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.