Sustaining a Passion for Living
The Carson J Spencer Foundation's innovative approach to suicide prevention engages people across the lifespan using humor and entrepreneurship.
Sally Spencer-Thomas started the Carson J Spencer Foundation after her brother Carson died by suicide. The organizations primary goals are to prevent what happened to him from happening to others, and to celebrate the gifts he brought to the world like entrepreneurship, business leadership and humor. She, the CJSF staff, and board now focus on achieving this cultural shift by delivering innovative and effective suicide prevention programs for working-age people, by coaching young leaders to develop social enterprises for mental health promotion and suicide prevention, and by supporting people bereaved by suicide. They currently offer 4 programs, each addressing suicide from a diverse and essential angle:
- The FIRE Within charges and inspires entrepreneurs and young leaders to solve the causes of suicide in their communities.
- iCare Packages donates bundled resources, gifts, and materials for families grieving the loss of a loved one, designed to let them know that there is a community who supports them.
- Working Minds guides businesses in the best ways to offer suicide prevention services (still surprisingly unavailable through many employers) to their employees.
- Man Therapy takes an innovative, open, and humorous approach to getting men to discuss their feelings, problems and concerns in a forum.
Sally Spencer-Thomas was on the fast track to the career of her dreams. In 1995, she graduated with her Doctorate in Psychology from the University of Denver. As a clinical psychologist, Sally found work as a police psychologist, college counselor and then as the Director of Leadership Development at Regis University. Then in 2004, her life was altered forever when her younger brother, Carson J. Spencer, a brilliant and accomplished entrepreneur, took his own life after a difficult battle with bipolar disorder. In his obituary, he was described as a “bright star that burned out too quickly.” Life was forever changed, and there was no going back; she would keep his light shining.
From that day forward, Sally Spencer-Thomas dedicated her life and her heart to create a legacy for her brother – to both honor his life and the gifts that he brought to the world and to prevent what happened to him from happening to others. She’d work to ensure that no one had to experience the loss her family and his friends experienced, and that those who had, would know that a network of care still surrounded them. She returned to school, obtaining a Masters in Nonprofit management and learned about Social Entrepreneurship. She co-founded and serves as CEO of the Carson J Spencer Foundation, and also sits on numerous local, national and international boards for suicide prevention. She helps organize community events (conferences, healing ceremonies), and teaches graduate level suicide prevention courses and two of the Foundation’s FIRE Within program classes. Of all of the programs of the Carson J Spencer Foundation, the FIRE Within exemplifies the legacy goal by cultivating youth entrepreneurs who are using business skills to address root causes of suicide in their community.
Sally doesn’t do it alone. She believes that Carson walks with her in her mission to save lives. Together they help people young and old, and especially working-aged men like him, know they are not alone in their struggle and that there are many resources for help. They also support families recovering from the darkest of times. The emphasis is always on affirming life and embracing the good. Sally instills joy and fun in her own children, too. She’s a bright star and a beacon for happiness in a sometimes troubling world.
Changing the world
She’s also a powerful advocate, a workhorse in the media, and an innovator. Her mission is one to change the way the world perceives mental illness and to create an honest and open discourse about suicide. While suicide may be an uncomfortable, oft-avoided topic in American society, Sally works to change that through collaboration with other organizations and groups, pulling energy and momentum away from sadness and powerlessness to proactively address the root causes. Silence solves nothing, after all, and so Sally vies for change loudly and passionately.
An avid marathoner in her free time (she does two a year), Sally’s well-acquainted with the struggle in any journey, and with the perseverance necessary to succeed. Sally uses an allegory of “mile 17” to describe the moment when you’re exhausted from how far you’ve come, can’t turn back, and still have so far to go. Sally strives help people transcend their personal “miles 17” by building capacity for suicide prevention among businesses, community leaders, students, parents, faith communities and more. She does it so people facing their darkest times can know and embrace a “passion for life.”