New Step Toward “Zero Suicide” in Tompkins County

Top healthcare leaders in Tompkins County have agreed to form a steering committee to drive local implementation of the Zero Suicide Model, an emerging standard designed to save lives by closing gaps in the suicide care offered by and across healthcare providers.

Zero Suicide roundtable participants, July 20

The move came during “Zero Suicide Roundtable: A Discussion on Best Practices in Suicide Prevention with Tompkins County Healthcare Leaders,” hosted on July 20 at the Statler Hotel by The Sophie Fund and Tompkins County Mental Health Services.

The two-hour roundtable was moderated by Jenna Heise, director of Suicide Prevention Implementation at the Office of Mental Health’s Suicide Prevention Center of New York.

The 13 roundtable participants represented Cayuga Medical Center, Guthrie Cortland Medical Center, Tompkins County Health Department, Tompkins County Mental Health Services, Family & Children’s Service of Ithaca, Suicide Prevention & Crisis Service, Cornell University, Tompkins Cortland Community College, and The Sophie Fund.

The leaders’ agreement is a step toward fulfilling Goal 2 of the Tompkins County Suicide Prevention Coalition’s 2022-2025 Strategic Plan, adopted last February, which calls for “quality improvement for suicide care in all Tompkins County healthcare and behavioral health settings.”

The strategic plan’s Objective 2.3 calls for the formation of a “Zero Suicide Work Group comprised of leading health and mental health providers to share ideas, experiences, and challenges, and lead collaborative, sustainable efforts to implement the Zero Suicide Model throughout Tompkins County.”

Harmony Ayers-Friedlander, deputy commissioner of Tompkins County Mental Health Services, introduced Heise to the gathering “as we renew our commitment to the implementation of the Zero Suicide Model in our community, within, and across, our healthcare settings.” She noted that the county’s Suicide Prevention Coalition was launched exactly five years earlier with the vision of “a community where no lives are lost to suicide.”

Addressing the healthcare leaders, Ayers-Friedlander added:

“Your presence here today serves as a reminder of just how important this work is. Zero Suicide works. Because it gives us hope that we can make a difference, direction through a systems-based framework when faced with the complexity of human suffering, and real tools that help us at each step of the way. Today is a time to evaluate where we are individually as institutions and collectively as a community in preventing suicide through this model.”

Jenna Heise, director of New York State’s Suicide Prevention Implementation, moderates a Zero Suicide leadership roundtable

Heise opened the roundtable with a brief overview of the Zero Suicide Model and then walked participants through a discussion on the model’s seven elements: leadership, training, screening and assessment, care planning, treatment, transition of care, and quality improvement.

“The foundational belief of Zero Suicide is that individuals in our care, on our watch, need not die by suicide, and that suicide is actually preventable for those in care,” Heise said. “The way that happens is that suicide prevention and suicide care become a core priority for health and behavioral health. We have not done a good job of that, frankly.”

“We need to have that leadership commitment,” Heise said. Under the model, she explained, a leadership commitment creates a “just culture” for suicide care that relies on systemic use of best practices rather than leaving suicide prevention to individual health workers.

“It has to be looked at as a systems problem,” she said. “For too long, we have left it to the crisis team or to one outstanding individual clinician or social worker, and our systems, or the newest person, the greenest person straight out of school, who had no schooling in suicide.”

Citing examples of successful implementation of Zero Suicide, such as in the Henry Ford Health System in Michigan, Heise added: “It is an aspirational goal but it is quite attainable. There are folks that have done this work and committed to it, and followed this framework in implementing the seven elements, and they have shown that you could significantly reduce the suicides, by rate and number, within your healthcare organization.”

Heise commended Tompkins County’s approach to creating a “safer suicide community, wrapped around health and behavioral healthcare, including partners on board like the health department, behavioral health, large health systems, universities, higher ed, and so forth. That’s where you start to really see impact, everybody speaking the same language, using the same tools, the same best practices, the same framework. This is very exciting.”

Participants shared their experiences with various aspects of suicide prevention measures within their systems. They noted the importance of cross-system coordination and integration for suicide care, the challenge of staffing, and a desire for greater suicide-specific training. Several participants noted their continuous quality improvement efforts in suicide care but said they did not follow the Zero Suicide Model per se.

The Sophie Fund provided participants with a packet of materials about the Zero Suicide Model and previous suicide prevention efforts that have been undertaken in Tompkins County. The packet included the following items:

Zero Suicide Organizational Self-Study

Transforming Systems for Safer Care

Quick Start Guide to Getting Started with Zero Suicide

“Vital Signs: Suicide rising across the US,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

“Changes in Suicide Rates United States, 2018–2019,” MMWR, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Sentinel Event Alert Issue 56: Detecting and treating suicide ideation in all settings, The Joint Commission

National Patient Safety Goal for suicide prevention, The Joint Commission

Three-Year Strategic Plan 2022-2025, Tompkins County Suicide Prevention Coalition

Resolution 2018-155, Suicide Prevention Coalition Zero Suicide Initiative, Tompkins County Legislature

The Watershed Declaration

Mental Health Support and Crisis Services Tompkins County, The Sophie Fund

“Health Care Contacts in the Year Before Suicide Death,” Journal of General Internal Medicine, by Brian K. Ahmedani, et al.

“Suicide Prevention: An Emerging Priority For Health Care,” Health Affairs, by Michael F. Hogan and Julie Goldstein Grumet

The roundtable was the fifth and final session of a Zero Suicide initiative launched by The Sophie Fund last November. 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.

“Understanding, Identifying, and Addressing Suicide Risk: A Clinical Primer for Behavioral Health Providers,” on March 9 by The Wellness Institute

“Implementation of Zero Suicide,” a suicide prevention presentation for front line managers, on March 24 by Tammy Weppelman, State Suicide Prevention Coordinator at the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

“Zero Suicide: Best Practices for Primary Care,” on June 16 by Virna Little, Co-Founder and CEO of Concert Health.

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