Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Gift of Secrets

As we find ourselves in the season of gift giving, I recalled a great lesson I learned from a man with a simple but profound idea.

“We keep our secrets in a box. Sometimes we bury them deep like a coffin. Sometimes they are like a gift that we open up and share with others,” Frank Warren, founder of PostSecret, said to a packed audience of college students who participated in this year’s Active Minds Annual Conference in New Jersey.

Frank Warren at Active Minds Conference

As a mental health speaker, I love to hear other speakers share their ideas on how to help people thrive. I was especially transfixed by Frank Warren, America’s most trusted stranger, talk about the power of secrets in our lives. Frank started with a simple idea: letting people unburden themselves of their secrets by encouraging all to send their anonymous secrets to him on postcards. What has evolved over the years is a compelling project with a strong suicide prevention message.

Frank has had secrets mailed to him on sea shells, a potato, even a death certificate. Of the millions of secrets he has received from all over the world, he has learned a few things about what we hide about ourselves and how we are very curious to know these potent pieces of information about each other.

“At the center of these secrets there is a kernel of wisdom we can grow from,” Warren states. “When we think we are carrying a secret, sometimes it is actually carrying us. Blocking us from what we might otherwise be.”

Frank has learned one of the important tenets of my resiliency talks – sharing our personal struggles helps us to create intimacy and community with others. When we go beyond “the mask” we wear each day, we create a deeper channel of knowing and a stronger bond. This sense of belonging can help us withstand future challenges we might face. Frank closes his talks by training students on some basic suicide prevention skills: ask the direct question “are you thinking about suicide?” and know your resources for mental health help, like the 1-800-273-8255 Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Frank has also witnessed how we can overcome our brokenness and become more resilient by rising above our hardships in live, “the children almost broken by the world become the adults most likely to change it tomorrow.”

Thank you, Frank, for a wonderful example of how a simple idea can move the world to action.

What are your thoughts on the power of secrets?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Social Entrepreneurship Part II Working Minds for Youth: Social Enterprise for Suicide Prevention

The other night our high school social entrepreneurs were amazing. After serving them pizza, we gave them a 20-minute challenge: to work together to develop a t-shirt or mural idea that would help prevent suicide in their community. We mixed students from different schools into small groups, gave them pens and paper and let them go.

Social enterprise students brainstorming ideas for suicide prevention
Now these students aren’t new to the ideas of suicide prevention or social enterprise. They have been working with the Carson J Spencer Foundation and Junior Achievement since September to gain mastery in both areas and have been thinking about how the two missions might best work together. Every week for at least an hour they receive coaching on business skills like marketing, finances, and product development and on suicide prevention skills like how to be a suicide prevention gatekeeper, how to conduct a needs analysis and how to promote safe messages to increase awareness. They are a passionate, dedicated crew.

The challenge this week was just a warm up, and you can see some of their excitement and creative ideas by viewing this 3-minute video montage.

In February each school participating in this project will have developed a viable business plan for a social enterprise for suicide prevention. In other words, they will have dreamt up a sustainable product or service that will raise money and create a positive change for this life-saving cause. They will then pitch their ideas before the Carson J Spencer Foundation’s Board of Directors, competing for seed money to launch their business. Winners will go on to use the money to implement their plans during the spring semester. At the end of this second semester another round of competition will take place – this time the winners will be rated on both the financial profit and the social profit earned through their work. They will be rated on: innovation, effectiveness, sustainability, and revenue.

Green Mountain High School students cheering after winning business plan competition

I love this project because it just works on so many levels. By partnering with Junior Achievement, we are engaging a new audience for suicide prevention: our future business leaders. Students are passionate about suicide prevention because even at their young ages, many of them have already been touched in some way – either their own mental health crisis, or someone they love. The project is also just plain cool. Social enterprise is a great new trend – a creative blend of the efficiency of the business sector with a heartfelt mission of the non-profit sector. Students are empowered to use their creativity and be leaders in their community. Win, win, win.

Check back in February to see how they did…

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Social Entrepreneurship Part I: Using Business Skills to Solve Social Ills

Recently, I joined a group of social entrepreneurs sitting around a crowded table at the Women’s Bean Project headquarters in Denver for a historic moment in the social enterprise movement: the group voted to launch a Colorado chapter of the Social Enterprise Alliance. As someone who has championed social entrepreneurship education among our young people for the past five years, this is great news. Together, we can forge the power of a coalition to increase the capacity of social enterprise initiatives around the state and to expand public consciousness, embracing and promoting these cutting edge ideas.
Lisa Nitze, President & CEO of Social Enterprise Alliance charges the group to dream big
as we launch our Colorado chapter.

