Meet the Tompkins County Suicide Prevention Coalition

More than 40 local mental health leaders launched the Tompkins County Suicide Prevention Coalition at a day-long working meeting held in Ithaca Monday.

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“It’s inspiring to see the breath of the organizations and individuals represented,” said Frank Kruppa, director of the Tompkins County Health Department. “It’s one of the things that makes Tompkins County special: when we have these types of issues, we are able to get folks in the room and talk about how we are going to tackle them.”

Deputy Commissioner of Mental Health Services Sharon MacDougall, the coalition’s organizer, said that the county seeks to foster greater collaboration in suicide prevention among the array of agencies and groups who deal with the issue.

“A coalition brings together all the experts that are in your county already,” she explained. “You have so many different perspectives, so many resources, so many different knowledge bases, and pulling them together gives you that focused lens on a community problem. We can help make that bigger effort to reducing suicide. If it is one death, it is one too many for Tompkins County. Zero suicide sounds like a lofty goal, but I think it has to be the goal.”

Garra Lloyd-Lester, associate director of the Suicide Prevention Center New York, briefed the participants on steps toward creating a successful suicide prevention coalition and presided over a Strengths-Weaknesses-Opportunities-Threats (SWOT) analysis.

“Things are off to a great start,” said Lloyd-Lester, who described the participants as “a diverse group of stakeholders, a cross section of people who are really invested in suicide prevention for the community.” But he warned that the coalition faced the critical challenge of sustaining momentum.

“At the meeting today, there was a lot of real energy, a lot of people all saying, ‘This is important work, we need to do it,’” Lloyd-Lester said. “How do you sustain that over the long haul? It’s a marathon, not a sprint. A coalition has to be built on more than just those individual champions. It’s got to be a culture, a way of doing things in the community. It takes recognition that no one entity can be responsible for suicide prevention in the community.”

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Garra Lloyd-Lester, Suicide Prevention Center New York

Lee-Ellen Marvin, executive director of the Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service in Ithaca, told the gathering that while Tompkins County’s suicide rate last year was seven deaths per 100,000, the actual number of suicide deaths jumped from four in 2014 and five in 2015 to 11 in 2016. “We can’t be complacent about suicide loss,” she said.

Marvin, whose agency has spearheaded suicide prevention in the area since 1969 by staffing a crisis hotline, after-trauma services, and education programs, listed two goals she hoped the coalition would help advance. The first is better understanding of people at risk in certain communities and how to reach them—such as financially struggling young adults, middle-aged men, gun owners, drug users. The second is adoption of the Zero Suicide Initiative, a commitment to suicide prevention in health and behavioral health care systems.

“What we need to communicate is that there is hope, there is help, and that there is absolutely no shame in getting help,” she concluded.

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Sharon MacDougall, Garra Lloyd-Lester, Lee-Ellen Marvin

Agencies and organizations represented at Monday’s meeting of the Tompkins County Suicide Prevention Coalition included:

Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service in Ithaca

Mental Health Association in Tompkins County

Family & Children’s Service of Ithaca

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Finger Lakes

Care Compass Network

The Sophie Fund

Human Services Coalition

Alcohol & Drug Council of Tompkins County

Cayuga Addiction Recovery Services

Tompkins Community Action

Planned Parenthood Southern Finger Lakes

Franziska Racker Centers

Cayuga Medical Center

The Advocacy Center

Ithaca Free Clinic

Lakeview Mental Health Services

Cornell Health

Ithaca College Office of Counseling and Wellness

Ithaca College Office of Public Safety and Emergency Management

Empire State College

Ithaca City School District

Groton Central School District

Tompkins County Legislature

Tompkins County Health Department

Tompkins County Mental Health Department

Tompkins County Office for the Aging

Tompkins County Youth Services Department

Tompkins County Department of Emergency Response

Suicide Prevention Center New York

Broome County Suicide Awareness for Families and Educators

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Bravo “Dear Evan Hansen”

“Dear Evan Hansen” is a musical about teenagers in the age of social media dealing with anxiety, confusion, loneliness, hurt, and suicide. A brilliant, cathartic narrative for our times, it cries out for us to recognize human fragility and empathize with it.

