High School Warriors Against Suicide

“The truth is, we all struggle. We need you. Together, we rise.” — Arlee Warriors.

Can we prevent suicide? The Arlee Warriors high school basketball team thinks so.

In Montana, which records the highest suicide rate in the United States, the Arlee players dedicated this month’s statewide high school basketball tournament to suicide prevention. To spur their cause, the Warriors made a moving video sending support to people struggling with thoughts of hopelessness and encouraging others to fight for them.

The Warriors of Arlee, where half the town’s population of 600 is Native American,  are pretty amazing at basketball, too. On March 3, Arlee High School won a second straight state title, defeating Manhattan Christian School 66-58.

Arlee Warriors, you inspire us, on and off the court!

[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 1-800-273-8255 or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.]


Cupcake Buttons: Supporting Suicide Prevention

The Sophie Fund presented a donation check for $829.50 on Wednesday evening to the Suicide Prevention & Crisis Service (SPCS) of Ithaca. Cornell University’s Alpha Phi Omega Gamma Chapter and Active Minds at Ithaca College raised the funds in The Sophie Fund’s “cupcake button” campaign last fall.


Alpha Phi Omega President Winnie Ho hands a check to Suicide Prevention & Crisis Service Executive Director Lee-Ellen Marvin

Both student organizations set up fundraising tables on their campuses as well as at GreenStar Natural Food Market’s stores in the West End and Collegetown. Alpha Phi Omega also raised funds in the Ithaca Commons during the Apple Harvest Festival. The Sophie Fund selected SPCS to be the recipient of monies collected in the 2017 cupcake button campaign.

“We sincerely thank Alpha Phi Omega and Active Minds, as well as all the many people who made generous donations, for supporting the cause of suicide prevention in Tompkins County,” said Scott MacLeod, an officer of The Sophie Fund.

“The student organizations not only collected money, but they engaged meaningful conversations within their own circles and with the campus and Ithaca communities about mental health. The commitment of these organizations is nothing less than amazing. Hats off to GreenStar for allowing us to raise funds at their locations and for their tremendous support for mental health and well-being in the community.”

Alpha Phi Omega President Winnie Ho handed over the donation check in a brief ceremony to SPCS Executive Director Lee-Ellen Marvin. Ho was joined by Alpha Phi Omega members Joanna Hua, Trisha Ray, and Ashley Kim.

“As college students who have the privilege to interact with so many different organizations across our campus and in our local community, we have had the chance to see how critical it is that mental health and wellness is supported on every level,” said Ho.

“The partnership between Alpha Phi Omega Gamma Chapter and The Sophie Fund is the result of a dedication to improving mental health on collegiate campuses. We are thrilled to be working with incredible organizations such as Ithaca Suicide Prevention & Crisis Services who have done so much for students and community members. There is important work still left to be done to support our peers, but we are optimistic about the future of this collaboration.”

S. Makai Andrews, co-president of Ithaca College’s Active Minds chapter, and an intern at SPCS and The Sophie Fund, led the Active Minds effort. “We wanted to participate in the button selling as a means to increase mental health visibility in the Ithaca area and reduce the stigma surrounding these situations,” said Andrews. “We were happy to serve as examples of college-aged students who have struggled with our mental health and spoke with many interesting people in the community about what changes they would like to see in how we talk about mental health.”

“Gifts like these always give us a lift, helping us continue the work we do by reminding us that the community cares,” said Marvin. “The staff, board, and volunteers of Suicide Prevention & Crisis Service are grateful for this donation because we know that it represents a big effort by student members of Alpha Phi Omega at Cornell and Active Minds at Ithaca College.”


Peri Margolies and S. Makai Andrews of Active Minds at GreenStar Natural Foods Market during the cupcake button campaign

SPRC operates Crisisline, offering free and confidential crisis counseling, staffed 365 days a year by trained volunteers who respond to calls from Tompkins County and across the 607 area code. It also provides “The Chat,” an Internet chat service for young people who are reluctant to talk on the telephone.

The Crisisline is a member of the National Suicide Lifeline system and is accredited by the American Association of Suicidology. It is also a founding member of the Tompkins County Suicide Prevention Coalition established last July.

The overall mission of SPCS is to promote constructive responses to crisis and trauma and to prevent violence to self and others through direct support and community education.

