel of five people who turned their tragic struggle with the impact of suicide into passionate advocacy.

As this conference grows in scope and depth, there is evidence that we are changing the course of the devastating trend of suicide loss in our part of the country. As I mentioned in my remarks during the event, we are moving toward a tipping point of change. Change doesn’t happen in a steady fashion; rather it builds slowly and then shifts in an instant. Eco psychologist Joanna Macy equated the change to water becoming ice: “Before the water turns to ice, it looks just the same as before. Then a few crystals form, and suddenly the whole system undergoes cataclysmic change.”

From Net Efekt

Can you feel the crystals forming?


What do you think will help us change the high rates of suicide in our Western regions?

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Suicide Prevention in Colorado – Together We Are Better

When suicide makes the news, many of us cringe because the coverage – often sensationalized and overly simplistic – can increase the risk that vulnerable people may act on suicidal thoughts as a result.

Today was different.

Today was a milestone day for the suicide prevention movement in Colorado – our story made the front page of the Denver Post’s Sunday edition, complete with pictures and graphs that demonstrated both the deep need in our state and the exceptional efforts being made to save lives.

Like many of the Rocky Mountain states, Colorado’s suicide rate continues to be high despite the dedicated efforts of many suicide prevention organizations. Kevin Simpson, the Denver Post reporter, spent more than a month collecting information for this article. In this article he highlights the fact that while many are fighting this war against suicide, our resources are continually stripped, making this challenging work even more difficult. By interviewing so many of us who consider ourselves foot soldiers in this battle, he did another important thing – he helped to show how our field is becoming united in our efforts.

As competition for scarce resources increases the risk for internal conflict, suicide prevention groups in Colorado are finding creative ways to collaborate because we know that “together we are better.”

In many ways, Colorado is seen as a leading state in the effort of suicide prevention. Thanks to pioneers like Deanna Rice and others who testified before the state legislature in the 1990s and helped create our Office of Suicide Prevention, we became one of the first states to have an official state strategy for suicide prevention. Other pioneers like LaRita Archibald (founder of HEARTBEAT support groups) and Vivian Epstein (founder of Parents Surviving Suicide) started support groups for families bereaved by suicide long before most people realized the unique challenges of suicide grief. Hotline support has evolved through the steadfast dedication of Eleanor Hamm and others out of our crisis center for decades. And of course, there is the far-reaching work of the Emme family and the Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program, whose message lets youth know that “it’s okay to ask for help.”

More recently, we have seen the explosion of the incredibly effective work of Jeff Lamontagne and The Second Wind Fund, who are helping uninsured and underinsured youth at-risk for suicide link to qualified help. Sheila Linwood in Mesa County, Ronna Autrey in Routt County, Dana Lindsay in Larimer County, Nancy Harris in Otero County, Susan Marine in Boulder County and many more – are all finding ways to learn from each other to save lives in Colorado.

"Long's Peak from North, Rocky Mountain National Park," Colorado.
From: U.S. National Archives’ Local Identifier: 79-AA-M16
Photographer: Adams, Ansel, 1902-1984

The reorganization of the Suicide Prevention Coalition of Colorado is another piece of evidence of our pulling together. Knowing that our rural communities need as much (perhaps even more) support than the Denver metro efforts, we now use audio and video conferencing technology to engage communities statewide. When we have better knowledge of the strengths of each organization we are much less likely to duplicate efforts.

The 3rd annual Bridging the Divide Suicide Awareness and Prevention Summit (May 20 & 21, 2010 at Colorado State University) is still another example of successful collaboration. For this conference, clinicians, researchers, advocates and those impacted by suicide share knowledge and resources.

The impact of suicide often remains hidden to the world. The fact that we have such few resources to deal with this profound public health tragedy is a moral outrage. Kevin’s article helped shed some light on the deep need in our state and the potential for a different future.

Help those in a position of creating change pay attention – spread the word.


Please take a moment to thank Kevin for his coverage by writing him a note: ksimpson@denverpost.com

To join the Suicide Prevention Coalition of Colorado – CLICK HERE

To register for the “Bridging the Divide Suicide Prevention Summit” – CLICK HERE

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Reflections on the Family of Suicidologists

When I arrived at my hotel on Tuesday evening, I was weary from a long flight from Denver to Orlando and looking forward to a quiet restful evening. No sooner did I drag my bags through the rotating doors when I was greeted by a half dozen other weary travelers with big smiles and warm hugs. I said, “I guess I am in the right place.”

