Call to Action: Suicide Prevention in Tompkins Healthcare

Jenna Heise, who became the director of suicide prevention implementation for New York State earlier this year, tells of a powerful moment in her work during her previous position at Texas Health and Human Services.

She was attending a high school event in Corpus Christi where a young man spoke. He had been treated for suicidality at a hospital that practiced Zero Suicide, a suicide prevention model for healthcare systems. “The principal come up and said, with tears in her eyes, ‘That young man, he’s alive because of you,’” Heise recalled.

Heise, widely recognized for her work in advancing the Zero Suicide Model in Texas and beyond, related the story during “Call to Action: Suicide Prevention in Healthcare,” a special presentation on the Zero Suicide Model for Tompkins County’s healthcare leaders sponsored by The Sophie Fund on November 16. The presentation via Zoom was attended by senior leaders from 11 hospitals, college health centers, and community behavioral health services, and a representative of the Tompkins County Suicide Prevention Coalition.

Heise used her Corpus Christi story to illustrate the potential of the Zero Suicide Model. “I did this in Texas, across 254 counties, in a statewide effort,” she said. “I know that you can do this. Yes, it works. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard from staff, how many times I’ve been on calls where I’ve heard from loved ones.”

She pointed to healthcare systems where Zero Suicide has been implemented with success, notably the Henry Ford Health System in Michigan. She said that within four years the suicide rate among its patients decreased by 75 percent. In some years the system recorded zero suicide deaths compared to an average 89 suicides per year previously.

Citing data that shows rising death rates, Heise called suicide a “public health crisis.” She said suicide was the second leading cause of death in the U.S. for people in the 10-14, 15-24, and 25-34 age groups, and the 10th leading cause of death overall. She referenced local data indicating that Tompkins County has averaged 12 suicide deaths per year in the past five years, and noted that each suicide tragedy impacts many other individuals such as family members, friends, colleagues, and peers.

Heise said that healthcare providers have traditionally treated suicidal patients in a fragmented approach, whereas the Zero Suicide Model brings together a framework of best practices for a more effective safety net for suicidal individuals seeking professional healthcare. The framework, she added, is based on “mind blowing” research into how to prevent suicide deaths.

“We don’t have to wonder what works,” she said. “We don’t have to throw the kitchen sink at it anymore. We can know what works, and we can use that.” She compared the promise of working more confidently with the Zero Suicide Model with her own experience as a young clinician, when she felt like “a deer in the headlights” when confronted with treating people who had made a suicide attempt.

She argued that it makes sense for prevention efforts to focus on medical providers because so many people who take their own lives are seeing healthcare professionals. She said that 80 percent of people who died by suicide had a healthcare visit in the year before their death. Forty-five percent had a primary care visit, 37 percent an emergency department visit, and  20 percent contact with a mental health service.

Heise quoted Michael Hogan, a former mental health commissioner for New York State and a co-developer of the Zero Suicide Model, saying, “We should treat suicide prevention in health care systems as we treat heart attack prevention.”

Heise walked the Tompkins healthcare leaders through the elements of the Zero Suicide framework, starting with the critical importance of top leadership. “When we talk about leadership, we’re talking about buy-in from the top down,” she explained. “We have to have leaders. Without every level of the agency working together with a consistent message and plan, it’s doomed to fail.”

Training staff in using evidence-based tools is essential, Heise said. She highlighted the importance of properly using the correct screening and assessment tools to identify suicidal individuals and provide them with an appropriate care plan. She noted that the model also calls for engaging patients through developing safety plans that provide them with coping skills for averting crises, and for the use of proven therapies for directly treating suicidality, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Suicidal Patients (CT-SP).

Ensuring safe transitions through care is another key element of the model, Heise said. This involves “warm handovers” when additional professional services are needed, and following up with suicidal individuals with “caring contacts” such as emails, texts, or postcards. Finally, she said, Zero Suicide calls for continuous attention to improving policies and procedures through data collection and other assessment measures.

“It’s a bundle of best practices that you use from the minute you meet the patient, all the way through their intake, their time with you, they’re getting ready to leave, and then the time they leave their care with you,” Heise said. “And then you follow up with them. It’s the entire continuum of care.”

Heise encouraged providers who have not already embarked on implementing the Zero Suicide Model to begin the process by conducting the Organizational Self-Study and Workforce Survey found in the model’s toolkit.

“Look at your organization as a whole, and where you are with certain best practices for suicide care,” she said. “The work force study is where you send out this blanket survey to all of the folks at your agency, to let you know what they know and don’t know.”

Heise said that Zero Suicide promotes a “just culture” in healthcare because it emphasizes the role of the system rather putting responsibility for suicide care and suicide deaths on individual clinicians. “We call it a preventable death, and what we mean by that is not that any of us could have stopped somebody from dying by our single efforts,” she said. “This is really looking at the bigger picture.”

