How Primary Care Visits Can Prevent Suicide Deaths

Healthcare expert Virna Little highlights a paradox in suicide prevention. Most primary care providers believe that suicide prevention is part of their role, she says. Yet, she adds, most of them also lack training during their education or professional experience in how to prevent suicide deaths among their patients.

Little was the featured presenter on June 16 at “Zero Suicide: Best Practices for Primary Care,” an event hosted via Zoom by The Sophie Fund and attended by Tompkins County physicians and their practices.

Her presentation walked attendees through a series of Zero Suicide protocols, including screening patients for suicide risk, assessing at-risk patients to determine appropriate levels of onward referrals, and developing safety plans to keep patients from acting on suicidal urges.

Little is internationally recognized for her work on integrating primary care and behavioral health, developing sustainable integrated delivery systems, and suicide prevention. She is the chief operating officer and co-founder of Concert Health, a national organization providing behavioral health services to primary care providers. She has conducted Zero Suicide trainings for more than 3,000 primary care providers in 27 states, and has spoken at the White House on national suicide prevention strategies.

The Zero Suicide Model is a set of strategies and tools for suicide prevention in healthcare as well as behavioral health care systems. It holds that by closing gaps in care through quality improvement measures, suicide deaths for patients in health and behavioral health systems are preventable. It is endorsed by the U.S. surgeon general and the State of New York’s Office of Mental Health. It is also advocated by the Tompkins County Suicide Prevention Coalition, whose 2022-2025 strategic plan identifies implementing Zero Suicide in healthcare across the county as one of its five goals.

Little stressed that primary care settings can “really move the needle” in reducing suicides. About 46,000 Americans take their own lives each year. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, and the second leading cause for people between 10-34.

Little urged primary care practices to operate a care system for treating patients at risk for suicide just as they do for patients with other chronic illnesses such as diabetes or asthma. She cited data showing that most people who died by suicide had a primary care visit within a month of their death. She noted that healthcare regulatory bodies, such as The Joint Commission, are saying “Listen, you really have to think about how you care for your patients at risk for suicide.”

DOWNLOAD: Primary Care Toolkit for Suicide Prevention

Little started by explaining the need for everyone on a practice’s care team to be aware of patients who are assessed as being at risk of suicide.

She related the story of a young woman who died by suicide after phoning her doctor’s office to cancel three appointments. The staff member who took the calls was unaware that the patient had been flagged as a suicide risk so took no steps to raise an alarm about the cancellations.

Little said that providers often tell her that they don’t know what to do if a patient shares that they are thinking of suicide.

“There’s one thing that is really the most helpful for people, and anyone can do it regardless of your background, your discipline, how long you’ve been in the practice,” she said. “That’s to give someone hope. We can all give someone hope.”

“It could very well be the first time that they’ve talked about suicide, or ever told anyone that they were thinking about suicide,” she said. “And so we want to make sure that our initial response is something that is going to be incredibly helpful for people, and to make sure that they know this is a safe place.”

Not to be caught off guard or utter an inappropriate message, she advises providers to create their own “storage statements”—words they can quickly use to show a suicidal patient that their life matters and to give them hope.

“Thank you for telling me.”

“You’re really important to us here at the center.”

“Your life is really important to me. Your life matters to me.”

“I have hope for you. I can see how strong you are.”

DOWNLOAD: Mental Health Support and Crisis Services in Tompkins County

Little said she was sympathetic to providers who feel that they don’t have enough time with individual patients to address the complexity of someone presenting with a risk of suicide. But she argued that providers have to think about implementing the same system of care for suicide as they do for other chronic illnesses. For example, she said, that may mean moving on to the next patient but coming back later to speak with the suicidal patient again.

“It would be a beautiful day in primary care if people came in for just one thing, or they came in for what turned out to be the most important, or life threatening thing.”

Little shared a personal story of how her husband went to his doctor complaining about hearing loss. The provider routinely took his height, weight, temperature, and blood pressure, and then informed him, “Listen, I’m really concerned, your pressure is incredibly high. I’m, not sure you’re going to be able to go home.” Little said the visit turned into one completely focused on blood pressure rather than hearing loss.

For patients at risk of suicide, she said, “We do the same things. We stop. We get information. We ask some questions. And we figure out an alternate level of care if we need one, or an appropriate level of care. That’s the way to start to think about patients who are at risk for suicide.”

Little observed that providers often administer the Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9), a screening tool for depression. Little said that providers are recommended to use additional  evidence-based, suicide-specific tools that provide indications of suicide plans, methods, and intent: the Columbia-Suicide Severity Rating Scale (C-SSRS) and the Ask Suicide-Screening Questions (ASQ) tool.

