Barry O’Reilly is happy to welcome Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas to this episode of the Unlearn Podcast. Sally earned international acclaim as an entrepreneur and innovator in social change, helping to establish many large-scale mental health efforts, including Man Therapy and National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. A trained clinical psychologist and a suicide loss survivor herself, she sees issues of suicide prevention and mental health promotion from a holistic perspective. Sally is a team member at Nobody Studios, leading the Employee Crisis Management function, where her mission is to save company-employee relationships by ensuring both sides have their needs met in times of difficulty. “$70 Billion is lost annually from employee mental health crises that are handled incorrectly,” Barry tells listeners. He and Sally discuss how we all can promote mental health in our companies, family, and community. Listen to Bridging the Mental Health Gap with Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas.

The Turning Point

“Many of us have these moments in our life where we had a life before and then we have life afterward,” Sally says. That pivotal moment for her was her brother’s death by suicide. She describes her deep grief and the moment in a Suicide Loss Survivors support group when she realized that she could contribute to supporting others. Barry adds that most people who lose a loved one to suicide ask themselves what they could have done differently. There’s so much remorse that goes unresolved, he remarks. He and Sally talk about the first steps she took to pivot her career in clinical psychology to mental health advocacy. [Listen from 3:05]



Facing Down Fear

“The fear around suicide is just immobilizing,” Sally tells Barry. Even trained mental health professionals feel that fear and often ‘hot potato’ clients who are struggling with suicidal feelings: they fear losing their reputation – and their license – if a client dies by suicide on their watch. If, however, we face down the fear, we can really help people, she points out. “There’s a lot of really smart people working on all of that now to shift our system from a fear-based system to this much higher-skilled, compassionate, tackle-it-head-on type of approach.” [Listen from 5:15]

Fear holds us back from taking bold and innovative steps that could lead to a breakthrough in life and in business, Barry comments. Sally describes how fear made them reluctant to take a different approach to suicide prevention, despite data telling them that they should. In the end, they decided to face down the fear and go against the status quo. She and Barry talk about the importance of psychological safety. People need to feel safe enough at work to try new things even if they don’t always work out. The same applies to mental health and suicide prevention, Sally points out. If people don’t feel safe to reach out for help, they won’t, and then they can’t get the help they need. [Listen from 7:40]

Learning From Disaster

“A lot of times when we face large-scale disaster, we pull together as communities and that protects us,” Sally tells Barry. However, the Great Resignation is teaching us that people will no longer tolerate working in a toxic environment. Burnout is real, and when it reaches the point of despair, then it’s past time for companies to do something about it. “Addressing burnout proactively is another thing that the workplaces are needing to relearn, because you can’t just keep pushing people to do more with less to the point where they also feel disconnected,” she emphasizes. [Listen from 14:00]

(Listen to Unlearn Season Three Finale: Ask Me Anything with Barry O’Reilly)

A Better Approach to Suicide Prevention

Barry asks, “What is the real data saying about how people are dealing and coping with suicide and its prevention? What are some of the things that we need to unlearn?” Historically, suicide prevention has been seen as an issue only medical professionals could address. This ‘only-one-path’ approach has failed. “What we learned from that is that when we force hospitalization, suicide rates go up,” Sally says. We have to broaden our view and see suicide prevention as both a public health and social justice issue. “Mental health doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” Sally reminds listeners. “Mental health happens in a context where people are living and breathing and interacting with other people and making meaning in their lives.” This means that we can all play a part in promoting mental health and preventing suicide. [Listen from 16:15]

Research shows that people who overcome suicidal despair usually fall into two categories: they related deeply with someone who went through a similar experience, or they made meaning out of their experience so they could help others. Having someone be there for you in tough times really helps, Barry and Sally agree. Sally points out that the peer relationship should be reciprocal because we all have and will go through tough times at some point. Sharing our stories models this, she says. “The best thing about when people show up and we are vulnerable and share their own stories of where they’ve made mistakes, where things went wrong – it makes other people feel like it removes fear, because they’re not painting this picture of perfection… It releases pressure.” [Listen from 19:10]

Looking Ahead

Sally is excited about the progress she is making advocating for mental health in male-dominated industries. 80% of people who die by suicide are male, she tells Barry, so it’s important to carry the work where it’s needed the most. The culture shift towards a more supportive work environment is gratifying. It’s about creating a culture where people are excited to serve, rather than one where you are essentially a robot. She is also excited about her work at Nobody Studios, particularly the collaborative employee crisis management tool they are working on. Personally, she is unlearning that she is more than just her work. “We are the millions of decisions we make every day with the people around us,” she reminds herself and listeners. [Listen from 25:00]

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