What is Social Entrepreneurship?

In his documentary series on social entrepreneurs called The New Heroes, Robert Redford described social enterprise as “Applying business skills to resolving social ills…part saint, part politician, part business person.”

While an entrepreneur thinks in terms of results and profits, a social entrepreneur seeks results that will change people’s lives simply, quickly, and profoundly. Social entrepreneurs use innovation and strategic partnerships to address root causes of social problems ranging from poverty to pollution, from mental illness to youth-at-risk. The “social profit” of a social entrepreneur is sustainable human and economic development.

Social entrepreneurs conduct gap analyses in their communities – looking to address needs and build on strengths. They look to seize an idea that fills a unique niche and has potential for scalability. And just like in the business world, social entrepreneurship is linked with risk. Social entrepreneurs are courageous, unconventional and able to see new opportunities when others see nothing but hopelessness.

When contrasted to charity, social enterprises don’t rely entirely on community support for their own sustainability; social enterprises work to generate the earned revenue needed to keep their operation going. Social enterprises also don’t just serve immediate needs, like food and shelter, without addressing the underlying causes perpetuating these needs. Social entrepreneurs view the marginalized as the solution not as a passive beneficiary. The social enterprises they build begin with the assumption of competence and resources in communities they are serving.
In the words of Bill Drayton, CEO, chair and founder of Ashoka, “Social entrepreneurs are not content just to give a fish or teach how to fish. They will not rest until they have revolutionized the fishing industry.”

I got interested in social enterprise while I was getting my Masters in Nonprofit Management a few years ago. My instructor and founder of Triple Bottom Line Partners, Nancy Fell, inspired me to apply these concepts to the work of the Carson J Spencer Foundation (CJSF) and the leadership development courses I was teaching at the time. In 2007, CJSF won a business plan competition for our gift basket enterprise that tied into our work promoting mental health, but we found it was too labor intensive for our human resource capacity. Today, this gift basket concept has evolved to what we call “iCare packages”: books, comforting music, and other resources we attractively package and send to families recently bereaved by suicide. We have solved our human resource problem by forging strategic partnerships to assist with the distribution. From 2006-2009, I taught a sophomore seminar that challenged the students to create social enterprises for suicide prevention, and most rated this activity the most useful learning of the whole course. Today, CJSF works with high school youth through a program we call "Working Minds for Youth" to expand these ideas and support the development of the next generation of socially entrepreneurial suicide prevention advocates – stay tuned…

Next blog:

Social Entrepreneurship Part II: Working Minds for Youth – Raising Money and Awareness for Suicide Prevention

How have you seen social enterprises impact communities?

Monday, December 6, 2010

Spirituality and Suicide Bereavement Part II: Spiritual Signs from Loved Ones

Because I have walked the path with many survivors of suicide loss, I know that there is something survivors talk about all the time that is rarely, if ever, explored in scholarly publications, so I will open the door in the context of discovery here in the hopes that others will find ways to further its research. What I am referring to are the signs that many of us experience in the aftermath of our loved one’s death that in every cell of our bodies feels like a communication from our loved ones. On the eve of 6th anniversary of Carson's death, I share some of my experiences in the hopes of connecting those in the survivor community who have also experienced the unexplainable. I also hope that this sparks a conversation among those interested in suicide bereavement that leads the field of suicidology into further research on this topic.

During the first six months after Carson’s death, I had several spiritual experiences that to me felt like nothing I had ever experienced before. While I can believe, that perhaps these were the manifestations of a traumatized brain, I also hold open the possibility that they were more than that. While all of the experiences played important roles in my healing journey, I will share with you the last and most profound one – his “goodbye visit” to me while I was on my second honeymoon in Hawaii.

It was only six months after Carson’s suicide when my husband Randy and I gently opened the spring-loaded door that swung back upon us and entered this place of dreams: an old cottage on the beaches of Kauai. Bang, bang, bang the door retorted behind us as we eased onto the wise, creaky floors that carried the footsteps of history before us. This cozy plantation home had been relocated from the sugar fields of Kauai to its new resting place on the sometimes sandy, sometimes grassy Hawaiian shore near Wimaya Canyon. Its musty scent held the mystery of sun and sea as we tenderly placed our bags upon its well-worn wooden floor and set off to explore. On the back porch, the salty breeze was laced with the celebratory, syrupy scent of flowers just past their prime, and we slid into the oversized Adirondack chairs that engulfed us and whispered gently, “relax.” When started planning this trip to celebrate our 10-year anniversary well before my brother’s death, this was exactly what I had imagined. We leaned into the place, longing for the warmth of the sun, and delighting in the hoppy and deep-fried air wafting from the brewpub behind us, “Ah, peace.”

