Monday, April 29, 2013

Marathoning is about Resilience: “A Tough Blow – A Tougher Town” – Tougher Sport

By: Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas

As an avid marathoner and a former Bostonian, I found myself like so many around the world crushed by the news of the devastating events of the Boston Marathon bombing this week. I spent countless hours going through news websites and listening to NPR trying to get my mind to comprehend what happened.
Although I am thousands of miles away, I can see it. I will never be able to achieve a qualifying time for this premiere race, but I can imagine what it might have felt like to be a 4:09 finisher. To see the finish line and anticipate the cheers and hugs from family and friends – all you can think about is crossing that threshold. I have an eight-year-old boy, the same age as Martin Richard, one of three people killed in the blasts. I can imagine looking for him and my other sons and husband in the crowd. I can feel the confusion of the thousands of runners who were told to stop in the middle of a race that many of them had probably prepared for over months or years. I can remember the celebration of a city and state so proud of this iconic event they actually take a holiday so everyone can take part.
As the events unfolded, I read an outpouring of tweets from the international marathon community, stunned and disturbed by the news, as the images of the worlds’ flags blowing from the blast were seared into our consciousness.
The next morning I poured through the Boston Globe, I was reminded about the special bond between runner and spectator. Very few other sports let spectators touch or feed the athletes during the competition. Spectators, with their cow bells and goofy signs, often provide the energy that lifts the runner through the difficult parts of the race. And yet, at this tragedy, it was the spectators that suffered the most damage.
So tragic, so senseless all of this. And yet, “in the night of death, hope sees a star and listening love can hear the rustle of a wing” (Robert Ingersall). What we all saw and read that day and since gives me great hope about our humanity:
·         the first responders and medical teams who signed up for the event thinking they would be handling traffic, dehydration and blisters who then found themselves in the middle of a war zone and just did what needed to be done
·         the residents who took so many stranded runners into their homes and gave them comfort and a way to connect with their families
·         the runners themselves, some of whom gave blood after running an exhausting race
·         the Bostonians who refused to let this stop their city. As Scot Lehigh of the Boston Globe stated in his editorial, “…We won’t be paralyzed by fear. We’ll take reasonable precautions, yes. But we won’t take cover. And we won’t cower. This, after all, is Boston.”
The Boston Marathon will continue to be the iconic event for runners and spectators everywhere. Boston will continue to pull together, recover and thrive. It may have been a tough blow, but as Lehigh said, “it’s a tougher town” with a tougher sport that won’t be brought down.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Creating Resilient Communities

Republished with permission from CJSF Guest Blogger Jess Stohlmann

Resilience is the ability to succeed and prosper even after facing challenges, setbacks, and hardships. It is supported by a set of skills that can be developed. In the fields of character education, psychology, etc., we look at individuals’ capacity to be resilient. While the Carson J Spencer Foundation celebrates its core value of resilience this month, I would like to shift the scope to start considering what it means to build resilient communities.
Resilience is contagious and has the power to transform communities, as well as the lived experiences of their members. Community resiliency is deeply rooted in community trust, connectedness, respect and cooperation, which in turn help communities thrive. For a community to be resilient, it needs to do three big things: prepare for crisis, plan for the best, and mobilize social capital.
Preparing for crisis means that a community looks at risk factors and builds the capacity to prevent crises and intervene when they occur. This would include things like having the budget and infrastructure to respond to community needs, and finding highly qualified people to deliver prevention and intervention services. This capacity should be created with the help of all relevant for profit, for impact, and government agencies. Getting everyone involved in prevention and intervention creates a system of checks and balances, and ensures that when hard times come (as we know they will) there is a web of support in place.
Planning for the best is my way of saying, “Be optimistic.” Opportunities are missed every day because communities aren’t looking for them or aren’t prepared for them. Taking an optimistic approach and being open to innovations and opportunities that could have a positive impact on the well-being of a community and its members allows for amazing, unexpected happenings to occur. Planning for the best means taking calculated risks, and trusting that we are prepared to handle the outcomes. Growth and progress are instigated by the process of planning for the best. When we evaluate and take risks, we open the doors to a bigger, brighter future than we could have imagined before. Creating a culture of planning for the best ensures new successes and opportunities for the community.
Mobilizing social capital is the practice of identifying the successful organizations and approaches to work and lifestyle, and finding ways to grow them and replicate their success. Finding ways to expand the positive attributes of our community only builds greater networks of support and opportunities for growth and success.
These three strategies for building resilient communities poise us for success and prosperity even in times of hardship. Creating a connected, synchronized plan to build resilience allows communities to respond to the needs of each individual and group, and to be successful together.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Suicide Risk and Children with Disabilties

By: Sally Spencer-Thomas
Written Originally on March 22, 2013

This morning I was interviewed by the Mary and Melissa Show, a call-in advocacy radio talk show led by two mothers living in the Nation's Capital who share the hurdles of raising kids with disabilities.

