Monday, December 16, 2013

Putting Dignity First for Mental Health

Written and Reposted with permission by Guest Blogger: EDUARDO VEGA

Putting Dignity First

Many variables affect people in their ability to recover from mental illness and manage mental health conditions.  There is not one program, service, support or medication that will work for all, or that will work for many for an extended period of time. Intuitively we know this to be true, although many are still driven by the dream of a ‘silver bullet’, a perfect medication or treatment, or even an ideal array of services that could perfectly match all our communities needs.

We do not know if science will progress to the level of a ‘cure’ or prevention for mental illness— if it is even possible to so radically alter the biogenetic vulnerability factors that predispose some to mental illness as to significantly reduce its prevalence in the world.

We do not know if we can ever be free of the impacts of trauma, stigma, abuse, discrimination, poverty, and violence and all that they contribute to the manifestation of psychiatric symptoms in our communities, and the barriers they represent to recovery.

We do know a few things. We know that some things almost always make a difference to people living with mental health challenges. We know that hope is the greatest fuel for recovery, that without it the best services and supports in the world are futile. We know that people can accomplish almost anything with enough hope, and can achieve almost nothing without it.

But we have not talked enough about dignity in mental health. About its role in connection to recovery and resilience, about its centrality in the nexus of relationships that links every one of us to each other. About dignity as a human right that should be foremost in all our interactions with all people. Or about the many myriad of ways in which systems, public media and individual attitudes work to diminish the dignity of people affected by mental illnesses every day.

Some people grow up with a sense of purpose, with agency and confidence—perhaps because it was inculcated in them by great parents or their culture or faith. Some seem to gain dignity by association with status, position, class or wealth, which perhaps is false in some ways.

Some of us had to learn about dignity from others. Seeing it in their eyes or their actions when faced with insult and adversity.

I learned about dignity from friends struggling to put a few months of sobriety together, from hundreds of people who were homeless, from more than a few newly released convicts, and from the many I’ve known who continue to face down the pain, shame and stigma of mental illness to retain regain whole and meaningful lives.

I also learned about how people seek out dignity, and how they avoid its opposite at a profound and almost reflexive level. How the indignity that went along with things I was ‘giving’ to people ‘in need’ could more detrimental than I anything I could positively ‘provide.’ I learned from people who were in more desperate circumstances than I could ever imagine that honoring their personal dignity was much more important than ‘providing’ them a service.

You don’t have to spend time in a inpatient psychiatric ward to have a sense of how often one’s dignity can be undermined in services. But a few snapshots can help—
  •            You called for help because you were desperate and felt like dying and couldn’t be safe. When help came they pointed guns at you, put you in handcuffs, took you away in the back of the police car while all your neighbors watched.
  •           Perhaps you came in voluntarily, feeling completely anguished or out of control, then a few days later you find your status had been ‘switched’ to involuntary and that the papers you signed meant you had given up your rights to refuse medications you didn’t like.
  •           You’re in your room where there in no privacy from your roommate—multiple times of day staff, nurses, sometimes even students come in unannounced, begin asking you questions, often the same questions you’d already answered several times. 
  •            You go to “art group” in which the art activity consists of large nubby crayons and children’s coloring books even though its is an adult/geriatric ward and the average age is over fifty.
  •            You ask for a pen or pencil so you can write in your journal and are told you can only use them while someone watches you at the nurse’s station— and that they are too busy to do so.
  •            You find that your privileges for phone calls or cigarette breaks were removed because you failed to attend enough ‘groups’
  •            You ask where the policy for restoring privileges is and are informed that this is a ‘staff decision made at rounds’.
  •           You tell your prescriber about the debilitating side effects of the medications your taking. In response she rolls her eyes, saying ‘you’ll get used it’ or ‘nobody has all of those’.

Stigma? -yes. Discrimination? yes— but to most people these things that happen every day are just plain insults to a dignity they may be already struggling to maintain.

If we put Dignity First all these things things that drive people into despair, that magnify the fear shame and self-doubt that so often accompany mental illness, all these can be wiped away.

So people won’t seek death by suicide or painful isolation as more dignified than supports for their recovery.

When we put Dignity First we approach people as deserving and seeking more from us than ‘care’ or services. We recognize people are challenging us to respect them first and then to bolster their opportunities to respect themselves. By listening and engaging with the intention to understand what that would require, we challenge our assumptions and the power relationships inherent in health care that work against people’s dignity. And that, as a result, drive many people away. Putting Dignity First we understand that recovery needs to include recovering from the indignities that they’ve suffered as a result of their symptoms, their situations and the messages they’ve received from others and their society about what it means to have a mental health condition.

In putting Dignity First we know that honesty, hope and sincerity are our best resources for engaging people who so often have lost their dignity. We help by offering resources, skills and services that people want to use, rather than ‘providing’ them with the services we have and rejecting them if those do not fit.

Putting Dignity First is not just a crucial step towards systems in which recovery is realized, it is the mind-set, the approach we must take in relating to individuals with mental health conditions, and in reforming our world into one in which all people live in communities that truly support recovery and mental health for all.

Healing From School Violence

Written and Reposted with permission by Guest Blogger: Jess Stohlmann Rainey

“In every community, there is work to be done. In every nation, there are wounds to heal. In every heart, there is the power to do it.” – Marianne Williamson

Today the staff at the Carson J Spencer Foundation grieves with the faculty, staff, families, and students affected by the tragic events at Arapahoe High School. With the rest of the country, our hearts and minds are turned toward Littleton. Tragedy can make communities and schools feel fractured, as if something has broken and can’t quite be made whole again. By pulling together, offering hope, and focusing on healing, we can begin to collectively mend the injuries tragic events like this cause.

