The Blossoming of Ithaca’s Crisis Lifeline

Tiffany Bloss faced the unthinkable. Just over a decade ago, her son experienced a mental health crisis, and she nearly lost him to suicide. As her son went through hospitalization and inpatient treatment, she grew determined to end the stigma around suicide and help others in similar circumstances.

Bloss became the executive director of Ithaca’s Suicide Prevention &  Crisis Service in April 2022. SPCS is the regional call center for the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. In recent years, it has handled about 6,000 calls a year from individuals seeking support in a moment of need.

With Bloss at the helm, the 54-year-old organization is undergoing a renewal. In the past year, she has rebuilt SPCS’s 12-seat board of directors, quadrupled call center staff with an accent on diversity, extended call hours to 24/7, and enlarged its footprint of coverage to include 16 surrounding counties in addition to Tompkins County. She has plans to add an online chat option for people in crisis as well, which she hopes will help engage youth who need support.

“We’ve got a lot happening here!” said Bloss with trademark enthusiasm.

“We are focused on the de-escalation of callers, and the counselors here are working so hard to support our mission and really meet people who connect with us where they are. This is important work. We are currently trending to reach over 10,000 contacts in 2023. We are focused on meeting that need, and continuing to expand to fill the mental health gaps within the community.”

Bloss has already introduced a new 24/7 “warm line,” to give callers a connection when they may be feeling down but are not in crisis. Another new feature coming soon is a tele-care service in which SPCS staff will make brief outbound calls to people in need of social connection, such as the elderly or people discharged from inpatient health or behavioral health facilities.

Beginning last December, SPCS began partnering with Early Alert, which provides regular wellness check-ins for people who opt into the national program. Bloss said that SPCS will also soon take part in a nationwide pilot program for a 988 adult LGBTQ+ lifeline.

New SPCS hires include a full-time licensed social worker to focus solely on the well-being of its crisis counselors themselves, and a part-time community relations coordinator to handle public events and oversee the website and social media. On top of all the changes, SPCS’s call center is getting new equipment, new cubicles, and a fresh coat of paint. A charity event is planned at the Hotel Ithaca on September 9 to relaunch SPCS in the community.

Hiring and training lifeline counselors is one of the most important aspects of Bloss’s job. They are selected in a competitive interview process, and then go through a 180-hour apprenticeship that prepares them to support callers. Counselors learn to be empathetic, active listeners who can make assessments about how best to help each individual. The training is assisted with an SPCS-developed 130-page guidebook on counselor protocols.

“We teach our counselors to think they’re the only person asking if the caller is okay,” Bloss explained. “Sometimes they are, and because of this, we need our counselors to approach every conversation with that level of care.”

Melinda Cozzolino, an associate professor at Ithaca College who serves as SPCS board vice president, credits Bloss for significantly improving the organization’s capacity.

“She leads, she listens, she educates,” Cozzolino said. “I can’t even make a list of what she has accomplished in less than one year. She has redone policies, developed training materials, and has had many new counselors and volunteers trained. She successfully integrated all of our 988 services, received grants. No one exemplifies our mission more than she does.”

SPCS’s upgrade comes at a critical time for emergency response services. Calls to mental health help lines increased by around 35 percent during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, and bounced nearly another 45 percent with the introduction of the easy-to-remember 988 national crisis lifeline in 2022.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the national suicide rate increased by 4 percent from 2020 to 2021. The CDC says that more than 1 million Americans make a suicide attempt each year.

Before taking up her SPCS post, Bloss held positions at Cayuga Health, CareFirstNY, and the American Cancer Society. She also serves as a volunteer chat counselor for The Trevor Project, whose mission is to end suicide among young LGBTQ+ people.

While her personal connection to the subject of suicide can feel heavy, Bloss is driven by SPCS’s vital mission and her desire to promote mental health education.

“I have big beliefs about social responsibility,” Bloss said. “I get to see my son thrive every day, and I’m at a point now where I can help others and I choose to. Drawing people together and watching them learn from one another is such a beautiful thing.”

If you or someone you know feels the need to speak with a mental health professional, you can call Ithaca’s Suicide Prevention & Crisis Service at 1-607-272-1616. SPCS’s warm line can be reached at 1-607-210-8328. Or, you can call or text the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 9-8-8, or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.

—By Lyndsey Honor

Lyndsey Honor, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a senior at Ithaca College, majoring in Writing and minoring in Honors, French, and Theatre. She is the managing editor of the school’s Stillwater Magazine and has written for the Ithaca Times.