Bowdoin speaker talks about ‘the antidotes to suicide’
“Albert Einstein failed his freshman entrance exam. What if he had died by suicide instead of going on to make his discoveries?”
This was the first of a series of questions asked by suicide prevention advocate Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas as she addressed an audience at Bowdoin College on Wednesday night.
In a room filled with mostly students and faculty, her words seemed to resonate as she also shared that suicide is the second leading cause of death in college students.
In addition to her avid work with suicide prevention and mental health promotion, Spencer- Thomas is the co-founder and CEO of the nonproft organization Carson J. Spencer, named after her brother whom she lost to suicide after he struggled with bipolar disorder.
While Spencer was also a Bowdoin graduate and went on to be a successful business leader in Denver, he “had these inner demons that he fought on a daily basis,” said Spencer-Thomas.
She shared some intimate “flash-bulb memories” of the day of her brother’s death, and said she vividly recalled wearing an “awful” Christmas sweater and gingerbread earrings and was driving to a party when she received the news.
She paralleled her family’s response to Spencer’s passing with the international crisis of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that had made headlines shortly after his death. She described the first few weeks as “an absolute feeling of drowning.”
“At some point in time, we had to resurface and when we did and we looked around the landscape of our lives — everything is different,” she continued.
Spencer-Thomas encouraged the audience to elevate conversations about suicide and to pursue a social movement by acknowledging discrimination and stigmas surrounding suicide, in addition to speaking out against attitudes and barriers.
Change begins by starting with ourselves, by instilling hope in others — “the antidote to suicide” and engaging a wider circle of conversation, she said.
“A lot of people in the throes of a suicide crisis believe, misperceive but believe, that the world is going to be better without them. Rather than it being a selfish act, it’s for most people selfless,” she said. “They believe that their loved ones will be benefitting when they’re not here, that their death is worth more to the people who care about them than their life is. They believe people are free to sigh with relief and that’s so far from the truth. I would do anything to have Carson back — anything.”
She also challenged the notion of separating physical and mental health, and noted that accessing physical care is often easier, while caring for mental health can be more difficult, especially through our current health system.
“Physical health and mental health interact with each other all the time — they’re wired together. Yet, we treat them differently on a lot of levels,” she said. “Physical health tends to get a lot more empathy and compassion ... but when somebody’s having that level of pain, but it’s internal — depression or anxiety — instead of empathy, compassion and support, they often get judgment.”
Near the end of her presentation, Spencer-Thomas had an unusual request by asking audience members to pull out their phones.
After asking everyone to punch in the suicide prevention lifeline number on their phones, she encouraged them to keep them out as the room was completely darkened.
She asked a series of questions, asking audience members to hold up their lit phones if they had experienced a loss of a friend or family through suicide, or if they had personally experienced similar struggles.
Finally, Spencer-Thomas asked everyone to hold up their devices. A sea of illuminated phones brightly lit the room.
“Now look around, look around,” she said. “Now imagine you are that person struggling with suicidal despair. Instead of pure darkness with no way out, this is what you see: a roomful of lights that say ‘I might not have all the answers, but I’m here for you and together we’re going to find our way out.’”
For more information or help, call the National Prevention Suicide Hotline 1-800- 273-8255.
For more information or help, call the National Prevention Suicide Hotline 1-800-273-8255.