Before I launch into this difficult topic, I want to emphasize that people with disabilities who are supported and celebrated for who they are will have a high likelihood of successful and happy lives and rarely, if ever have problems with suicidal behavior.  For many people with disabilities, the suicidal thoughts are less about the direct consequence of the disability and much more about the negative social expectations, exclusion, and bullying that can result from the misunderstanding rampant in our society.[1] So while I may be presenting some information today that is concerning for parents about the safety of their children, I want to reassure them that there is a lot we can do to build protective factors for kids and prevent the escalation of despair by knowing what to look for and what to do when warning signs emerge.

That said, here are some concerning statistics on the topic of disability and suicide:

·         Teens with a learning disability such as dyslexia are ten times as likely to die by suicide as someone without a learning difficulty.  One study from Canada examined the suicide notes left by 267 teens, and an alarming 89% of the notes had spelling and grammatical errors indicative of learning disabilities.[2]

·         Childhood ADHD can linger into adulthood and suicide may become a concern. In a recent study cited reported by CNN, 200 adults who had ADHD as children tracked for mental health challenges. A stunning 57% had some type of psychiatric disorder (alcohol abuse, anxiety, depression) and were 5 times more likely to die by suicide. The reporter concluded that people with ADHD don’t tend to grow out of it and a combination of depression and impulsivity for an ADHD adult can have deadly consequences.[3]

·         A recent report on Disability Scoop that shared that children with autism were 28th times more likely than typically developing kids to contemplate or attempt suicide. Those who were bullied, male, black or Hispanic, age 10 or older and those with lower socioeconomic status appeared to be at highest risk.[4]

What can parents of children with disabilities do? As a mother of a teen with severe dyslexia and as someone who lost her brother to suicide after his struggle with bipolar disorder, I am very concerned about this connection. Fortunately, I feel confident that there are things we can do to be effective advocates for and supporters of our kids to help them flourish and thrive while managing the challenges they endure.

·         Challenge the social barriers. Our first step in this process is to overcome the social barriers to this difficult topic. Knowing that social barriers also exist for issues related to living with disabilities, we have a double-duty piece of work cut out for us. For the issue of suicide, there are many misperceptions we can work toward dismantling with effective dissemination of stories and science. When we share powerful stories of hope and resilience, we let others know that suicidal behavior and struggles with disability ebb and flow and that people who experience these life challenges have much more in common with others than they do have a difference. These stories help people create roadmaps for recovery and coping and are critical in shifting the misperceptions that can lead to marginalization. The second strategy is science. We need to present solid, credible data that helps shape the case for understanding that disability and mental illness concerns are not about moral failings, but about complex social, psychological and biological functioning that can be affected with treatment, accommodation, and coping.

·         Know the model of suicide risk and suicide warning signs. If I am going to recommend one book for people interested in learning more about suicide risk, I encourage them to read Thomas Joiner’s Why People Die By Suicide (2005, Harvard University Press). In this theory, Joiner says that those who kill themselves not only have a desire to die, they have learned to overcome the instinct for self-preservation. That is, wanting death, according to Joiner, is composed of two psychological experiences: a perception of being a burden to others (perceived burdensomeness) and social disconnection to something larger than oneself (thwarted belongingness). By themselves, however, neither of these states is enough to move a person to act on the desire for death, but together with an acquired capacity (or fearlessness) they result in a high-risk state for suicide. Acquired capacity can come in the form of innate temperament (risk-taking/impulsivity), learned conditioning from provocative and painful experiences, or access to and knowledge of lethal means. Understanding this model can help parents look for themes in communication and patterns of behavior with their children.

Additionally, parents should be aware of the expert consensus  guidelines for suicide warning signs (summed here with the mnemonic IS PATH WARM):

I               Ideation (suicidal thoughts)
S              Substance Abuse
P             Purposelessness
A             Anxiety
T              Trapped
H             Hopelessness
W           Withdrawal
A             Anger
R             Recklessness
M            Mood Change

For more on this mnemonic go here.

·         Screening and surveillance for suicidal behavior. Training and screening tools are important weapons in the fight against suicide. Parents, teachers, and others who come into contact with youth can quickly learn the warning signs of suicide and how best to link others to care by going through national best practice “suicide prevention gatekeeper trainings,” like QPR (stands for Question, Persuade, Refer). Within one to two hours, lay people can be given the basic skills on what to look for, how to ask the difficult “suicide question,” and how to refer people to qualified mental health and crisis services (see below). Screening tools like those supplied by Mental Health Screening can help parents, educators and primary care physicians quickly assess risk for any number of mental health conditions.