SPRC’s Education Program provides suicide prevention and mental health programs to youth and adults in public schools, colleges, and universities, and community-based settings.

Another program is After-Trauma Services, which provides free short-term counseling and support groups to those who have lost a loved one to suicide or unexpected death.

SPCS traces its history back to 1968, when Ithacans lobbied for a 24-hour crisis line following a series of suicides in the community. Reverend Jack Lewis took the first call in 1969, from a young man who felt so upset that he had decided the only solution was to kill himself. With the help of SPCS’s first volunteer counselor, the young man renewed his hope and sense of possibility.

“We’re so thankful for the essential work that SPCS does to educate the public and provide support for people struggling with mental disorders and suicidal thoughts,” said MacLeod. “Calling the Crisisline, if you or somebody you know is experiencing difficulties, can literally save a life.”

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

Our Goal: Zero Suicide for Tompkins County

The Sophie Fund recently organized a small conference with a big purpose: to introduce and implement the Zero Suicide Model in Tompkins County. Together with Ithaca’s Suicide Prevention & Crisis Service and the New York State Suicide Prevention Office, we invited the most senior healthcare leaders from local government, medical centers, and college campuses to attend an expert briefing on October 16 at The Statler Hotel.

Zero Suicide briefing 101617

Healthcare leaders from Ithaca and Tompkins County

The presenters were two of the nation’s leading authorities on suicide prevention:

—Michael Hogan, a developer of the Zero Suicide Model, who served as New York State Mental Health Commissioner (2007–2012), Ohio Department of Mental Health Director (1991–2007) and Connecticut Mental Health Commissioner (1987–1991).

—Sigrid Pechenik, Associate Director of the New York State Suicide Prevention Office.

Turnout for the briefing was excellent. Attendees included: Tompkins County Public Health Director Frank Kruppa, who also serves as the county’s Mental Health Commissioner; Deputy Mental Health Commissioner Sharon MacDougall; senior administrators from Cayuga Medical Center and Family & Children’s Service of Ithaca; and health directors from Cornell University, Ithaca College, and Tompkins Cortland Community College.

Suicide is absolutely not an inevitable outcome for people struggling with suicide ideation related to mental illness or other factors. The Suicide Prevention Resource Center argues that “we all have a role to play” in preventing suicide.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention explains that “suicide most often occurs when stressors exceed current coping abilities of someone suffering from a mental health condition”—and part of the problem is that conditions like depression often go undiagnosed or untreated.

AFSP outlines the risk factors and warning signs for suicide, and the critical steps that suicidal individuals and their families and friends can take when such factors and signs are present. Risk factors include mental health conditions, stressful life events, and a family history of suicide. Warning signs include talking about pain and suicide, increased alcohol or drug use, withdrawing from family and friends, and exhibiting anxiety or loss of interest.

The Zero Suicide Model, sometimes called the “Suicide Safer Care Model,” goes further. Zero Suicide argues that suicides can be prevented by closing cracks in healthcare systems—that “suicide deaths for individuals under care within health and behavioral health systems are preventable.”

As Hogan and Pechenik emphasized in their Statler presentations, Zero Suicide means making suicide prevention a core responsibility of healthcare. Specifically, this entails a systematic clinical approach in healthcare systems—training staff, screening for suicide ideation, utilizing evidence-based interventions, mandating continuous quality improvement, treating suicidality as a presenting problem—and not simply relying on the heroic efforts of crisis staff and individual clinicians.


Sigrid Pechenik, Associate Director, New York State Suicide Prevention Office, and Michael Hogan, former New York State Mental Health Commissioner

As SPRC puts it: “The programmatic approach of Zero Suicide is based on the realization that suicidal individuals often fall through multiple cracks in a fragmented and sometimes distracted healthcare system, and on the premise that a systematic approach to quality improvement is necessary.”

Certainly, the facts make a compelling case that healthcare settings must play a critical role in preventing suicide. According to Pechenik, a review of New York State data of 3,564 suicides in 2013–2014 identified that 25 percent of the individuals who took their own lives had been discharged from emergency departments or inpatient facilities within just seven days prior to their suicide deaths.

