Five Aprils ago, The Sophie Fund organized a meeting of community mental health stakeholders representing 18 governmental and non-profit organizations from Tompkins County, the City of Ithaca, and the campuses of Cornell University, Ithaca College, and Tompkins Cortland Community College.
Co-Founder Scott MacLeod introduced The Sophie Fund to the community, explaining that it was established in memory of his daughter who died by suicide in Ithaca the previous year, and outlining its mission to support mental health initiatives aiding young people in the greater Ithaca area.
Garra Lloyd-Lester, associate director of the Suicide Prevention Center New York, announced plans to convene a “key stakeholders” with the aim of establishing a suicide prevention coalition in Tompkins County.
At the close of the April 17, 2017 meeting, the assembled stakeholders adopted a solemn resolution. It was dubbed The Watershed Declaration, as the meeting was hosted by The Watershed, a new downtown watering hole owned by Sophie’s friend and former colleague.
The declaration reads:
“We the assembled mental health stakeholders of the greater Ithaca community and Tompkins County recognize suicide as a serious public health concern. Today we renew our commitment to suicide prevention and pledge to intensify efforts toward saving lives and bringing hope to those struggling with suicide thoughts or affected by suicide loss.”
How did that pledge turn out? The results are mixed.
Since The Watershed Declaration was adopted, Tompkins County has averaged 12 suicide deaths per year. There is anecdotal evidence of a spike in local suicides, including those on college campuses, in 2021 and 2022. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among Americans aged 10-34.
GET INVOLVED: Interested to join the cause of suicide prevention? Email The Sophie Fund at firstname.lastname@example.org
In June 2017, then Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick issued a proclamation in support of The Watershed Declaration, and the Tompkins County Legislature proclaimed September 2017 to be The Watershed Declaration Month.
Led by Tompkins County Mental Health Services, 40 local mental health leaders came together in July 2017 and launched the Tompkins County Suicide Prevention Coalition.
In October 2017, The Sophie Fund organized an expert briefing at the Statler Hotel for senior healthcare administrators throughout Tompkins County; the topic was the Zero Suicide Model, which is designed to improve suicide prevention measures in healthcare systems.
Eight months later, the Suicide Prevention Coalition adopted Zero Suicide as its policy; eight healthcare providers stepped up to declare themselves “Zero Suicide Champions,” pledging to explore implementation of the model. In July 2018, the county legislature unanimously passed a resolution to support Zero Suicide, calling on local healthcare and behavioral healthcare providers to follow the model’s systematic clinical approach to preventing suicides.
Coalition work toward drafting a strategic plan, creating a leadership team, expanding membership, conducting outreach, and following up on Zero Suicide implementation badly drifted in 2020; this was partly due to leadership transitions throughout the county’s healthcare agencies, as well as disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The coalition resumed monthly meetings in February 2021, elected Sally Manning of Racker as convener, and resumed work on a strategic plan.
In February 2022, then coalition unanimously adopted a three-year strategic plan guided by a vision “for a community where no lives are lost to suicide” and using data, science, and collaborations to implement effective strategies.
The five-point plan calls for using data to inform suicide prevention strategies; advancing the Zero Suicide Model in healthcare; reducing suicide in the youth population; reducing access to lethal means; and advocating for policies and practices to prevent suicide. The coalition has formed work groups to drive efforts in all five areas.
For its part, The Sophie Fund re-launched its Zero Suicide Initiative with a series of presentations and trainings to reinvigorate work on the model in Tompkins County.
On November 16 The Sophie Fund hosted “Call to Action: Suicide Prevention in Healthcare,” an expert briefing for top healthcare leaders by Jenna Heise, director of Suicide Prevention Implementation at the Suicide Prevention Center of New York.
This was followed on March 9 with “Understanding, Identifying, and Addressing Suicide Risk: A Clinical Primer for Behavioral Health Providers,” a training with national suicide prevention leaders hosted by The Wellness Institute.
The Sophie Fund on March 24 hosted “Implementation of Zero Suicide,” a suicide prevention presentation for front line managers representing 10 leading healthcare providers in Tompkins County; it was led by Tammy Weppelman, the State Suicide Prevention Coordinator at the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, and Mike Olson, the crisis program manager at My Health My Resources, an agency currently implementing the model in in Tarrant County, Texas.
On June 16, Virna Little, CEO of Concert Health and a leading expert on integrating primary care and behavioral health, will provide a briefing for primary care physicians and their teams on implementing Zero Suicide protocols in primary care practices.
Finally, in June Jenna Heise of the Suicide Prevention Center of New York will return to Ithaca for a roundtable discussion with top healthcare leaders on Zero Suicide implementation progress.