 

 

That message spread far beyond Broadway on Sunday night when “Dear Evan Hansen” won six Tony Awards, including for best musical, best actor, and best score. The musical’s cast album, with songs like “You Will Be Found,” “Requiem,” and “Waving Through a Window,” debuted in the Billboard Top 10 earlier this year.

Best-actor winner Ben Platt, who is 23, reached out to vulnerable teenagers in his acceptance remarks during the nationally televised ceremony at Radio City Music Hall:

“To all young people watching at home, don’t waste any time trying to be like anybody but yourself, because the things that make you strange are the things that make you powerful.”

In the plot, anxiety-ridden teen Evan Hansen writes pep-talk letters to himself on the advice of his therapist. One of the letters ends up in the pocket of a social outcast named Connor, who then dies by suicide. The Connor connection takes Evan into a swirl of lies as he fabricates stories about a friendship with Connor and pursues the crush he has on Connor’s sister. Evan achieves temporary social media-fueled fame as a campaigner to aid other youth experiencing Connor’s mental health struggles. Evan’s charade collapses, but the ordeal brings him to a reconciliation with his single-parent mom and to healthier self-awareness.

“Dear Evan Hansen” has been praised for its sensitive handling of mental disorders and suicide. The production has openly associated itself with mental health and suicide prevention organizations like the Child Mind Institute, the Crisis Text Line, The Jed Foundation, and The Trevor Project.

The show’s songwriters, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who won the Tony Award for best original score, spoke to Variety about the care they took in writing about teen suicide. As Paul put it:

“We wanted to make sure the subject was treated thoughtfully and sensitively. There was vetting of the script and of the story with mental health professionals, to make sure what we were telling felt truthful and honest, and like we weren’t trying to sugarcoat things, but that also wasn’t trying to provoke anything. There’s a small change in the show that we made between Second Stage and Broadway, the addition of two little lines toward the very, very end of the show, that we added after some feedback that we’d gotten from families of teenagers or people who had taken their own lives.”

 

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TIME’s Susanna Schrobsdorff captures the incredible impact “Dear Evan Hansen” is having on teenagers—and their parents:

Ask one of the many teenagers in the audience if the play seems authentic and they can barely get the words out. They say things like, “I’m in shock, it’s so good.” And often, right behind them, is a parent who’s also feeling undone. I lost it in the first act when the two stellar actors who play mothers of teens sing about feeling totally unqualified for the job of being a parent. “Does anybody have a map?” they cry. “Anybody maybe happen to know how the hell to do this?”

13 Reasons Why: Warning Label

The new Netflix series 13 Reasons Why is generating alarm among many mental health professionals and suicide prevention experts, who are concerned about the risks of glamorizing suicide and the possibility of contagion.

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Netflix kicked up a controversy with the series released on March 31 about a high school junior named Hannah who takes her own life. The series received a 91 percent critics approval rating and an 88 percent audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Critics praised the cast’s performances and the “authentic,” “sensitive,” and “hard hitting” portrayal of teenager angst.

However, 13 Reasons Why needs a warning label. The National Association of School Psychologists cautions that the series should not be viewed by vulnerable young people who experience any degree of suicidal ideation. NASP warns:

“Its powerful storytelling may lead impressionable viewers to romanticize the choices made by the characters and/or develop revenge fantasies. They may easily identify with the experiences portrayed and recognize both the intentional and unintentional effects on the central character. Unfortunately, adult characters in the show, including the second school counselor who inadequately addresses Hannah’s pleas for help, do not inspire a sense of trust or ability to help.”

NASP has problems with the accuracy of how mental illness and suicide are portrayed in the series. For example, it is concerned that the series does not emphasize that common among most suicide deaths is the presence of treatable mental illnesses. And that suicide is not the simple consequence of stressors or coping challenges, but rather, it is most typically a combined result of treatable mental illnesses and overwhelming or intolerable stressors.