The data also indicates a strong need to better train clinicians in suicide screening, assessment, intervention, and follow-up. Of 1,585 mental health providers surveyed by the NYS Office of Mental Health in 2014, 64 percent reported little or no specialized training in suicide-specific interventions. Moreover, about 33 percent reported that they did not feel they had sufficient training to assist suicidal patients.

Zero Suicide is at the heart of the 2012 National Strategy for Suicide Prevention, released by the U.S. Surgeon General and the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. The NSSP’s Goal 8 is to “promote suicide prevention as a core component of healthcare services.” Goal 9 is to “promote and implement effective clinical and professional practices for assessing and treating those at risk for suicidal behaviors.”

As Pechenik noted, Zero Suicide is also explicitly embraced by the NYS Suicide Prevention Plan 2016–17, entitled 1,700 Too Many. Implementing Zero Suicide in health and behavioral healthcare settings is the first pillar of the suicide prevention strategy outlined in the plan. The second pillar is to “create and strengthen suicide safer communities.”

According to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, “There is strong evidence that a comprehensive public health approach is effective in reducing suicide rates.”

Hogan pointed out that the Zero Suicide Model builds on breakthroughs such as the Perfect Depression Care Initiative implemented in 2001 by the Henry Ford Health System in Michigan. Its comprehensive approach to mental and behavioral healthcare—incorporating suicide prevention as an explicit goal—demonstrated a 75 percent reduction in the suicide rate among Henry Ford health plan members.

More recently, Hogan highlighted, The Joint Commission issued a Sentinel Event Alert on the imperative of improving suicide prevention in healthcare settings. The Alert is important because the commission is a body that accredits and certifies nearly 21,000 healthcare organizations and programs (including Cayuga Medical Center) across the country—such accreditation and certification is a symbol of quality that reflects an organization’s commitment to meeting certain performance standards.

The Joint Commission’s February 24, 2016 Sentinel Event Alert Issue 56, entitled “Detecting and Treating Suicide Ideation in All Settings,” stated:

“The Joint Commission urges all healthcare organizations to develop clinical environment readiness by identifying, developing and integrating comprehensive behavioral health, primary care and community resources to assure continuity of care for individuals at risk for suicide.”

The Sentinel Event Alert recommended detailed actions for suicide ideation detection; the screening, risk assessment, safety, treatment, discharge, and follow-up care of at-risk individuals; educating all staff about suicide risk; keeping health care environments safe for individuals at risk for suicide; and documenting their care.

The commission’s focus on suicide prevention in healthcare settings stems from the belief that while being alert to risk factors and warning signs is important, it is not sufficient. There is no typical suicide victim: most people with risk factors don’t attempt suicide, and others without risk factors do. Thus, the Alert stated:

“It’s imperative for healthcare providers in all settings to better detect suicide ideation in patients, and to take appropriate steps for their safety and/or refer these patients to an appropriate provider for screening, risk assessment, and treatment.”

The Alert reported that many communities and healthcare organizations presently do not have adequate suicide prevention resources, leading to the low detection and treatment rate of those at risk. It noted that although most people who die by suicide receive healthcare services in the year prior to their deaths, healthcare providers often do not detect their suicidal thoughts. “Supportive continuity of care for those identified as at risk for suicide is crucial,” the Alert said.

The Joint Commission reported that in 2014 many commission-accredited organizations were actually rated non-compliant with its National Patient Safety Goal 15.01.01 Element of Performance 1: “Conduct a risk assessment that identifies specific patient characteristics and environmental features that may increase or decrease the risk for suicide.”

The commission said its database recorded 1,089 suicides occurring from 2010 to 2014 among patients receiving care, treatment, and services in a staffed, around-the clock care setting or within 72 hours of discharge, including from a hospital’s emergency department. According to the Alert, “The most common root cause documented during this time period was shortcomings in assessment, most commonly psychiatric assessment.”

The Joint Commission said its Sentinel Event Alert aimed “to assist all healthcare organizations providing both inpatient and outpatient care to better identify and treat individuals with suicide ideation.” The Alert listed areas for improvement:

—Clinicians in emergency, primary, and behavioral healthcare settings particularly have a crucial role in detecting suicide ideation and assuring appropriate evaluation.

—Behavioral health professionals play an additional important role in providing evidence-based treatment and follow-up care.

—For all clinicians working with patients with suicide ideation, care transitions are very important. Many patients at risk for suicide do not receive outpatient behavioral treatment in a timely fashion following discharge from emergency departments and inpatient psychiatric settings.

