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Clinical Psychologist Addresses Suicide Prevention

By Lydia McGee
On September 20, 2017

Dr. Spencer-Thomas spoke to University students about preventive measures.
Photo By Hope for This Step

West Virginia is the 14th highest in the United States for suicide risk, according to American Health Rankings (AHR). Among college students, over half consider suicide at least once in their academic careers.

    These startling statistics give an added weight to Suicide Awareness Month at Concord University. West Virginian college students are a high risk group, and it is imperative that those close to suicide receive the help they need.

    In response, Concord University hosted suicide prevention speaker and clinical psychologist Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas virtually in collaboration with Bluefield State College. Friday, September 15, a packed room watched the livestream of her speech that sought to inspire those affected by suicide or considering suicide to practice preventive techniques to increase mental resiliency.

    “Unfortunately, most of us walk around with these masks on that can stop hockey pucks,” remarks Dr. Spencer-Thomas. “So when we hit those hard times…we do all of these behaviors to prevent people from seeing how vulnerable we are. What if, instead, we showed people more of what’s on the back side of our mask?” Instead of maintaining a façade of stability, she posits, we should instead embrace challenges like we are part of a “hero’s journey.”

    She emphasized how to interact with those contemplating suicide and the importance of beginning a dialogue with those that might be at risk. Among her highlights of a breakdown of those types of dialogues, she made an important distinction in order to break down a typical assumption on the part of those interacting with suicidal people: “Most people with suicidal thoughts do not want to die. They just want the unbearable emotional pain to stop. So if we’re able to make them less miserable, the suicide thoughts tend to go away. That’s a really important distinction. It’s not so much the desire for suicide as it’s the desire for the pain to stop.”

    Those with suicidal thoughts do not act out of selfishness, she pointed out. “Conventional wisdom is turned on its head here that suicide is selfish…in the mind of the suicidal person, [suicide] is the ultimate act of selflessness. Everybody might see this person that has it all together…but behind that mask that person might be feeling like a huge burden.” Not only do suicidal thoughts come from this sense of burdensomeness, but also from loss of purpose and inability to find a sense of belonging.

    “As someone who has helped many close friends through the darkness that is suicide, you never really know what to do or say to help them,” says Hannah Field, student at Concord. “But knowing why and what influences the thoughts and feelings of contemplating suicide, myself and the many others who attended the lecture should feel more confident and comfortable helping friends in need. There isn’t a guidebook for how to approach talking to someone about suicide with someone and it’s especially tough when you don’t even understand what is going on in their mind.”

    “I think the issue of suicide prevention needs to be talked about more than just hashtags on social media. Lectures and programs that address this topic are extremely helpful,” says Fields.

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