She noted that there is a spectrum of suicidality, and that it is important to refer patients to appropriate levels of care. She cautioned against automatic referrals to emergency departments, saying that this can in some cases exacerbate a patient’s mental health condition.

 “I worked for 17 years in the Putnum Hospital emergency room in New York State,” she said. “There is no magic that happens there. Most people I actually did not admit because that was not the level of care that they needed. So we really want to think about assessing risk, which can and does happen every single day in primary care settings, and can happen for suicide just like it does for other chronic illnesses.”

Little highlighted the importance of developing safety plans for patients, likening them to the “stop, drop, and roll” drill that children learn about what steps to take if their clothes ever catch fire.

“The likelihood that we’re going catch on physical fire is not very high, but we all know what to do,” she said. “So I want you to know what to do in case you catch on emotional fire.”

She said the safety plan should include providing the at-risk individual with the number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline—988 or (800) 253-8255—and actually having them put the number in their phone on the spot. Little’s presentation cited the Stanley-Brown Safety Planning Intervention, in which providers work with patients to develop a six-part safety plan that lists the individual’s internal coping strategies, distraction strategies, people and professionals they can contact in a crisis, and lethal means restriction strategies.

Little explained that discussing restricted access to lethal means with their patients is a critical piece of the safety plan. For people at risk of suicide, keeping guns out of harms way, or having a pharmacy issue prescription medications in individual pill packs, can really save lives, she said.

Little said she also directs at-risk patients to tools such as the Now Matters Now website, which includes videos with real people explaining the skills they’ve learned for coping with suicidal thoughts.

Little said once the appointment is over, caring contacts are “incredibly helpful” for people. She said providers should send a text or an email saying “Really glad we had a chance to see you today, I’m looking forward to seeing you next week.”

Little recalled being approached by one of her patients at a grocery store. “This woman came up to me, she pulled my note out of her purse, and said, ‘Virna, I carry this with me. It’s helpful.’ Just knowing that somebody out there cared gave her hope. Don’t underestimate the value of giving somebody hope.”

In conclusion, Little stressed the need for primary care providers to manage patients at risk for suicide like they would those with other chronic illnesses.

“If I am having asthma, and I come into your practice, what do you do? You might give me a treatment. you would ask me questions about my medication in my history. You would ask me about environmental triggers. You would ask me about emotional triggers. You might give me some education around how to use a rescue inhaler. You might make a referral to someone to come out to my home, or to a pulmonologist. You might do an asthma action plan. And so, when you think about all of those steps that you would do, you do that routinely for lots of chronic illnesses. All of that would be incredibly applicable to someone who was at risk for suicide.”

Little’s event was the fourth in a series of five presentations and trainings on Zero Suicide that The Sophie Fund is providing to the Tompkins County healthcare community. In July, along with the Tompkins County Mental Health Services, The Sophie Fund will co-host “Zero Suicide Roundtable: A Discussion on Best Practices in Suicide Prevention with Tompkins County Healthcare Leaders.”

If you or someone you know feels the need to speak with a mental health professional, you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-8255, or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.

READ MORE: Suicide Prevention in Tompkins County

Five Years After The Watershed Declaration

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 thesophiefund2016@gmail.com

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.

Advancing “Zero Suicide” in Tompkins County

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.

Tammy Weppelman, the State Suicide Prevention Coordinator at the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, outlined the seven elements involved in implementing the Zero Suicide Model. Weppelman was joined in her presentation by Mike Olson, the crisis program manager at My Health My Resources, an agency currently implementing the model in in Tarrant County, Texas.

The Zero Suicide Model is designed to eliminate gaps in systems of care for treating patients experiencing suicidal behaviors; research has shown that more than 80 percent of people who died by suicide had seen a healthcare provider in the previous 12 months, almost 50 percent within a month of their death, and more than 20 percent within their final week of life.

“Suicide prevention is a core function of the organization, it’s everybody’s business,” Weppelman said. “Suicide is preventable. The culture in your organization is a just culture, which means that you look at suicide as a system failure rather than an individual failure. It’s not an issue with a specific clinician or something that one person did that led to someone dying by suicide. But, collectively, as a organization, or as a system, what can we do better to prevent suicide.”

LEARN MORE: The Zero Suicide Model in Tompkins County

Weppelman said that leadership, the first element of the model, entails a healthcare provider creating an implementation team. She said it was essential that the team include top leadership decision-makers as well as individuals within the organization who are personally passionate about preventing suicide.

