The Carson J. Spencer foundation combats suicide with innovation and entrepreneurship
On December 7, 2004, Carson J. Spencer, a talented and successful Denver-based businessman and entrepreneur, took his own life. Nineteen days later, the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami devastated Southeast Asia. Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas, Carson’s sister, remembers recognizing the parallels between losing a family member to suicide and the aftermath of a natural disaster.
“When my brother died, I remember feeling like everything was collapsing in,” shared Spencer-Thomas. She felt as if she were drowning and coming up for air, living in a once-familiar and stable landscape that now seemed forever changed. Nothing quite mattered like it used to and her life had to be rebuilt from the ground up. As an expert in the mental health field, published in the area of suicide prevention, the experience of facing her brother’s death was both humbling and isolating.
In the wake of Carson’s death, his friends, family and business partners had a consistent theme running through their thoughts: don’t let him be forgotten. From that day, Spencer- Thomas and many of those closest to Carson dedicated their lives to making sure his legacy lived on.
An all too common story
Carson’s death illustrates a growing trend when it comes to suicide in the United States. White men of working age (25-54) are the population with the highest number of suicide deaths in the country. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this demographic accounted for nearly 40 percent of all suicides in the nation in 2007, the last year that national numbers have been released.
Jarrod Hindman, the director of the Office of Suicide Prevention for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, believes that when updated national numbers are released, they will show an increase in the number of suicides for the white, working-age male. The evidence for Colorado shows as much, a fact that Hindman attributes, at least partially, to the recent economic downturn.
“That population was already carrying the burden of having the highest numbers of deaths by suicide,” Hindman said. “One of the assumptions we’re making is that part of that reason is because of the economy. We do know for a fact that when the unemployment rate goes up, the suicide rate goes up with it.”
While economic pressures cannot solely explain the increase in suicide deaths, they certainly seem to be a factor that can exacerbate existing problems in finances, relationships and mental illness.
“What you generally find when people die […] is that there is a lot of stuff going on in people’s lives,” stated Hindman. “It’s very rarely just one thing that leads a person to die by suicide.”
However, Hindman believes that there is hope for those struggling with suicidal thoughts and behaviors, particularly if the people around them are trained to know what to look for.
“Most people reveal some warning signs, so there are opportunities to intervene,” he shared.
After her brother’s death, Spencer-Thomas helped found the Carson J. Spencer Foundation to honor his life and to prevent what happened to him from happening to other people. The problem was that she was unsure as to how to do that.
“The idea of carrying on my brother’s spirit was always in the discussion,” explained Spencer-Thomas. “We knew him as a robust, dynamic, engaging, charismatic leader. That spirit was always infused in there.”
They tried giving grants to worthy organizations in the arena of suicide prevention, but that approach did not seem right. Spencer-Thomas knew she didn’t want to simply reproduce the efforts of other organizations. She had to create something original—something that would directly reflect her brother’s entrepreneurial influence.
“We can’t just keep trying the same old stuff over and over again,” she said. “We’re not going to solve the problem. We’ve gotten as far as we can go with the same old stuff. If we’re really going to move the needle, we’ve got to think a little differently.”
This approach eventually led to targeting the population most at-risk for suicide: the white male of working age, or Carson’s demographic. Spencer-Thomas found that although there were many quality suicide prevention programs whose methods were producing tangible results, they were mostly geared toward high school and college students.
“From a public health perspective, we can’t stop with the work when people turn 21, especially when the greatest risk factors are lying later in life,” she stated.
That drive to achieve the greatest impact led her to a place that most people have in common at some point in their lives: the workplace.
This focus on the workplace is what makes Spencer-Thomas’ approach so essential, Hindman believes, because it is in the workplace where many of the warning signs of suicidal behavior first manifest themselves.
According to Hindman, the warnings signs for suicide tend to be universal. There are obvious ones, such as talking about death or suicide or getting affairs in order, updating wills and giving away prized possessions. There are subtler signs, however, such as slight changes in behavior (i.e., a lack of productivity or a failure to take care of one’s self like one used to).
“That’s why Sally’s program is such a good one,” Hindman stated. “Sometimes it is people at work who are going to notice these things—the lack of productivity or motivation or drastic changes in behavior at work are warning signs that people might not be seeing at home.”
However, Hindman recognizes the resistance that might meet a suicide prevention program in the workplace. He acknowledges that the office, warehouse and shopfront are difficult places for messaging regarding suicide prevention and mental wellbeing. Employees, fearful of being fired or passed up for promotion because of being thought of as weak, may not come forward with a problem due to the prejudices surrounding mental health issues.
If the Carson J. Spencer Foundation was going to make an impact in the lives of those struggling with these issues, they were going to have to use an original approach.
