28th Annual Tompkins County Mental Health Conference

Scott MacLeod, co-founder of The Sophie Fund, was the keynote speaker at the 28th Annual Tompkins County Mental Health Conference on November 18 with a presentation titled “Zero Suicide Model in Tompkins County.”

The conference featured presentations on the new national 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline system and a panel on community mental health resources. Teressa Sivers of the Finger Lakes Independence Center chaired the steering committee that organized this year’s conference.

MacLeod began his talk by describing how he and his wife Susan Hack established The Sophie Fund in 2016 immediately after the suicide death of their daughter Sophie, a Cornell University art student. He explained that they were motivated by “a determination to prevent further young people in the Ithaca community from dying by suicide.”

He outlined The Sophie Fund’s areas of work, including raising awareness, facilitating mental health training and programming, and mental health policy advocacy. He said that the nonprofit had distributed more than $35,000 in grants for training and programming through a donor-advised fund at the Community Foundation of Tompkins County.

MacLeod described what he called a “mental health crisis” in the United States, citing data that 51.5 million American adults, and 7.7 million young people aged 6-17, had experienced mental illness in 2019. He said that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a 35.2 percent increase in the national suicide rate between 1999 and 2018.

The mental health crisis is notable among college students, MacLeod said, with nearly half participating in a 2019 survey reporting that academics had been “traumatic or very difficult to handle” and 19.8 percent feeling “so depressed that it was difficult to function” at some point in the previous 12 months. Another survey indicated that 36.9 percent of students seeking counseling in 2019-2020 had made a suicide attempt, he said.

MacLeod said that The Sophie Fund launched a “Zero Suicide Initiative” in 2017 with a presentation for Tompkins County’s top healthcare leaders by Michael Hogan, a co-developer of the Zero Suicide Model, and Sigrid Pechenik, the then-associate director of the New York State Suicide Prevention Office. In 2022, The Sophie Fund hosted a “Call to Action,” a series of five presentations and trainings on Zero Suicide for healthcare leaders, clinicians, and social workers.

The Tompkins County Suicide Prevention Coalition voted to recommend the Zero Suicide Model for the county’s healthcare providers in 2018, and in 2022 included promoting the model as one of the goals of its 2022-2025 Strategic Plan. Responding to the strategic plan, healthcare leaders formed the Tompkins County Zero Suicide  Steering Committee and held their first meeting on November 10, MacLeod said.

MacLeod explained that the Zero Suicide model is partly based on research that 80 percent of people who died by suicide had healthcare visits in the 12 months prior to their deaths, indicating that such visits provide a vital setting for identifying suicidal individuals and directing them to appropriate care.  

Zero Suicide calls for treating suicidality directly rather than as a mere symptom of a mental health disorder, MacLeod explained. The model outlines a systematic clinical approach for screening patients for self harm, and then engaging at-risk individuals in care management, evidence-based treatment, and safe care transitions, he said.

MacLeod quoted the Zero Suicide developers explaining that “suicidal individuals often fall through multiple cracks in a fragmented and sometimes distracted health care system,” and that suicides can be prevented by closing those cracks.

The panel on the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline featured presentations by Tiffany Bloss, Executive Director, Ithaca’s Suicide Prevention & Crisis Service; John Halaychik, Communications Center Manager, Tompkins County 911 Dispatch Center; Susan Spicer, Mobile Crisis Team, Tompkins County Mental Health Services; Nicole Roulstin, 211 Tompkins/Cortland Contact Center Manager, Human Services Coalition of Tompkins County; Larry Albro, Warm Line Representative, Mental Health Association in Tompkins County; and Natalya Cowilich, Community Outreach Coordinator, Family & Children’s Service of Ithaca.

The community resources panel included presentations from Sally Manning, Convener, Tompkins County Suicide Prevention Coalition; Tiffany Bloss, SPCS; Karen Heisig, Area Director, Greater Central New York Chapter, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention; Melanie Little, Director of Education, Mental Health Association; and Sandra Sorensen, Executive Director, National Alliance on Mental Illness, (NAMI) Finger Lakes chapter.