Following Heise’s presentation, Scott MacLeod, co-founder of The Sophie Fund, announced planning for follow-up events to advance the Zero Suicide Model in Tompkins County; they included an expert briefing for healthcare managers and an introductory presentation for primary care practices.

The Sophie Fund proposed that Tompkins County healthcare leaders begin a formal and regular dialogue on Zero Suicide to share ideas and experiences, and to work on securing funding for a county implementation coordinator and training programs, MacLeod said.

He acknowledged the tremendous pressures and stress on healthcare providers amid the Covid-19 pandemic, but expressed hope that leaders will respond to the “Call to Action” with further efforts to implement the Zero Suicide Model.

“We are grateful for your work to improve suicide care in Tompkins County,” he said. “We invited our community’s top healthcare leaders to this ‘Call to Action’ today because leadership is the number one element of the Zero Suicide Model.”

The Sophie Fund launched a Zero Suicide initiative in 2017 by organizing an expert briefing on the model for local healthcare leaders. In 2017, the model was recommended by the Tompkins County Suicide Prevention Coalition and endorsed by the Tompkins County Legislature.

The Sophie Fund organized the November 16 Zero Suicide presentation to support the New York Office of Mental Health’s renewed focus on implementing the Zero Suicide Model and the U.S. Surgeon General’s 2021 Call to Action to Implement the 2012 National Strategy for Suicide Prevention.  

Among those attending Heise’s presentation were Frank Kruppa, director of the county Health Department and commissioner of Mental Health Services, and Harmony Ayers-Friedlander, deputy commissioner.

Other agencies represented were Cayuga Medical Center; Cayuga Health Partners; Guthrie Cortland Medical Center; Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service; Family & Children’s Service of Ithaca; MindWell Center LLP; REACH Medical; Cornell Health, Cornell University; Center for Counseling and Psychiatric Services, Ithaca College; and Health and Wellness Services and Mental Health Counseling, Tompkins Cortland Community College.

READ MORE: The Zero Suicide Model in Tompkins County

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.

Support The Learning Web of Ithaca!

Welcome to The Sophie Fund’s 2021 Cupcake Button fundraiser! Each October, we work alongside student organizations to raise monies for a local nonprofit focused on community wellbeing.

Members of The Learning Web’s Volunteer Community Service Program help the Family Reading Partnership prepare books to be given to local kids

This year the campaign is collecting funds for The Learning Web, an Ithaca agency offering experiential learning, youth employment, and independent living programs to youth and young adults in Tompkins County. 

One hundred percent of monies raised will go to The Learning Web and specifically to its Supporting Strong Families project. The project helps youth with children learn new skills, acquire childcare equipment and supplies, and access needed resources.   

Click here to DONATE via GoFundMe

The Learning Web strives to support local youth—from the homeless to the more fortunate—to make the transition to adulthood successfully, finish high school, develop a productive career path leading to gainful employment and self-sufficiency, and contribute in a healthy and positive way to better the greater Ithaca community.

Every year The Learning Web helps 600 youth, 200 of whom are homeless, through a variety of programs. Services are provided to ensure safe housing, assist education and training opportunities, develop career pathways through apprenticeships and employment, and help with parenting skills for young parents.

For more information about The Learning Web, go to: https://www.learning-web.org/

This year’s fundraising campaign is supported by many student organizations, including Cornell University’s Cornell Minds Matter, Alpha Phi Omega–Gamma Chapter, Reflect at Cornell, Phi Sigma Pi, Pre-Professional Association Toward Careers in Health (PATCH), and Cornell Circle K; and Ithaca College’s IC Strike.

Students will raise money through in-person activities (and provide donors with Cupcake Buttons) and through online collections via GoFundMe.

The symbol of the campaign is a Cupcake Button, because the fundraising takes place in the run-up to the Annual Ithaca Cupcake Baking Contest hosted by The Sophie Fund. To enter this year’s cupcake contest, go to: https://thesophiefund.org/cupcake-contest/

2021 Cupcake Button (detail from Evolution, a painting by Sophie Hack MacLeod)

For more information about The Sophie Fund, go to: www.thesophiefund.org

Join Ithaca’s Walk to Fight Suicide

The Sophie Fund is honored and proud to support the Out of the Darkness Greater Ithaca Walk, a special event that provides community, connection, healing, and hope for survivors of suicide loss and those with lived experience. September is National Suicide Prevention Month.

Please consider registering for and/or donating to the September 18 Ithaca Walk in Myers Park. You will join a strong community united in an effort to fight suicide while showing up for yourself, recognizing and honoring those you love, raising awareness, educating communities, supporting one another, and sharing hope.

The Ithaca Walk is organized by The Sophie Fund’s esteemed colleagues and dear friends at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Greater Central New York Chapter.

Every dollar raised in this event enables AFSP to invest in life-saving research, education, advocacy, and support for those impacted by suicide.

Click here for more information about the Ithaca Walk and how to register.