Spencer-Thomas founded the Working Minds program in 2007 with the goal of starting the conversation about what it means to be mentally healthy in the workplace and how to identify people in distress.
“The Working Minds program is about delivering science and stories that make the case for why it [mental health awareness] is important, and inviting people to listen to that and observe that,” she said.
The Working Minds toolkit, developed with coauthor Dr. Rick Ginsberg, offers business owners and human resource professionals stories from figures who have dealt with mental health issues in their own professional lives. From current Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper to former NFL player Esera Tuaolo, these stories illustrate the need for talking about the issues, while emphasizing the hope for recovery.
Spencer-Thomas recognized that when introducing the issue of mental health in the workplace she would need to persuade those involved that it was an area that demanded change. According to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, the average suicide costs $3,983 in direct medical costs and $1,224,322 in loss of work. Promoting mental health in the workplace, according to Spencer-Thomas, can be good for the bottom line. She just needed to convince employers of that.
“When people are in a place of precontemplation, the idea of change hasn’t crossed their radar,” she stated. “You don’t ask them to do a lot. You ask them to think about things and make your case for why things should change.”
She knew the program had to be accessible to those in the workplace and not just another thing that employers asked their human resource managers to do on top of their other work. That’s why she developed the toolkit as a one-hour training course with supplemental materials if people want to further explore the issue.
“If businesses were going to adopt this at all, it had to be super easy for them,” she explained. “We couldn’t require their HR managers to go through some expensive training. It needed to be something you could pull off the shelf, implement and have confidence that what they were going to do was going to help.”
The toolkit was published in November 2009. By June 2010, it was on the Best Practice Registry for Suicide Prevention and had been adopted by such organizations as the U.S. Navy, U.S. Postal Service and the Department of Energy.
A proactive approach Hindman believes the Working Minds model is an approach that will garner results. When dealing with an issue that often languishes in obscurity in the back of people’s minds, anticipatory care is crucial.
While most businesses don’t think of mental health awareness training until a traumatic event happens, Hindman advocates the implementation of proactive programs to get the issue on the table and out in the open. Once it becomes a frontof- mind item, he believes people will seek help as opposed to remaining isolated.
“It’s about education and awareness— recognizing that a staff member is suicidal doesn’t mean he or she is weak and needs to suck it up,” Hindman said. “It means that the staff member, just like someone who has high blood pressure or diabetes, needs to get themselves medically straight, and to be supportive of that just like they would any other health issue.”
Because so many businesses are the primary provider of healthcare to their employees, and because there is a movement to make insurance companies provide equal coverage for mental health services as they do physical health services (so-called parody laws), the workplace may be uniquely suited to help people dealing with mental health issues. The challenge for employers, Hindman believes, is to implement protocols and procedures for people struggling with these problems, from connecting them to mental health professionals to allowing sick days to take care of mental health needs.
Expanding influence Working Minds is not the only trailblazing program on the Carson J. Spencer Foundation’s roster. The FIRE (Future Innovative Resilient Entrepreneurs) Within is entering its third year of working with Colorado high school students. The program is designed to develop future business leaders’ skills, while exposing them to the idea of giving back to their communities by using their entrepreneurial abilities. The Adolph Coors Foundation recently awarded the foundation a $500,000 grant to expand the program to 80 schools by 2015.
The program came out of Spencer- Thomas’ experiences teaching leadership classes to college students where she came into contact with a course on social entrepreneurship. After conducting some trials with her university students, she formed a partnership with Junior Achievement to pilot the program in local high schools.
The program teaches students about entrepreneurship, using the well-respected Junior Achievement curriculum, and then engages students to develop a business plan that not only uses those skills, but also raises awareness and funds for mental health issues. Schools then receive seed money to develop their products.
From a fashion line to an anti-bullying curriculum, the student-led products have achieved wide success, not only in developing business skills among students, but also in shifting paradigms about how students, future business leaders and communities view mental health issues.
“It can’t just be an issue where the mental health professionals are the ones that fix it,” Spencer-Thomas explained. “It can’t just be a public health issue, because there’s no personal ownership of a public health issue. We position it as a social justice issue—that there is injustice when an otherwise healthy person is dying because they can’t get to the appropriate care.”
Carrying on a legacy
Through all of her work, Spencer-Thomas acutely feels her brother’s influence.
“I feel that he walks with me, that the gifts of his life are imbued in the work,” she reflected. “I think he would be so delighted to see these young entrepreneurs going out and being so engaged and making a difference in their community.”
While the scope of the foundation’s work is ever expanding, the mission and motivation remain deeply personal for her.
“It matters to me that his gifts and the beautiful life he left here are honored and remembered, and that we’re doing what we can to prevent the tragedy that happened to him from happening to other people.”