Saturday, July 17, 2010

Lights in the Darkness and the Symbol of the 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: 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 (, 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, May 2, 2010

Suicide Prevention in Colorado – Together We Are Better

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:

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 of 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:
  • Reaching men at risk for suicide who don’t seek help
  • Assimilating the benefits of spirituality into suicide prevention, intervention and Postvention 
  • Looking at the challenges and opportunities of working in systems like college campuses, workplaces and the military
  • 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 11, 2010

Suicide Prevention 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: -- a clearinghouse of resources for college campuses -- suicide prevention for the workplace -- 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.