Click here to receive updates from AFSP’s Greater Central New York Chapter or to sign up as an AFSP volunteer.

Take a Mental Health Test

May is Mental Health Month! Why not do a self-check to see how your mental health is doing right now? Mental Health America (MHA) provides a quick-and-easy-to-use online screening tool to test whether you are experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition. MHA says that 3 million Americans have taken a test during the Covid-19 pandemic in the past 12 months.

Click here to take MHA’s mental health tests

You can screen for anxiety, depression, postpartum depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Eating Disorder, psychosis, and addiction. Parents can also take a test to understand whether their children may be experiencing emotional, attentional, or behavioral difficulties. There is also a similar test with youth-themed questions that young people can take to check on themselves.

Following screening, you will be provided with information, resources and tools to help you understand and improve your mental health.

MHA notes that online screening tools are meant to be a quick snapshot of your mental health. “If your results indicate you may be experiencing symptoms of a mental illness, consider sharing your results with someone,” MHA advises. “A mental health provider (such as a doctor or a therapist) can give you a full assessment and talk to you about options for how to feel better. Mental health conditions are real, common and treatable, and recovery is possible.”

“We at Mental Health America have witnessed an unprecedented increase in the numbers of people experiencing mental health problems,” said Paul Gionfriddo, MHA president and CEO. “In November 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 44 percent of us were dealing with either depression or anxiety. While historically data shows us that 1 in 5 adults will experience a mental health problem, these days it certainly feels like it’s 5 in 5.”

For Mental Health Month, MHA is providing a package of materials that can be used by healthcare providers, community organizations, schools, and social media users to encourage greater awareness and treatment for mental health conditions.

DOWNLOAD: MHA’s “Tools 2 Thrive” toolkit

The toolkit highlights six topcis:

Adapting After Trauma and Stress

Processing Big Changes

Getting Out of Thinking Traps

Radical Acceptance

Taking Time for Yourself

Dealing with Anger and Frustration

During Mental Health Month, follow and share The Sophie Fund’s education campaign on Instagram and Facebook to learn about screening tools, treatment methods, suicide safety plans, crisis hotlines, and mental health statistics.

The infographics relay expert information from sources such as Mental Health America, National Alliance on Mental Illness, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and Suicide Prevention Resource Center. The campaign was created by Margaret Kent, an Ithaca College student and intern at The Sophie Fund.

Fighting Sexual Assault on Campus

Sexual harassment and assault are worldwide problems. IC Strike is an Ithaca College student organization formed in 2019 and dedicated to education, action, and allyship surrounding sexual assault. We believe it is our duty to inform the Ithaca community because sexual assault and violence is, more often than not, swept under the rug.

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), every 73 seconds an American is sexually assaulted, meaning you regularly interreact with survivors of sexual assault every day.

There are differences in direct and indirect sexual assault prevention. The opportunity to distract people involved in a dangerous situation can be a safer way to provide a friend or a stranger a way out of an uncomfortable encounter. Asking directly or getting help from a figure of authority like a Resident Assistant, campus safety officer, or calling 911 can also save people from potentially traumatic situations.

Additionally, it’s important to create safe spaces to talk about uncomfortable situations. This can help individuals so that they don’t have to take on the big issues alone by helping to create safety and support networks for those that need them. Of course, education is at the core of sexual assault prevention. Education helps to create a safe space where conversations can be held about traditionally taboo topics such as consent and sexual violence.

April 2021 marks the 20th anniversary of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. There are many campaigns, some with different themes, designed to share information around sexual assault awareness and prevention. These campaigns stem from historical and intersectional branches of activism that continue to show how anyone can be affected by this issue.

IC Strike partnered with The Sophie Fund and the Advocacy Center of Tompkins County to launch an education campaign on social media during Sexual Assault Awareness Month. We are trying to reach as many people as possible to educate them on our core issues.

IC Strike was created as a response to our founder’s experiences navigating the legal and health systems following a assault. Like her, many of our members seek validation and answers to questions surrounding their own experiences. As an organization, we strive to fulfill the needs of survivors and to educate our community to prevent the same trauma from occurring to others.

These issues of sexual violence affect everyone, and we believe that facilitating a safe and respectful space for learning and navigating tough conversations within a college community leads to personal growth and social progress. 

IC Strike adamantly believes in the power of education and communication. Our society struggles to have conversations about sex, trauma, and sexual violence. In breaking the social stigma surrounding these topics, people are able to learn more about themselves and the society they live in. The social gag rule on sexual assault fosters ignorance and perpetuates harmful behavior and values. By equipping students with the facts and the vocabulary to discuss these issues, productive conversations can be had and stigmas can be broken.

By Carmen Enge, Lindsay Sayer, and Julia Siegal

Carmen Enge, Lindsay Sayer, and Julia Siegal are students at Ithaca College and serve, respectively, as treasurer and co-presidents of IC Strike

READ: Sexual Assault Awareness Month