·         Link children to qualified mental health and crisis support when warning signs are identified. Identifying youth at risk is the first step in the chain of survival; linking them to care is the next. Those at risk for suicide and the people who support them need to have quick access to qualified services. Two of the best resources I am aware of are:
o   National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – a free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
§  1-800-273-TALK (8255)
o   HelpPro -- HelpPRO, the oldest, most comprehensive Therapist Finder, to help people find qualified suicide intervention mental health professionals

So in conclusion, I have observed tremendous passion in both the disability advocate world and the suicide prevention world. Both fields are fraught with marginalization and misunderstanding, and in both, there is a lot of hope fueled by tireless family and friends and people living with these conditions and experiences. I say, let’s pull together and unite in our effort to be heard, be understood, and create change so that people can get back into a “passion for living.”

About the Author
Sally Spencer-Thomas, Psy.D., is CEO and co-founder of the Carson J Spencer Foundation, a Colorado-based nonprofit established after the suicide of her brother. The foundation is known for “sustaining a passion for living” by developing innovative and effective approaches to suicide prevention among working aged people, coaching youth social entrepreneurs to be the next generation of suicide prevention advocates, and supporting people bereaved by suicide.Visit for more information.

[1] Disability and Suicide: The Social Factors that Put People with Disabilities at Risk (2/28/2013 by Amanda Lunday)
[3] March 4, 2013: ADHD may continue in adulthood, lead to another psychiatric disorder – Elizabeth Cohen reports
[4] Michelle Diament (2013, March 12). Kids with autism face increased suicide risk.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Social Enterprise and Suicide Prevention

Re-published with permission from original author: Jess Stohlmann

Since I started my job, I have found myself spending a lot of time explaining what I do to other people. I can never decide whether to say I teach suicide prevention classes or that I teach social enterprise first.
If I start with suicide prevention, the response is generally something like this: “Oh my gosh, your job must be so hard!” Then I am left trying to decide how much explanation I feel like giving about my work. If I decide to be brief, I will say something like this:
“Actually, I love my job! It is really uplifting and inspiring. I am in the PREvention field. Most of the time when we talk about suicide, we talk about INTERvention or POSTvention. Postvention is providing support to the bereaved and survivors of suicide. The best example of intervention would be hotline types of services. They are the people who help protect someone who is suicidal while they are actually feeling suicidal, not really before. I do the WAY before work. My work is focused on empowering young people to be resilient and helping them sustain a passion for life.”
Yes – that is the short version. I think that the “job-must-be-so-hard” response is really indicative of a big problem with the way people view suicide in the States, and particularly in Colorado (sometime I will get into how rugged individualism works against communities out here, but not today). The problem is that we view suicide itself as a problem, and usually a problem that is sort of inexplicable and unstoppable. Usually, suicide is seen by a suicidal person as a solution to set of other problems that seem insoluble. It makes sense that we, as a community, want to feel this way. We almost never talk about suicide except in the wake of tragedy, and when a tragedy has occurred we want to do everything we can to make sure that the bereaved people do not feel responsible for the death of a loved one. But when it comes down to it, most of the time suicide is preventable, and we should be treating it like any other public health issue. In my ideal world, we would treat suicide the same way we treat something like breast cancer. It would be something that people wouldn’t be scared to talk about – they would even wear gear and go for runs to support research to help prevent and treat it. Families who had lost someone to suicide wouldn’t feel responsible for the death of a loved one, even if there were signs and symptoms that they could have recognized if they knew what they were. Mental health screenings would be as common and “normal” as breast exams. I believe suicide is not only a public health issue, but a social justice issue – all people should be able to access the help they need to survive; no one should be dying from a treatable, preventable problem.

If I start with social enterprise, people generally give me a blank stare and try to move on. Because I believe that social enterprise is going to save the world, I feel the need to subject everyone that doesn’t know about it to one of my “why-social-enterprise-is-so-great” rants. They go something like this:

Social enterprise is the place where for profit practices meet nonprofit principles. They find a way to make money while solving social problems. You have probably heard of the Women’s Bean Project ( – that is a great example. They break the cycle of poverty by teaching women employment skills. While they are teaching those skills, they are also making a product that they sell. So they are making money and making a difference. Our government doesn’t provide all the services that people need, that is why we have nonprofits. The issue is that nonprofits have a model where money comes in from donors and resources go out to clients; so the services to the clients depend on money being given by others. Social enterprises sort of mix that all up and engage the “clients” in the work of the business. Clients are participants in their own liberation. If you are interested in learning more, you should check out this book, Social Entrepreneurship: What Everyone Needs to Know, by David Bornstein ( Anyway, what I do is teach young people how to start social enterprises that find a root cause of suicide in their communities, and create a product or service they can sell to work to solve that problem. They submit a business plan, we seed fund their businesses, then they make their product and start selling!

So that begins to explain what I do. Every day, I see young people changing themselves and changing the world. Every day, I see youth becoming more resilient, building a passion for life, and learning the skills they will need to run enterprises that I truly believe will save us. And they won’t just save us from suicide; they will save us from every other ailment, from hunger to gender violence, because they will know what it means to be a force for good. They will know that good businesses revolutionize business and change the world for the better, and they will lead us into a brighter future than we ever could have imagined. I am in the business of fostering hope, and they are in the business of making it happen.