By Sally Spencer-Thomas, Co-Lead of the Action Alliance Workplace Task Force and CEO & Founder of the Carson J Spencer Foundation
I had been in the field of mental health 16 years before my brother Carson took his life in 2004, and I would
say that since then I have
learned much about the “gaps” that need to be filled in the field of suicide
prevention. In the aftermath of his death, our family and his friends came together
in our grief, as many people do, with a strong sense to “do something” and
formed the Carson J Spencer Foundation (CJSF). From CJSF’s inception, what
quickly became obvious was the huge “gap” between the target population of most
suicide prevention efforts and population that most represented by those who
were dying. We were shocked to learn that most people who took their lives were
just like Carson: white, working-aged men. We made the commitment to be bold
and try to fill this “gap” with innovative approaches in innovative places.
CEO & Founder,
Carson J Spencer Foundation
Innovation is critical in the field of suicidology because it helps us engage untapped resources, explore new partnerships, and ultimately expand our capacity. Without innovation, we will just keep repackaging the same methods and will be limited in our ability to create the significant change we all envision. Innovation begins with an idea to take a radically different approach – especially if it’s difficult.
In hindsight, we can usually see the benefits of innovation, but at first they are sometimes considered radical ideas. Where would we be if that first crisis call center had never emerged or if the Air Force had decided, like so many others had before, that there was nothing that could be done to prevent suicides? Often, because innovation challenges convention of how things get done, initial backlash and doubt ensue. Inevitably, trial and error cycle as the innovative idea evolves. Sustained change comes as the context of discovery moves into the context of justification, and rigorous evaluation helps us better understand the cause and effect cycle of change.
Since my brother Carson was a gifted entrepreneur and not afraid of risk-taking, the founders of CJSF not only dedicated our mission to preventing what happened to him from happening to others, but also to celebrating his gifts as a dynamic and bold visionary.
When taking an inventory of existing suicide prevention efforts, we noted that very few people were addressing suicide prevention in the workplace, and this gap became ours to fill. In 2007 CJSF launched the Working Minds program (www.WorkingMinds.org) and in 2009 we published the Working Minds Toolkit, which was accepted to the National Best Practice Registry in 2010. The goal of these efforts is to build capacity in workplaces, so that they are better able to implement comprehensive and sustained suicide prevention programs.
Today, with the help of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention’s Workplace Task Force, workplace suicide prevention efforts are better able to leverage the influence of leaders from across the country and create a “tipping point” of change. We are bringing together executives and industry leaders to be spokespeople for the cause; we are pulling together resources to outline a blueprint for change; and we are partnering with the Public Education and Awareness Task Force to “Change the Conversation.”
The Workplace Task Force, in partnership with CJSF and others, has launched three new innovative resources for workplaces:
In addition, we need innovation to reach those at highest risk for suicide – men of working age with multiple risk factors, who are also least likely to seek care. For years, the same message – “if you are depressed, seek help” – was repackaged with little success in reaching this demographic. What the effort needed was a brand that was compelling to high-risk men. In 2007, the Carson J Spencer Foundation, Cactus Marketing and Colorado’s Office of Suicide Prevention – a public-private-nonprofit partnership – came together to find a new way to reach high-risk men by using “manspeak” and humor.
On July 9, 2012, after four years of research, development, and planning, the partnership launched the one-of-a-kind Man Therapy™ campaign (www.ManTherapy.org) with an article in the New York Times. While the unconventional approach raised a few eyebrows, our initial results look promising so far – the campaign seems to be reaching the target audience and having the intended effect. In just nine short months, the website has experienced over 200,000 unique visitors averaging over 6 minutes per visit. More than 60,000 people have completed the 18-point head inspection (a self-screening tool) and 15,000-plus have accessed information on crisis services. The qualitative feedback we have received from men and therapists alike is that men’s thinking about mental health shifts during their interaction with www.ManTherapy.org and they are more likely to do something different about their problems as a result.
While innovation is particularly unnerving in a profession where lives are at stake, we must “be visible, be vocal, be visionary. There is no shame in stepping forward, but there is great risk in holding back and just hoping for the best.” (Higher Education Center)