The Sentinel Event Alert noted that suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, taking “more lives than traffic accidents and more than twice as many as homicides.” In 2011, according to data published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, suicide became the second leading cause of death for Americans aged 15-24.

In April 2016, the National Center for Health Statistics reported a 24 percent increase in the suicide rate in the United States from 1999 to 2014. While age-adjusted death rates for heart disease and cancer have dramatically declined in the last two decades thanks to improved detection and treatment strategies, the suicide rate has skyrocketed.

On September 15, 2017, the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health reported that three interventions, which were designed for follow-up of patients identified with suicide risk in hospital emergency departments, save lives and are even more cost effective than usual care. The interventions were sending postcards to patients at risk; calling discharged patients to offer support and encourage follow-up treatment; and connecting patients to suicide-focused cognitive behavioral therapy programs.

“In the face of a gradually rising suicide rate, the need for effective prevention strategies is urgent,” said NIMH Director Joshua Gordon. “These findings of cost-effectiveness add to the impetus for implementing these life-saving approaches. Importantly, they also make a strong case for expanding screening, which would allow us to reaching many more of those at risk with life-saving interventions.”


It is the hope of The Sophie Fund that the October 16 briefing at The Statler Hotel is the start of a process of garnering commitments from local healthcare leaders to develop implementation plans that bring the Zero Suicide Model to Tompkins County.

To achieve ultimate success, “buy-ins” will be needed from major healthcare systems including psychiatric units, emergency departments, and college health centers, as well as from primary care providers and substance use disorder treatment centers.

To assist healthcare organizations in implementing the seven fundamentals of Zero Suicide, SPRC established the Zero Suicide project offering online resources such as an organizational self-study, implementation toolkits, readings, and webinars, and an offline Zero Suicide Academy providing two-day trainings for healthcare leadership.

The NYS Office of Mental Health operates the New York Academy for Suicide Safer Care, which offers a 9-12 month program of webinars and coaching calls for organizations seeking to raise their standard of suicide care.

The Statler briefing follows several encouraging local developments in suicide prevention during 2017.

On April 17, community mental health stakeholders representing 18 organizations adopted The Watershed Declaration, calling suicide a “serious public health concern” and pledging to intensify suicide prevention efforts in Ithaca and Tompkins County.

On June 7, 2017, Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick issued a proclamation supporting The Watershed Declaration and calling for “an all-out effort to prevent suicide.” The Tompkins County Legislature issued a similar proclamation on September 5, 2017.

On July 31, led by the Tompkins County Department of Mental Health, local mental health leaders launched the Tompkins County Suicide Prevention Coalition representing 32 organizations including health, behavioral health and substance use disorder treatment facilities, schools, and county departments.

—By Scott MacLeod and Susan Hack

Scott MacLeod and Susan Hack are officers of The Sophie Fund, Inc., a nonprofit charitable corporation supporting mental health initiatives aiding young people in greater Ithaca and Tompkins County.

A Concert for Mental Health… and Hope

Ithaca College’s music students and faculty staged an unforgettable show featuring Broadway hits, old favorites, and even a Handel aria Tuesday evening November 14 in “Music for the Mind: Mental Health Awareness Concert.”

The event in Ford Hall at the Whalen School of Music was the brainchild of Megan Jones, a junior voice student, who was inspired to “do something” after a fellow student and dorm mate attempted suicide earlier this year. The Ithaca College community quickly rallied to the cause.

“Nobody should feel as alone as my dear friend did, and I so strongly believe that music is a perfect way to bring attention, raise awareness, and comfort anyone around to hear it,” Megan told The Sophie Fund.

“Music for the Mind” was a tour de force showcasing IC’s exceptional instrumental, voice, and dance talent in nine musical pieces, including “Make Someone Happy,” “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “Rise Up,” “Lascia Chio Pianga,” “Please Stay,” “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and “You Will be Found.”

“A strength of the Ithaca College community is our care for one another,” Deborah Harper, director of IC’s Center for Counseling, Health and Wellness, said in opening remarks to the audience. “What you are about to experience is one example of care in action. Music uplifts us, soothes us, inspires us, invites us to feel deeply. I would like to thank Megan for bringing her vision—’Music for the Mind’—to life tonight. As we spend the next hour together, I want to invite you to reflect on the value of our connections to life and to the people we hold dear. Open yourself to the music and allow your heart and mind to be moved.”

