Listen and provide hope if a friend is contemplating suicide

Wednesday, November 10, 2010 | 1:44 p.m. CST; updated 8:25 p.m. CST, Wednesday, November 10, 2010

COLUMBIA — Six years ago, Sally Spencer-Thomas was driving to a party when she received a phone call from her mother. All she heard were the words, “pull over."

It was Dec. 7, 2004, and her mother had called about her brother, Carson. Spencer-Thomas knew he had separated from his wife, had a million-dollar apartment that was unfit to sell and had left his business partner.

How to help

Organizers of MU's Suicide Prevention Week listed strategies to help someone dealing with suicidal thoughts:

  • Ask and Listen. Talking about the person's thoughts openly and frankly can help prevent a person from acting on them. You might think that mentioning suicide would put suicide in a person's mind, but that is highly unlikely.
  • Give hope. Often people can't think of any other solutions to their distress. Acknowledge that the person currently feels hopeless but also convey that things can get better.
  • Do not attempt to argue anyone out of suicide. Let the person know you care and understand, that he or she is not alone, that suicidal feelings are temporary, depression can be treated and problems can be solved.
  • Be genuine. If professional help is needed, someone will be more willing to follow a recommendation if you have genuinely listened to them.

The Wellness Resource Center on campus often makes referrals to a national suicide prevention hot-line  — 800-273-8255.

“Things changed dramatically for the first time,” Spencer-Thomas said. “He made a series of destructive decisions that changed his life.”

Her mother had called to inform her that Carson Spencer had committed suicide.

The shock from his death prompted Spencer-Thomas to begin speaking to young people about suicide and how they can help someone having suicidal thoughts.

She was a keynote speaker during MU’s first Suicide Prevention Week with a presentation titled “Be a Shining Light of Hope."

The issue of suicide among young people is becoming more important, Spencer-Thomas said, especially when they are going through trauma or mental illness.

“It’s something they have never experienced before, and they don’t have the coping strategies to get through to the other side," she said.  "The other part is they don’t necessarily know there is another side.”

Her presentation also focused on reframing the way suicide is regarded in the community. It is not just professionals that can deal with suicide and mental health issues, Spencer-Thomas said.

"You're not necessarily going to do the assessment and treatment of that individual, but you can certainly give them hope," she said. "You can link them to resources, and you can help change the conversation so they are more willing and open to talk about their distress," she said.

Carson Spencer had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder during college, but he dismissed it. Later in life, Spencer-Thomas saw the effect the mental illness had on her brother.

"It was a demon of the night that stole his spirit and his soul," she said.

When she first began talking about her brother's death, she said she couldn't get through it.

“The first time I got up on stage I was shaking like a tree because I thought people would judge me because I’m a psychologist," she said. "The more I do it, the bolder I get.”

Suicide Prevention Week was created to increase awareness about college suicide and to diminish the stigma and secrecy associated with mental illnesses.

"It is important that they hear these issues and start to connect with suicide in their own way and come to a conclusion about what they can do to help," Spencer-Thomas said.

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