Photo by edanley

You see, about 1,000 of us suicidologists traveled across the country, some as far away as Australia to come together for the annual American Association of Suicidologists’ conference. Even though most of us only see each other once a year, we are like a tightly knit extended family. In fact, it was difficult to get to all of our sessions in time because inevitably we would cross paths with at least two or three old friends every time we moved from room to room and the hugging and chatting would delay our arrival.

What makes this conference so special to me is that everyone works together. We have researchers working alongside clinicians. Families bereaved by suicide loss and suicide attempt survivors are working alongside those advocating for public policy change. People working for the military are listening to what is happening on our college campuses. We have support and compassion for people who have just recently lost a loved one to suicide, and we honor those who have dedicated their lives to the cause. Brilliant thinkers listen intently to understand so they can ask better research questions and understanding their findings. Passionate advocates and counselors soak up best practices to improve their efforts. And at the end of the day, we get together over a couple of beers and laugh.

Another reason this field inspires me is that we are a dedicated and scrappy group. With fire in our bellies we continue to try to figure out one of the most tragic human experiences. And we don’t give up. When funding gets cut, we get ultra-resourceful. When the media turn away from the good stories we have to tell, we keep knocking on the door. We are able to persist through hardship because of our unwavering commitment to saving lives and because of the support we get from one another. Even though we are in tough economic times, our association’s growth continues.

Highlights on the conference include:

• Asking two of my friends to sign books they had written that were just published within the last month (Thomas Joiner, The Myths of Suicide and Michelle Linn-Gust Rocky Roads: The Journeys of Families through Suicide Grief)

• Seeing the Clinician-Survivor task force take off – integrating the divisions of research, bereavement and clinical practice to open the conversation of how mental health service providers cope with the impact of suicide loss, personally and professionally

• Presenting with colleagues on topics we care about such as:

o Reaching men at risk for suicide who don’t seek help

o Assimilating the benefits of spirituality into suicide prevention, intervention and Postvention

o Looking at the challenges and opportunities of working in systems like college campuses, workplaces and the military

o Helping those bereaved by suicide become “survivors in action”

[Picture is of the memory quilt made in honor of my brother Carson Spencer (1969-2004)]

On our last evening of the conference, those who had lost loved ones to suicide gathered in a circle in reflection. Memory quilts lined the walls around us as we “lit” battery powered candles (the hotel was afraid of the fire hazard of lighting real ones) and Iris Bolton led us in a ritual where we said the names of our loved ones out loud. We cried, held hands and were witness to each other’s grief. Never forget. Never give up. See you next year.


If you were at this conference with me over the last five days – please share your highlights in the comment box.

If you want to learn more about joining the American Association of Suicidology: CLICK HERE

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Peak Payoffs of Persistence

Last night was one of those nights when my taste buds far outpaced my stomach. Randy and I were celebrating 15 years of marriage in glorious Estes Park, Colorado when we found ourselves in Mary's Lake Lodge where ever y dish was more magnificent than the one before. Gorging on hearty homemade, multi-grain bread, succulent crab cakes, and savory seafood stew, I found I had no room left for even a chocolate covered strawberry. And now, the morning after, we faced a bad food hangover. Our distended bellies kept us up all night and threatened to ruin our plans for a great day of hiking up Lily Mountain. As we lay in a way-too-comfortable bed, we faced our first decision of the day: to give into the consequences of our poor choices and roll back into our food-induced coma, or to start the day anew and get the blood flowing again. Like all things that first appear like an insurmountable challenge, the most important task is just the commitment to give it a go – we put the feet on the floor and started moving.

As the glorious Colorado sunshine beckoned us outside, we packed up our wiry mutt Apache and started out to the trailhead. April hiking at 9,000 feet above sea level can be a little unpredictable – warm air temperatures don’t necessarily mean you won’t be fighting snow and ice the whole way up the mountain. The climb wasn’t epic – just an afternoon jaunt up a decent piece of vertical, but with the slush, we found ourselves sliding back a food for every two we advanced.

At high altitudes, fatigue comes quickly, and soon the burning quad muscles and labored breathing reminded us how hard we were working. We passed another couple who had pulled off to the side of the trail. The less than ideal conditions had defeated them and they were refueling before heading back down.

