Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Simple Gift: Reaching Out and Renewing Hope

By Sally Spencer-Thomas

After my brother died by suicide in 2004, my workplace gave me the most amazing gift – the gift of their support. As many of them reached out to me, their kindness made all the difference in my ability to cope with this devastating loss.

First, there was Jerene, my direct supervisor. Just two days after my brother’s death, Jerene called me up, “Sally where are you? I am coming over to give you something.”

She drove from our workplace up to my parents’ home and delivered a huge vat of chicken soup. During a time when my family could barely choke anything down, that soup sustained us.

Then there was Tom, my Vice President. On the day of the memorial service, Tom joined many of my co-workers at the church. After the service was over, he found me and gently cupped my face in his hands to express his sympathy. This tender gesture was so heartfelt and kind; I will never forget it.

Finally, my bereavement leave ended, and I found myself facing the reality that I needed to return to work and some level of functioning. When I opened the door to my office on my first day back, my desk was covered with cards, flowers and well-wishes. From co-workers I knew well, and from folks I didn’t know at all. I instantly knew that the support I was going to get was going to carry me through this very difficult part of my life.

Humans are hardwired to be in relationship with others. For some these are vast connections and broad social networks, and for others just a few intimate bonds are all they need. Workplaces that are mentally healthy cultivate a sense of belonging. Work teams and social groups can sometimes evolve into friendships that last a lifetime. Belonging fosters a sense of trust and interdependency that can help distressed workers find hope during tough times. When workmates pull together around difficult assignments, the encouragement they give one another can be the protective factor that decreases the impact of high levels of stress. For these reasons, workplaces that foster genuine belonging will find they have more mentally resilient employees.

A Little Goes a Long Way
While we can all think of some people that are constant drains in relationships because their needs are so great, most people do not need much. A little caring usually goes a long way. For example, in one study, hospitals sent caring letters to people who had recently been discharged after a serious suicide attempt. The letters just said something to the effect of, “We’re so glad you came in for treatment. Please, call us if we can help in any way.” Each letter was personalized to a small degree and signed by the attending care provider. The research found that the patients who received the caring letters were significantly less likely to have a subsequent suicide attempt than those who didn’t get the letters. If that wasn’t enough, the study was replicated using computer generated postcards – no personalization whatsoever. The same outcome resulted. If a computer generated postcard can have this level of impact, think about what is possible when people who know each other reach out and say, “I see that you have been looking down lately. I am here for you.”

Reaching the Unreachable
Another known fact is that people who have multiple risks for suicide are also sometimes the least likely to seek help on their own. Because of this, caring work communities need to be intentional in reaching the “unreachable.”

Mother Teresa was known for helping those that no one else would. In a story she wrote in her book, In the Heart of the World, she talks about finding an elderly man who had been ignored by everyone and whose home was in complete disarray.

She told him, "Please, let me clean your house, wash your clothes, and make your bed." He answered, "I'm okay like this. Let it be."

She persisted and he finally agreed. While she was cleaning his house, she discovered a beautiful lamp, covered with dust.

She asked him, "Don't you light your lamp? Don't you ever use it?"

He answered, "No. No one comes to see me. I have no need to light it. Who would I light it for?"

She asked, "Would you light it every night if the sisters came?"

He replied, "Of course."

From that day on the sisters committed themselves to visiting him every evening. They cleaned the lamp and lit it every evening.

Two years went by and Mother Teresa had completely forgotten that man when she received a message from him: "Tell my friend that the light she lit in my life continues to shine still."

One of the great things about the gift of reaching out is that we can re-gift it and people don’t think it’s tacky. It turns out the idea of “paying it forward” is both a gift to the receiver and a gift to the giver. When people who have been helped through a difficult time are able to help another, they often find meaning in their earlier struggle and value the wisdom gained.

This notion of “reciprocity” is one of the cornerstones in what make programs like Alcoholics Anonymous work. When people successfully go through the 12-steps of the program and maintain their sobriety, they can become sponsors and support others who are just beginning. The work of being a sponsor helps many maintain sobriety because it strengthens positive self-regard. Furthermore, sponsors find that being there for someone else makes them hold themselves accountable to being a worthy role model.

If people who are resistant to seeking help see an opportunity to pay it forward by mentoring another down the road, they often become more inclined to receive the gift of help. Peer support and mentoring programs offer these opportunities at worksites, but other opportunities can exist within communities.

In summary, reaching out is a great gift – one size fits all, and it’s easy to exchange.

For more information on suicide prevention, intervention or postvention training visit or contact

About the Author
As a psychologist and the survivor of her brother’s suicide, Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas addresses the issue of suicide prevention, intervention and postvention from many angles. Currently she is the Executive Director for the Carson J Spencer Foundation (, a Colorado-based (USA) nonprofit that is dedicated to “sustaining a passion for life” through suicide prevention, social enterprise and support for emerging leaders.” In 2009, the Carson J Spencer Foundation launched the Working Minds Program (, a comprehensive suicide prevention initiative for workplaces. As a professional speaker, she frequently presents keynotes and trainings for workplaces, campuses, and conferences around the world. In addition, she is the Executive Secretary for the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, the public-private partnership advancing the Surgeon General’s National Strategy for Suicide Prevention. Finally, she is the Division Chair for Survivors of Suicide Loss for the American Association of Suicidology. 

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