“Leaders are easily drawn to other priorities,” she explained. “But the passion on your implementation team, they’re not going to be drawn to other priorities. They’re going to keep that team driving forward.”

Olson discussed evidence-based training as a second element of Zero Suicide, “making sure that especially your direct care staff, or your front line staff, is competent in suicide prevention, but also confident in their ability to identify suicide risk and respond to that risk appropriately.”

He said that training provides skills for universal screening for suicide risk, assessment of treatment needs, and safety planning. A tangible first step, he added, calls for healthcare organizations to administer a workforce survey about suicide prevention capabilities at least every two to three years.

Weppelman reviewed a third element, identifying suicide risk. In all healthcare settings, she explained, “we want to do universal screening, screening every person, every visit, every time.” A recommended tangible first step, she said, is choosing a screening tool, such as C-SSRS or ASQ.

“In my experience, people don’t come out and say they’re having thoughts of suicide without somebody asking them,” she explained. “If you do ask, most of the time they’re honest, because they know that it’s a safe place or a safe person to talk to. So the the benefit of universal screening is that if you ask, you’re going to catch people. And if you don’t ask, you’re not.”

“I’ve heard somebody say, ‘It seems like a lot. What if somebody comes in every week? You ask them every week about suicide?’ Yes, it’s kind of like every time you go to the doctor you get your blood pressure taken, you get your temperature taken. Asking about suicide is like a mental health vital sign.”

The next element of Zero Suicide is to engage people who screen for high risk in a care management plan, a clinical pathway, Olson said. He said that this involves developing an individual safety plan with the patient, such as one using the Brown-Stanley Safety Plan template, that provides quick tips for self-care in a crisis, emergency contact information, and a reminder to remove access to any lethal means. Care management will also entail ongoing risk assessment and procedures for follow up care, he said.

Weppelman said that another element is using evidence-based treatment interventions. She explained that Zero Suicide calls for interventions that are specific to reducing suicide risk, as opposed to treatments for illnesses such as depression that are thought to be related to suicide. She said that recognized suicide-specific interventions include Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicidality (CAMS); Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT); and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Suicide Prevention (CBT-SP).

Olson said that a sixth element focuses on the healthcare organization’s capacity to manage suicide risk during transitions in care. He said this includes supporting individuals transitioning from the emergency department or psychiatric hospitals; those who miss appointments or withdraw from care; and individuals transitioning to a new service provider.

He said that the transition element has been the trickiest for his agency. “Services are optional, we can’t force patients to to engage in services if they don’t want to,” he said.

Yet, Olson said, Zero Suicide calls for reengaging patients through “caring contacts”—“very basic correspondence just saying, ‘Hey, we haven’t seen you at the clinic in a while, you know we’re here for you if you need us.’” He said it also calls for “warm handoffs” to onward providers, so the patient “doesn’t fall through the cracks during that transition period.” He said his agency utilizes the Care Coordination Agreements and Care Transitions model for “making sure there’s timely follow up after any type of discharge from the hospital.”

“Individuals are 273 percent more likely to die by suicide within 30 days of a care transition, so these times are so super important,” Weppelman added.

Weppelman recalled her experience working in crisis services at a Dallas-Fort Worth area community mental health center that implemented Zero Suicide. She said that the center established memorandums of understanding with local hospitals so that when they discharged a patient in need of psychiatric follow-up for outpatient services, “they would be direct dropped to our door—within an hour of discharge, we would be seeing them.” When somebody presented at the emergency department after a suicide attempt, the center would dispatch a mobile crisis team to follow up, she said.

The seventh Zero Suicide element is continuous quality improvement. Weppelman said that this entails the use of data, keeping track of suicide deaths and suicide attempts within a provider’s system. She said that another aspect of improvement is developing a Zero Suicide implementation plan, starting with small goals that can be more easily achieved. She suggested doing one thing to drive efforts forward in the next 30 days, and then setting three goals for the next 90 days, and three goals for the next year.

“It’s not an initiative that you start today, and you end next week,” she explained. “It’s always a continuous quality improvement project.”

The presentation for front line managers was the third in a series of presentations and trainings on Zero Suicide hosted by The Sophie Fund.

It was attended by representatives from leading healthcare providers, including: Tompkins County Mental Health Services; Cayuga Medical Center; Cayuga Health Partners; Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service; Family & Children’s Service of Ithaca; Guthrie Cortland Medical Center; Alcohol & Drug Council of Tompkins County; Cornell Health and its Counseling & Psychological Services; Center for Counseling and Psychiatric Services at Ithaca College; and Health and Wellness Services and Mental Health Counseling at Tompkins Cortland Community College. The presentation was also attended by Sally Manning, convener of the Tompkins County Suicide Prevention Coalition.