Before the curtain rose, Megan Jones introduced her friend Lola, who spoke eloquently and powerfully about her experience, and addressed others “who might be struggling right now”:

“This concert is for you. You might be used to being spoken around. For people to slightly touch the subject of your life, and just as quickly to draw back. For people to talk to the helpers instead of the people who need help.

“I am not you. Your symptoms are yours. You are your own person. But also you are not alone. All in all, you aren’t. You are a human in a world full of humans. You are not going crazy. You are suffering from an illness. You are living through it. You’re doing the best you can, and that really is enough. I don’t know you or what you are going through, but I know you can get through it. You’re strong, you’re trying, you’re alive, you’re here.

“Your disorder or illness is not just an excuse. You are more than enough. It may take a while to get out of this funk. It may just be something you deal with forever. But you will overall get better. You will learn to cope better. You will make friends. You will lose friends. It might be hard. You’ll continue to learn and you’ll continue to grow. One day, I truly think, the good days will start to outweigh the bad.

“Remember that people can’t know what you are going through until you tell them. That’s still something I’m trying to learn and get used to. You need to learn to take care of yourself at the end of the day.”

Click here to watch the “Music for the Mind” concert

Photos by Sarah Horbacewicz

[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 1-800-273-8255 or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.]


“Please Stay,” by Jake Runstad. Performed by the Ithaca College Choir, directed by Janet Galván, professor of performance studies.



“Please Stay,” by Jake Runstad. Performed by the Ithaca College Choir, directed by Janet Galván, professor of performance studies.



“You Will be Found,” from Dear Evan Hansen, by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.



“Rise Up,” by Andra Day. Performed by Laurel Albinder and IC Voicestream.



“My Oh My,” by Punch Brothers. Performed by Jonah Bobo, John Bourdelais, Tom Brody, Marybeth MacKay, and Nicky Young



“You’ll Never Walk Alone,” from Carousel by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. Performed by Deborah Montgomery-Cove, professor of performance studies.



“Finding Hope,” by Ava Maria Safai. Performed by the IC Unbound Dance Company.


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“Lascia Chio Pianga,” from Rinaldo, by George Frideric Handel. Performed by Ivy Walz, associate professor of performance studies, with string quartet and dancers.


7-Lascia chio pianga

“Lascia Chio Pianga,” from Rinaldo, by George Frideric Handel. Performed by Ivy Walz, associate professor of performance studies, with string quartet and dancers.



“Make Someone Happy,” by Jule Styne. Performed by Marc Webster, assistant professor of performance studies, (with Megan Jones and Christopher Zemliauskas).



“Make Someone Happy,” by Jule Styne. Performed by Megan Jones, IC voice student, (with Marc Webster and Christopher Zemliauskas).

Even Polo Players Get the Blues

Cornell University’s Varsity Polo Team is an outstanding example of how each one of us can play a vital role in promoting mental health. For the fifth year in a row this Saturday, October 28, the team is playing a benefit match to raise awareness and collect donations for suicide prevention.


The fitting tagline for this year’s benefit match is “Even Polo Players Get the Blues.” Members of the Cornell equestrian team created the annual event in memory of Sue Knight (’81), captain of Cornell championship teams in 1980 and 1981. Knight died by suicide after a long battle with depression in early January 2013 at age 53.

“This cause is especially important to Cornell polo team members both past and present as we lost a beloved former women’s team player and team captain far too soon,” said Anthony Condo, Jr., a Cornell volunteer coach. “In short, it is real close to home for so many of us.”

The benefit match is a day of weekend fun, with spectators taking in the match, watching a demonstration of polo skills, and meeting members of the Cornell team. The event starts at 2 p.m. at the John T. Oxley Equestrian Center in Ithaca. Parking and admission are free.

Donations collected will be directed to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, a national organization devoted to new research, educational programs, advocacy for public policy, and supporting survivors of suicide loss.

Click here to make a donation to AFSP anytime.

[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 1-800-273-8255 or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.]

Cornell polo team members

Caption: Cornell polo coaches and team members celebrating an Amateur Cup victory, August 2017.