When hope is hard to find, we rely on the strength of the community to hold onto hope for us. As compassionate citizens, we can lend strength to people when they falter, be a shoulder for tears, and look forward to see a light in the darkness. Hope and comfort are most important when they are most elusive. As we begin to heal, lean on each other. Open your arms and your hearts. If you are concerned for someone or concerned for yourself, seek help.

As we cope with this act of violence, there are a few things we can do right now to help us heal (adapted from the Suicide Prevention Lifeline):

  1. Talk about the tragedy. Even if you weren’t directly affected, you may feel anxiety, fear, anger, or deep sadness. If you don’t have someone to confide in, you can call 1-800-273-TALK(8255) any time.
  2. Don’t watch (too much) news. Being immersed in the media’s portrayal of the most difficult parts of this tragedy can be overwhelming.
  3. Take care of yourself. Using positive coping methods will help your body and your mind deal with stress.
  4. Help Others. Promote lifesaving services like the Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) and the Disaster Distress Hotline (1-800-985-5990). Participate in vigils or volunteer in your community.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -

That perches in the soul -

And sings the tune without the words -

And never stops – at all -

-Emily Dickenson

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Innovation Challenge 2013!

Innovation Challenge Brings Bold Ideas to Youth Mental Health
Students across Colorado Join Together in Support of Entrepreneurial Approaches to Suicide Prevention

Littleton, Colorado. December 4, 2013 Over 150 students, teachers, and community business leaders joined together to participate in the 4th Annual Innovation Challenge facilitated by the Carson J Spencer Foundation and hosted at Columbine High School. The Innovation Challenge is one of several events associated with the Carson J Spencer Foundation’s FIRE Within Program; a year-long program where students learn how to use entrepreneurial skills to benefit suicide prevention efforts in their communities.

The FIRE Within program has expanded this year from 20 schools to 50 schools across the state. The Innovation Challenge is first opportunity in the program to bring students from many of these schools together in one place.  The kick-off of the event involved  FIRE Within alumni, now in college, giving advice and useful tips on how they capitalized their own FIRE Within experience to help pursue opportunities in college.  The main focus of the event was to challenge students to think boldly about how they might create something that would make a significant upstream impact on youth suicide and distress; the rules were simple, there were no rules.  Students were encouraged to come up with the most unique, out-of-the-box idea geared toward ending suicide and promoting mental health.  They then were asked to create a brief presentation promoting their idea to be presented to a panel of judges, made up of business leaders coming anywhere from the mental health industry to banking and construction. 

“I was very impressed by the students.  Great creativity and thoughtful engagement all around,” said Dave Thorpe, Vice President Shaw Construction.

In total, 20 students walked away with gifts and prizes for their innovative thinking and thoughtful presentations.  All students participating in the Innovation Challenge will head back to their respective schools to start preparing their business plans for the Business Plan Competition in February.  Each FIRE Within class submits a full business plan and video to the Carson J Spencer Foundation to be judged for seed funding ranging from $100 - $500. 

For more information about the FIRE Within program, please contact Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas at 720-244-6535 or

About the Carson J Spencer Foundation - Sustaining a Passion for Living
The Carson J Spencer Foundation ( is a Colorado nonprofit, established in 2005.  We envision a world where leaders and communities are committed to sustaining a passion for living. We sustain a passion for living by:

  • Delivering innovative and effective suicide prevention programs for working-aged people
  • Coaching young leaders to develop social enterprises for mental health promotion and suicide prevention
  • Supporting people bereaved by suicide

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Men and Suicide Bereavement Survey to Inform New Grief Support Needs

Men and Suicide Bereavement Survey to Inform New Grief Support Needs

Denver, Colorado. October 14, 2013.  The Carson J Spencer Foundation and Unified Community Solutions are conducting an exploratory survey to get a better sense of the experience of men who are bereaved by suicide and the needs they may have in their grief.

Men who have been bereaved by suicide are invited to participate in a survey to share about their experiences subsequent to their loss. If you are a man 19 or older and have lost someone close to you to suicide (e.g., family member, close friend, co-worker, etc.), your participation in the study is needed. The purpose of this survey is to better understand the experiences men have after suicide loss and the types of support they have found helpful or would like to have available.  All responses will be anonymous and confidential. The study should take no more than 10 to 15 minutes to complete, and you can opt out of the survey at any time. There is no compensation available for the completion of the survey, but we appreciate men bereaved by suicide taking the time to tell us about their experiences.

In addition, if you are connected to other men who have been bereaved by suicide, we ask for your support in passing along this request to them.

For more information about this survey, please contact Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas at 720-244-6535 or Thank you in advance for your time and consideration.

About the Carson J Spencer Foundation - Sustaining a Passion for Living
The Carson J Spencer Foundation ( is a Colorado nonprofit, established in 2005.  We envision a world where leaders and communities are committed to sustaining a passion for living. We sustain a passion for living by:
  • Delivering innovative and effective suicide prevention programs for working-aged people
  • Coaching young leaders to develop social enterprises for mental health promotion and suicide      prevention
  • Supporting people bereaved by suicide

About Unified Community Solutions
Unified Community Solutions ( is a private consultancy based in Massachusetts, specializing in training and advocacy for peer-based suicide grief support and in planning, development, and leadership of community-based suicide grief support programs. UCS owner Franklin Cook is also the creator of Personal Grief Coaching, a telephone support service he administers to help bereaved people.

Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas                                                                  
CEO & Co-Founder
Carson J Spencer Foundation

Franklin Cook
Unified Community Solutions