Previous events included “Call to Action: Suicide Prevention in Healthcare,” an expert briefing on the Zero Suicide Model for Tompkins County healthcare leaders on November 16 by Jenna Heise, Director of Suicide Prevention Implementation at the Suicide Prevention Center of New York; and “Understanding, Identifying, and Addressing Suicide Risk: A Clinical Primer for Behavioral Health Providers” on March 9 by The Wellness Institute.

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.

The Tompkins County Suicide Prevention Coalition on February 24 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; implementation of the Zero Suicide Model is one of the plan’s main objectives.

Zero Suicide is the healthcare pillar of “1,700 Too Many: New York State’s Suicide Prevention Plan 2016–17,” as well as of the 2021 “Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Implement the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention.”

Are Therapists Sufficiently Trained to Treat Suicidal Patients?

The headline of a USA Today article two years ago posed a troubling question: “We tell suicidal people to go to therapy. So why are therapists rarely trained in suicide?”

The article by Alia Dastagir noted that people experiencing suicidal thoughts are routinely advised, “See a therapist.” Yet, the article reported, “training for mental health practitioners who treat suicidal patients—psychologists, social workers, marriage and family therapists, among others—is dangerously inadequate.”

Dastagir quotes this concerning statement from Paul Quinnett, a clinical psychologist and founder of the QPR Institute, an organization that educates people on how to prevent suicide:

“Any profession’s ethical standards require that you not treat a problem you don’t know, and yet every day thousands of untrained service providers see thousands of suicidal patients and perform uninformed interventions.”

READ MORE: Training Tompkins Clinicians in Suicide Prevention

USA Today noted that no national standards require mental health professionals to be trained in how to treat suicidal people, either during their education or in their career; and only nine states mandate training in suicide assessment, treatment, and management for health professionals.

A survey for “Suicide Prevention and the Clinical Workforce: Guidelines for Training,” a 2014 task force report by the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, found that only 19 percent of responding institutions of higher education reported that their clinical degree programs required specific course work entirely about suicide prevention. Seventy-five of 80 state credentialing and licensing boards reported they did not require specific training in suicide prevention prior to initial licensure or certification, and all 80 said that there was no specific training requirement for continuing education in suicide prevention.

Clearly, much work needs to be done to prevent suicides, judging from death statistics. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among Americans aged 10-34 and the 10th leading cause of death overall. While rates for other causes of death have remained steady or declined, the U.S. suicide rate increased 35.2% from 1999 to 2018.

In 2009, Quinnett kickstarted a discussion among colleagues about inadequate clinical training in suicide prevention, which inspired the American Association of Suicidology (AAS) to set up a task force to study the issue.

It issued a damning report in 2012, declaring that “the lack of training required of mental health professionals regarding suicide has been an egregious, enduring oversight by the mental health disciplines… The current state of training within the mental health field indicates that accrediting bodies, licensing organizations, and training programs have not taken the numerous recommendations and calls to action seriously.”

The report said, in part:

“We establish that mental health professionals regularly encounter patients who are suicidal, that patient suicide occurs with some frequency even among patients who are seeking treatment or are currently in treatment, and that, despite the serious nature of these patient encounters, the typical training of mental health professionals in the assessment and management of suicidal patients has been, and remains, woefully inadequate.”

The report said that only the field of psychiatry seemed to be “attempting to ensure that their trainees are, at a minimum, exposed to the skills required to properly conduct a suicide risk assessment and address suicidality in treatment.”

The report cited Quinnett’s definition of competence in the field:

“The capacity to conduct [a] one-to-one assessment/intervention interview between a suicidal respondent in a telephonic or face-to-face setting in which the distressed person is thoroughly interviewed regarding current suicidal desire/ideation, capability, intent, reasons for dying, reasons for living, and especially suicide attempt plans, past attempts and protective factors. The interview leads to a risk stratification decision, risk mitigation intervention and a collaborative risk management/safety plan, inclusive of documentation of the assessment and interventions made and/or recommended.”

The AAS report noted the U.S. surgeon general’s “call to action” in 1999 for competency in suicide risk assessment and management, as well as the 2001 National Strategy for Suicide Prevention’s goals for improved graduate school training in suicide care and more suicide care recertification and licensing programs for mental health professions.

The report said that while some states mandate continuing education in topics such as ethics, “there is no similar requirement to ensure that mental health professionals are using current information to assess and treat suicidal patients.”