Despite the strong misgivings, some see the widespread publicity around 13 Reason Why as an opportunity at least to spread greater awareness about suicide and suicide prevention. NASP says that the controversy is an “opportunity to better understand young people’s experiences, thoughts, and feelings,” educate parents, teachers, and students alike about suicide risk warning signs, and reinforce the message that suicide is not a solution to problems.

NASP advises that school psychologists and other school-employed mental health professionals can assist stakeholders such as school administrators, parents, and teachers to engage in supportive conversations with students as well as provide resources and offer expertise in preventing harmful behaviors. NASP published “Considerations for Educators,” guidance on 13 Reasons Why. Download it here.

Experts say if you’re thinking about the safest and best way to lead a discussion with teens about 13 Reasons Why and suicide, read the tip sheet co-authored by Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE) and the JED Foundation. Click here to download the tip sheet.

Some recommended reading from experts on the subject of suicide contagion:

Preventing Suicide With A “Contagion Of Strength” (National Public Radio February 25, 2015)

The Science Behind Suicide Contagion (New York Times, August 14, 2014)

Teen suicide: Prevention is Contagious, Too (Christian Science Monitor, December 8, 2013)

[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.]

The Watershed Declaration

Community mental health stakeholders representing 18 organizations on Monday declared suicide a “serious public health concern” and pledged to intensify suicide prevention efforts in Ithaca and Tompkins County.

GarraLloyd-Lester                       Garra Lloyd-Lester, associate director of the Suicide Prevention Center New York

The call to action, known as The Watershed Declaration, was adopted by acclamation at the close of a meeting of leaders from Tompkins County, the City of Ithaca, non-profit organizations, and the campuses of Cornell University, Ithaca College, and Tompkins Cortland Community College.

The Watershed Declaration stated as follows:

“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.”

Lee-Ellen Marvin, executive director of the Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service in Ithaca, praised the call to action. “I was excited and moved to see leaders from different parts of our social service community together in one room, thinking about and committing to suicide prevention,” she said. “There is indeed a public health crisis, and the way to prevent suicide is with awareness, vigilance, and the willingness of all parts of society to commit to this effort.”

Addressing the gathering at The Watershed in Ithaca, Garra Lloyd-Lester, associate director of the Suicide Prevention Center New York, announced plans to convene a “key stakeholders” meeting in June with the aim of establishing a suicide prevention coalition in Tompkins County.

Lloyd-Lester explained that suicide is increasingly seen as a public health problem rather than just an issue to be handled by an individual and their therapist.

“Operationally, that means we can all play a role in helping individuals who might be struggling with thoughts of suicide, to help keep them safe,” said Lloyd-Lester. “Seeing the folks here today it is really reflective of this idea that suicide is everybody’s business. That is the mantra that the state talks about: suicide prevention is everybody’s business.”

Sharon MacDougall, Deputy Commissioner of Mental Health Services in Tompkins County, welcomed the state’s initiative. “Suicide prevention efforts in Tompkins County are strong and need collaboration among all our agencies, providers, and groups like The Sophie Fund,” she said. “A Suicide Prevention Coalition will help bring these efforts together in close collaboration—providing a unified and passionate Tompkins County voice advocating zero suicides in our county.”

Monday’s meeting was organized by The Sophie Fund, which advocates for improved mental health for young people in the greater Ithaca area.

 

Understanding and Compassion

Suicide is a difficult thing to grasp or absorb. That is partly because of ignorance about suicide, which in turn is driven by the stigma around suicide and mental illness. The truth is that there’s much that every one of us can do to prevent suicide, if we put out hearts and minds into it.

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Many experts agree that fighting stigma has a big role in the effort. Suicide has complex causes, and often mental illness is a big factor. The stigma prevents too many people from seeking help, and prevents others from reaching out or providing appropriate support to people in need. A writer for The Mighty has this advice for us: “Talk about all of those topics that are taboo, get information, make them come alive, so if someone comes to you with a mental condition, they know you will listen.”

A good place to start, if you haven’t done so already, is the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). Its website provides quick resources about Suicide Risk Factors and Warning Signs, and how to Find Support if you are having thoughts of suicide or are worried about someone who might be at risk.

Want to help more? AFSP has a Take Action web page with opportunities to get involved in suicide prevention.