Support Ithaca’s Suicide Prevention Champions

Hey, Ithaca! It’s National Suicide Prevention Month. Mark your calendars to support our own community’s efforts to save lives and reach those who are struggling.

The Greater Central New York chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention holds its annual Greater Ithaca “Out of the Darkness” walk in Myers Park on Saturday September 9 with check-in starting at 9:30 a.m.

The local walk is among 400 held across the country every year to raise awareness and collect funds for AFSP’s mission, which includes research, training, programming, and education. Walkers include many people who have lost a loved one, friend, or colleague to suicide.

Click here to register for the walk or to make an online donation toward AFSP-CNY’s $60,000 fundraising goal.

“It has been 25 years since we lost my sad to suicide, and not a day goes by that I don’t think about him and miss him dearly,” said Crystal Howser, walk co-chair and captain of Team Hope.

“It is my goal to work hard, educate, erase stigma and help fight to prevent suicide losses from happening. This is our eleventh walk in Tompkins County. We need to let others know they are not alone and it is okay to reach out for help.”

“Boots & Bling” is a Western Gala fundraiser at the Ithaca Hotel on Saturday from 5-9 p.m. to support Ithaca’s Suicide Prevention & Crisis Service. A night of dinner, dancing, inspiration, and connection will celebrate SPCS’s milestones, growth, and future vision.

Reservations closed for the event on September 1, but to make a donation to SPCS anytime you may click here. The funds will support SPCS’s critical mission as a regional call center for the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline as well as a trainer and educator for suicide prevention in the community.

We Can Prevent Suicide Deaths Together

Despite increasing openness about mental illness amid efforts to fight stigma, suicide remains a taboo word. Many people experience suicidal thoughts, but keep that to themselves. However, suicide deaths are preventable, and many recent advances enable us to better prevent them.

September is National Suicide Prevention Month, an opportunity for all of us to learn more about mental illness, suicide, and what we can do to help those who may be struggling. It is a time to redouble efforts to break down the stigma that too often holds us back.

The recent advances include better screening tools for identifying people at risk of suicide, improved care management protocols, upgraded crisis response measures, and suicide-specific therapy treatment. Another advance is the introduction last year of the 9-8-8 hotline number to support people experiencing a mental health crisis.

The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, seven days a week, across the United States. You can also call 988 if you are concerned about a loved one, friend, or colleague. Veterans and/or their loved ones and friends can call 988 and then press 1 to reach the Veterans Crisis Line.

988 calls go to into a nearby crisis center, one of 200 across the country. When people call or text 988, or connect to chat online, they will be connected to trained counselors that are part of the Lifeline network. Trained counselors listen, understand how the caller’s problems are affecting them, provide support, and connect them to resources if necessary.

The previous Lifeline phone number (1-800-273-8255) will always remain available to people in emotional distress or suicidal crisis. Calls and texts to the Lifeline soared 33 percent since the simpler 988 number was introduced in July 2022.

According to KFF (formerly the Kaiser Family Foundation), in its first 11 months of operation 988 received nearly 4 million contacts, including 740,000 chats and more than 600,000 texts; an additional 1 million connections were made to the Veteran’s Crisis Line.

Ithaca’s 54-year-old Suicide Prevention & Crisis Service has long been part of the Lifeline network. Besides connecting through 9-8-8, its trained counselors can also be reached by dialing 607-272-1616.

The Lifeline has been proven to be effective. According to its administrator, numerous studies have shown that callers feel less suicidal, less depressed, less overwhelmed, and more hopeful after speaking with a Lifeline counselor. 

The Lifeline is funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and administered by Vibrant Emotional Health. SAMSHA provides a Partner Toolkit to help promote the 988 number and other suicide prevention services.

The latest statistics released last month by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control serve as a reminder of America’s mental health crisis.

After declining in 2019 and 2020, suicide deaths increased approximately 5 percent in the United States in 2021. Provisional estimates now indicate that suicide deaths further increased by 2.6 percent in 2022, according to the CDC. One encouraging indicator in the provisional data was that suicide deaths of people aged 10-24 declined by 8.4 percent.

Overall, suicide rates have risen more than 30 percent in the past two decades.

The latest figures underscore “the depths of the devastating mental health crisis in America,” according to U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. “These numbers are a sobering reminder of how urgent it is that we further expand access to mental health care, address the root causes of mental health struggles, and recognize the importance of checking on and supporting one another. If you or a loved one are in emotional distress or suicidal crisis, please know that your life matters and that you are not alone.”

Take a moment to review the warning signs for suicide, as provided by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). Be sure to get help for yourself or others if you see the signs. You may save a life.

According to AFSP, something to look out for when concerned that a person may be suicidal is a change in behavior or the presence of entirely new behaviors. This is of sharpest concern if the new or changed behavior is related to a painful event, loss, or change. Most people who take their lives exhibit one or more warning signs, either through what they say or what they do.

Warning sign: Talk

If a person talks about:

Killing themselves

Feeling hopeless

Having no reason to live

Being a burden to others

Feeling trapped

Unbearable pain

Warning sign: Behavior

Behaviors that may signal risk, especially if related to a painful event, loss or change:

Increased use of alcohol or drugs

Looking for a way to end their lives, such as searching online for methods

Withdrawing from activities

Isolating from family and friends

Sleeping too much or too little

Visiting or calling people to say goodbye

Giving away prized possessions



Warning sign: Mood

People who are considering suicide often display one or more of the following moods:



Loss of interest




Relief/Sudden Improvement

For local, state, and national resources, visit The Sophie Fund’s suicide prevention page.

If you or someone you know feels the need to speak with a mental health professional, 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.

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.

Where to Get Support

The Sophie Fund has released the 2023 guide to Mental Health Support and Crisis Services in Tompkins County.

The two-pager provides quick phone numbers and web links for suicide prevention, community and campus mental health clinics, local addiction recovery services, and sexual assault and domestic violence awareness and victim support. It also includes information about family and youth mental health support groups and how to locate a local primary care physician.

Copies of the guide can be posted on community bulletin boards and in clinical waiting rooms, distributed at schools, places of worship, and public events, or given to family members and friends. The guide can be easily downloaded and saved to laptops and mobile phones (note the QR code at the bottom of the guide) and shared via emails and social media.

Inspiration for the guide came from Cayuga Health Partners, which saw the value of providing the resource to primary care patients who screened for behavioral health complaints.

The Sophie Fund developed the guide in consultation with community health organizations, including the Tompkins County Whole Health, Suicide Prevention & Crisis Service, Cayuga Health, and Guthrie Cortland.

“There continues to be a stigma around mental health and seeking help for problems like depression, substance abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence,”  said Scott MacLeod, co-founder of The Sophie Fund.

“We hope that the guide will help people see how normal and easy it is to reach out for professional help. We also hope that the guide cuts through any confusion folks may have about the array of services available to them in the greater Ithaca community.”

DOWNLOAD Mental Health Support and Crisis Services PDF


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.