The report noted the irony that in some places school employees are required to take gatekeeper training to make referrals to mental health professionals for potentially at-risk youth but there is no such requirement for the mental health professionals. “It is incomprehensible that, in many states, a teacher is now required to have more training on suicide warning signs and risk factors than the mental health professionals to whom he or she is directing potentially suicidal students,” the report said.

READ MORE: New Plan for Preventing Suicides in Tompkins County

The task force said there are inherent dangers in referring suicidal people to mental health professionals who are not adequately trained. If these individuals do not feel they receive effective treatment, the report said, they may drop out, become discouraged about the usefulness of treatment, and become at even higher risk for suicide.

The task force made five recommendations “to ensure that mental health professionals are properly trained and competent in evaluating and managing suicidal patients, the most common behavioral emergency situation encountered in clinical practice.”

  1. Accrediting organizations must include suicide-specific education and skill acquisition as part of their requirements for postbaccalaureate degree program accreditation.
  2. State licensing boards must require suicide-specific continuing education as a requirement for the renewal of every mental health professional’s license.
  3. State and federal legislation should be enacted requiring health care systems and facilities receiving state or federal funds to show evidence that mental health professionals in their systems have had explicit training in suicide risk detection, assessment, management, treatment, and prevention.
  4. Accreditation and certification bodies for hospital and emergency department settings must verify that staff members have the requisite training in assessment and management of suicidal patients.
  5. Individuals without appropriate graduate or professional training and supervised experience should not be entrusted with the assessment and management of suicidal patients.

The Sophie Fund asked Quinnett on March 8 whether any progress had been made in implementing the recommendations in the decade since the report was issued.

“I am unaware of significant changes in the training of clinicians at the graduate level where It needs to happen. There are a few people here and there teaching a seminar or maybe one class in one school of social work or psychology, but to my knowledge any training to really prepare students for practice is offered only though postgraduate seminars, workshops, and proprietary offerings. Practitioners continue to behave as if they don’t need this training. Thus, the consumer, in my view, remains at avoidable risk.”

New Plan for Preventing Suicides in Tompkins County

The Tompkins County Suicide Prevention Coalition on February 24 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.

T-shirts for the Greater Ithaca “Out of the Darkness” Walk, September 18, 2021

The plan noted that suicide continues to be the second leading cause of death among Americans aged 10-34, and in Tompkins County approximately half of the population is under 30.

“We believe that the persistent rise in the U.S. suicide rate over the past two decades demands a public health response from communities across the nation,” the plan stated. It said that since 2016, Tompkins County has averaged 12 suicide deaths per year. Another 1,600 parents, children, siblings, friends, and spouses may have been negatively impacted by resulting psychological, spiritual, and/or financial loss, it added.

The plan seeks to improve the quality and enhance the use of data sources and systems for suicide prevention in Tompkins County. It proposes the development of a data collection infrastructure to regularly collect timely, high quality, and interpretable data on those at risk of suicide. It calls for a county dashboard that integrates data from multiple sources for the purposes of surveillance, monitoring program/policy impact, and informing the coalition’s planning and activities.

The plan’s second goal is to advance quality improvement for suicide care in all Tompkins County healthcare and behavioral health settings. It seeks to promote and facilitate the implementation of the Zero Suicide Model in the county’s major healthcare and behavioral health settings as well as in primary care practices and clinical therapy practices. The plan calls for the formation of a Zero Suicide Work Group comprised of health and mental health providers, and funding for a coordinator to manage and assist education, training, and other collaborative activities.

Another goal is to reduce suicide attempts in the youth population, including students attending local colleges, through suicide awareness activities and “gatekeeper” training programs.

The plan seeks to reduce access to lethal means for suicide within high-risk demographic populations as determined by national, state, and local data. It calls for suicide prevention awareness programming related to suicide death by firearms and suicide death by drug overdose.

Finally, the plan seeks to advocate for policies and practices designed to prevent suicides in the community and to request support and funding from government agencies and nonprofit organizations. The plan said the coalition would support legislation in the New York State Legislature for full funding for the enhancement of crisis response services aligned with the introduction of the 988 suicide prevention lifeline number in 2022.

The plan said that the coalition is committed to measuring the results of its strategic plan and making them public. The coalition drafted its strategic plan with the support of the Suicide Prevention Center of New York.

The Suicide Prevention Coalition was founded in 2017 by 40 health agencies, community organizations, and individual members who share a determination to prevent suicide deaths in Tompkins County. “The coalition draws inspiration and purpose from The Watershed Declaration, a call to action by Tompkins County mental health leaders to renew our community’s commitment to suicide prevention,” the plan said.