He was coming home from his shift...sitting at this crossroads, ready to say goodbye to the world.
He said “Before I go, I’m just going to kiss my daughter goodbye one last time." So he went into her room and he kissed her, and he said “I can’t do this to her.”
He told me this a few years later: "She would never know what she did to my life in that moment."
Sally Spencer-Thomas is a psychologist, and CEO and co-founder of the Carson J. Spencer Foundation (CarsonJSpencer.org) - a non-profit organization which "works to prevent suicide using innovative methods to address root causes of suicide in schools, homes, and businesses. The Foundation also assists those coping with the pain and grief resulting from the death by suicide of their family, friends, or co-workers."
That opening anecdote was true recollection from a police officer - a typical representative of a group with an elevated risk for committing suicide.
Sally's brother was another member of that group, until he took his own life in 2004 after a losing battle with bi-polar disorder.
He was 34-years-old.
I originally contacted Sally because I was interested in writing an article about teenage suicide prevention. Our conversation followed the same course as her research had years earlier:
If you had asked me 10 years ago "Who is the primary person who wants to take their life?" I would have said high risk teens. But, in fact, they're people just like my brother: a working-age male with a diagnosable mental health condition.
Diagnosable. That is an important word. It implies that a condition is treatable, or even preventable. But - unlike a rash or a broken limb - depression, bi-polar disorder, or anxiety do not make themselves visible. They fester within the mind of their victim, gradually altering that person's perception of themselves, of the people around them, and of their ability to deal with day-to-day living.
For a mental health disorder to be treated, it must be acknowledged and accepted. Then it's victim must feel secure in asking for help, and their support system must be open-minded enough to accept what for many people is an uncomfortable reality - someone they love is in distress.
Unfortunately, as Dr. Spencer-Thomas explains, working-age males are conditioned to believe that cries for help are unacceptable.
(They) have been told from very early ages about how to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and be strong; it really can be quite a fatal trajectory for men. There are a lot of reasons from a conditioning standpoint why men are taught to be the strong ones, be the ones that people rely on. There are a whole host of barriers here. Reaching out to strangers seems desperate for men, and they just don’t have a lot of benchmarks or blueprints to help them. It can feel very intimidating, with very little evidence that there is going to be a return on the investment if they are bold and brave in that situation.
Like most people who suffer quietly from a mental illness - such as depression - outsiders are often of the opinion that these people are simply lazy, or attention-seeking. Consequently, that person withdraws even further and continues to deteriorate. Dr. Spencer-Thomas explains that this pattern leads to a loss of connection with those most important to them, which can ultimately prove fatal. This is especially true for men who, through divorce or loss of employment, begin to lose connections within their community, or even within their own families.
There are a number of psychological qualities that increase risk for men, and one of them is about belongingness.
All of those transitions can be very very challenging for everybody. But...men traditionally do not have a strong, in depth network built around them where they can be vulnerable and get support when they need it. When they lose these primary relationships, its hits men harder. So when men are experiencing transitions where they are losing connection, or when they’re losing purpose and meaning in their lives, they’re at risk.
For most people, the downturn of losing a job, or becoming separating from their spouse, or relocating to another city without a strong sense of connection to that new community can be a formidable obstacle, but not insurmountable.
However, with the added burden of an undiagnosed mental illness, the stress can deteriorate into thoughts of suicide. Unfortunately, suicide itself has a stigma. It is perceived as an act of cowardice. This perception is now being turned on its head. This is in large part due to the research related to "Burdensomeness", being done by Dr. Thomas Joiner - a professor of psychology at Florida State University. Sally Spencer-Thomas continued:
He found that a lot of the common risk paths really related to people feeling like they have become a burden to people who love them. So their thinking is: their death becomes (more valuable) to the people who love them than their life is; that they’re doing these people a service; that these people would be better off if they were not there. To most people this is absolutely twisted thinking, but this is also what depression does to the brain when people get completely overwhelmed and the brain isn’t able to generate a solution or see help in any way. People get a strong sense that their lives have lost meaning; that the world will move on just fine without them.
The combination of men not having a strong support system, while also being conditioned to hide psychological weakness, has a tragic consequence. Even the men who do seek help, are unwilling to share that experience with others, leaving each person believing they are unique and alone in their suffering.
Education and understanding from those closest to person suffering is vital. Most often, the warning signs are misconstrued:
A lot of people think “Maybe they’re just having a bad day.” and that’s simply not true. We really need to prepare family, friends and co-workers on what these fine points are. Usually there is some kind of mood disorder that comes in initially. A lot of times it’s self-loathing and withdrawal. There will be anger; a lot of disconnect from responsibilities; withdrawal and alcohol abuse...a passive way of coping, a real sense of giving up. They rarely come out and address these as “I’m going to kill myself." or "Why am I here?" It tends to be very subtle. They are actually shouting from a mountain top that they’re not OK, but they’re (outwardly) so subtle.
Dr. Spencer-Thomas, however, has slowly begun to re-think and revolutionize how support and treatment for men suffering from mental health issues are made available.
Through her research she discovered there is a common theme men do respond to when investigating possible therapies: humor.
In part two of this two-part discussion, I will talk with Sally Spencer-Thomas about her Man Therapy Program. This unique online portal is an anonymous, welcoming, and invigorated resource aimed at men who for too long felt they were running out of options.