That night as we went to bed, the muffled murmurs of the other tourists returning from big adventures drew closer and then farther away as their sandals crunched the gravel of the path past our cottage to theirs. As I drifted off to sleep, Randy’s deep breathing rose like the comforting sweet steam from a home-cooked stew and lulled me into a vivid dream state.

In the dream Carson appears before me and I am once again instantly struck with a sucking feeling just below my sternum that radiates both terror and awe to my extremities like an electric shock. He is an adult this time, dressed simply in a “red dirt t-shirt” and jeans. The red dirt t-shirts were a touristy souvenir of the region where we were staying, dyed from the red tinted earth on the Wimaya land, so I knew this was his way of telling me he was here with me. His face expressed gently worn nuances of eyes that knew more and were both sad and reassuring and a mouth that raised tentatively on the edges. We found ourselves at the swimming pool that was built between the cottages and the ocean. On the day Randy and I had arrived at the plantation cottages, the water in this pool had been too cold to swim. In the dream the water was soothing and perfectly tepid. Carson approached this simple rectangular in-ground pool with blue water and wide edging, and slowly walked down its steps toward me. We met in the middle of the pool and he gave me an engulfing hug. In slow-motion, we sank into the viscous liquid, deeper and deeper as if being pulled by an anchor to the bottom of the pool. Then, thud. We landed on the gritty pool floor.

“This is the last time,” he whispered.

I felt his large, powerful body start to dissolve in my arms.

“No, no, no, no, no!” I screamed until I could feel him no more. And I woke up with a startle and the strange but familiar cocktail of fear and rage burning like acid in my esophagus. My thoughts were racing, “this may be the last visit in a plantation cottage in Kauai, but not the last time you will visit me!”

I bolted out of bed and shuffled my way through the darkness to the bathroom, where the grounding coolness of porcelain tile, started to erode my agitated state. I sat there, my head on the toilet cover, heart slowly returning to my chest, and relayed my latest dream to my husband who, as usual, listened politely, without comment.

The next day was our final day in this magical place, and we had decided to take a cruise around part of the island, but our boat did not leave the dock until much later that afternoon, so we decided to walk around the touristy shops of the town. And of course, we quickly ran into a store called the “Red Dirt T-Shirt Shop.”

I turned to Randy, “Let’s go in.”

On one level I was thinking I needed to get just one more present for our littlest boy, Jackson. I had bought our other two sons little Hawaiian shirts, but I had not found one small enough for our 8-month old. On another level, I was hoping for one more mystery to emerge. I turned to the back rack and flipped through the options until I found what I was looking for, and then I headed to the counter.

I stood in line behind a woman who was speaking with the clerk behind the counter loud enough for me to hear. She spoke of the clerk’s daughter who apparently had just died, and of the doctor who had taken his life, apparently out of remorse for not saving the girl.

Then it was my turn at the counter.

Before I had even put my purchase up, and with a line of people behind me, I said, “I had a dream last night. My brother who died by suicide was in it wearing a red dirt t-shirt, and now I am here, I just overheard your conversation, and I think I am supposed to talk to you.”

Without missing a beat she said, “Your brother is fine.”

I felt the air releasing from my lungs, like a balloon that has been untied.

“The man I was just speaking about…the doctor….He also visited me in my dreams after my daughter died, asking for my forgiveness. And I said, of course.”

I thanked her, paid for my little Hawaiian suit and as I walked out the door, I turned to Randy and said, “See! I just can’t make this stuff up!”

Since that dream, I have not had the same intensity of what I believe to be a connection with Carson. What those experiences gave me, however, was a belief that there is more than we can understand in the spiritual realm while we are in our current existence. I believe that my brother was doing his best to ask for forgiveness and say the goodbyes that he didn’t get to in life. I am reassured that his spirit is okay, that his soul has moved on to other things, and that I will be seeing him again when my life is over. Before my brother died, I did not have a spiritual framework that supported these beliefs, but now I do. This was his gift to me. Because of these experiences, I find myself talking to him often – asking him for clarity and courage, like others might talk to God. Like many others, I am learning to develop a new relationship with my loved one. He isn’t gone, our relationship has just changed.

For those of you bereaved by suicide – have you received signs from your loved ones? Please, share your stories here.