“One foot and then another.” I reminded myself not to get discouraged as my hiking boots sank ankle deep in the slush with every step. Randy, Apache and I lumbered on until we reached a cascade of boulders that required us to scramble up using both hands and feet and lots of concentration.

“This is it!” I thought, “We must be close to the summit. One more push to the top.”

The dog inspired us with his bold leaps up the snowy crevasses, and we followed his lead. Getting good hand holds where we could, we pulled ourselves up one boulder at a time. And then, in an instant, there it was – the breathtaking 180 degree expanse of snow capped peaks breaking through to the stunning cobalt sky. The rush if it all poured over me as I stood on the summit looking at the steep drop of on all sides. The strong heart beats were now sprinkled with exhilaration, and I remembered, “Oh yeah, this is why I do this.”

You don’t get the rush when the journey is easy.

When we can conquer the negative voices that tell us that the million little things that aren’t going are way are going to crush us, the taste of our victory is even sweeter. I closed my eyes and took a big sip of the moment to savor the reward in every cell of my body, so that when I need it I can remind myself later: when I am frustrated by the hassles of daily life, I know there is great payoff in persisting to the peak.

For more about great places to hike in Colorado with dogs: http://www.trails.com/activity.aspx?area=15254

Sally Spencer-Thomas
"Up on the High Wire: Mental Resiliency during Tough Times"
  • Be Bold
  • Belong
  • Be Well
  • Believe

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Suicide Preventon as a Social Justice Issue

A new social movement is emerging, and it’s gaining momentum. As I speak at conferences and on campuses from coast to coast, I find that audiences first tilt their heads with intrigue and then nod with enthusiasm as I explain what it means to position suicide prevention as a social justice issue.

We can easily understand that suicide is a mental health issue. When authorities report that an estimated 90% of people who die by suicide suffer from some diagnosable mental illness or substance abuse condition, we can clearly see the link between the two. However, if we only view suicide through the mental health lens, we will be very limited in our ability to create systematic change. When we look at suicide prevention through this lens, the change agents are the mental health service providers, who work with individuals who are suffering; one on one, one at a time.

In order to take a more “upstream” approach to this, we need to think more broadly and conceptualize suicide prevention as a public health issue. When we view suicide through this lens, we can plainly see that many systems are involved in creating change – schools, workplaces, healthcare systems, justice, faith communities and more. Everyone can play a role in suicide prevention. We can also learn to appreciate that change begins through an emphasis on bolstering protective factors like social connections and resilience as much as it does on medication and treatment.

But, I would argue, even this perspective falls short. Because if you haven’t been touched by suicide directly, you are usually unaware of its widespread and devastating impact and therefore, less inclined to allocate your energy toward targeting this particular health issue over others. What is needed is a social justice approach to suicide prevention. We can take notes from the breast cancer movement that has modeled for us how to create a tipping point of change by bringing the strength of community solidarity to engage a wider circle. Breast cancer survivors are bolstered by others who cheer their courage and stand with them through their struggle. Those who have lost their battle to breast cancer are remembered with honor. Many who have not been touched by the impact of breast cancer are moved by the energy of the large walks and moving testimonies of healing and recovery and want to know how they can help.

So what are the aspects of injustice we need to fight against? For one, we have a grave imbalance in the way we treat mental health conditions and the way we treat other physical disorders. Because of this imbalance, people with mental health conditions often have a terrible time accessing adequate care. There are too few mental health treatment options and most of them are too costly for the average person. As my colleague Dr. Doug Johnson once said to me, “We have a psycho-social injustice problem. We have Americanized mental illness – by looking for quick fixes and ignoring the emotional impact of marginalization.”

In addition, we have developed dysfunctional narratives in our country about mental health conditions that get reinforced in careless media reports and lead to further isolation and hopelessness. People are genuinely afraid to reach out to get the help they need to survive – if that is not a social justice issue, I do not know what is.

For more information about how we all can get involved:
http://www.peoplepreventsuicide.org/ -- a clearinghouse of resources for college campuses
http://www.workingminds.org/ -- suicide prevention for the workplace
http://www.carsonjspencer.org/ -- sustaining a passion for life through suicide prevention, social enterprise and support for emerging leaders

NOTE: Balloon picture is from a recent "Out of Darkness Walk" in Denver, Colorado. Hundreds of people gathered together in solidarity to honor loved ones lost to suicide (remembering each with a balloon released in silence) and walked to raise money for suicide prevention.