TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—Suicide Prevention & Crisis Service of Tompkins County (SPCS) began in 1969 after local Ithacans lobbied for such services after several deaths by suicide of Cornell University students. In that first year, the center took 387 calls; in 2021, the center received more than 6,000 calls.

In light of a new nationwide phone number for those experiencing suicidal thoughts, the county’s Health and Human Services Committee discussed SPCS and how the new initiative may impact the local office. The full June 15 Health and Human Services Committee meeting can be viewed here.

Tiffany Bloss said that SPCS is currently operating from 10 to 1 a.m. seven days a week with 11 staff members and 10 volunteers, and that the need for such crisis services in the county is steadily increasing.

Bloss also said that SPCS services 11 counties in upstate New York and that if anyone with a 607 area code calls the national suicide hotline, SPCS is where the call is routed regardless of the caller’s current location.

Launching July 16 is 988, the new national Suicide Prevention Lifeline, similar to 911 but focused on mental health. “We’re really excited about this, because it gives easy access to people who are struggling with a mental health crisis — this will be America’s very first three-digit mental health crisis line,” Bloss said.

Approved by Congress in 2020, and even before COVID-19 hit, mental health crises across the country had been (and continue to be) on the rise.

SPCS is working with local departments like the Tompkins County Communication Center to integrate 988 into the community. Part of the implementation plan is an increase in capacity with a goal of expanded 24/7 hours by the end of 2023 as well as an increase in staffing with additional development, recruitment and trainings.

SPCS offers various community education opportunities including tabling at events, presentations on mental health crisis management and working with Cornell University’s Empathy, Assistance and Referral Services (EARS) program that offers peer-led support.

At the end of June, SPCS is presenting Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST), which is a 15-hour workshop that is open and free to the community.

Melanie Little, education director of the Mental Health Association of Tompkins County (MHATC), “Suicide and different crises don’t happen in a vacuum — there’s really this continuum of mental health and wellness that people experience that requires a spectrum of services,” Little said, continuing on that the association is focused on early intervention, prevention and maintaining recovery in coming back from crises and avoiding them in the first place.

Mental Health Association works as a peer-support organization and focuses on assisting those in need with peer specialists who have similar lived experiences. “Those struggling with mental illness don’t always get treated with respect and dignity, and that is really important to us, that this is a space where they receive that,” Little said. “We are very interested in including as much voice and choice as possible from participants to help them be more collaborative in services they receive elsewhere.”

Peer specialists complete an application through New York State along with coursework with 3,000 hours of supervised peer-support work. All of MHATC’s staff members are certified peer specialists or have certifications pending, and currently the organization has two credentialed family peer advocates and one youth peer advocate.

“A lot of people have never encountered a service provider who have said, ‘Yeah, that’s happened to me, too,'” Little said. “There’s something really valuable about sharing that lived experience with people.”

This coming September, MHA is opening a psychosocial drop-in center where individuals can attend support services, structured wellness and recreational activities and socialize with others who can relate to lived experiences. “Isolation is a really huge risk factor for folks and can really send people into crises, so our hope is that this service can be a protective factor,” Little said.

The drop-in center will also serve as a space for community trainings and other programming.

Legislator Randy Brown asked for a definition of “early intervention” when it comes to mental health, and Little said that the national chapter of Mental Health America, MHATC’s parent organization, defines it as “before stage 4,” meaning before an individual is receiving medical attention or in full crisis. “A lot of people don’t connect to help until they’re there — they’re going to the hospital or their lives are falling apart.”

Offering assistance recognizing early warning signs like life disruptions is one of the early intervention methods that MHATC helps individuals use.

Other news and notes

  • Budget adjustments were made for the Tompkins County Health Department (TCHD) and Tompkins County Office for the Aging to purchase new hybrid and electric vehicles.
  • A change will be made to COVID-19 surveillance testing within the county in the next couple of months requiring the county to pay for 10% of the tests that occur. The county will still be reimbursed from federal funds for 90% of tests administered, but the cost of each test is “protected hospital information” not available to the public.
  • TCHD Public Health Director Frank Kruppa gave an update on the TCHD and Mental Health Department merger, saying that official branding is underway, and a name and logo proposal will be coming sometime in July.
  • Kit Kephart of the Department of Social Services said that there are approximately 87 people still being housed by the department as a result of pandemic effects still being felt as well as the high housing costs in the county.

Zoë Freer-Hessler

Zoë Freer-Hessler is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. She has covered a wide range of topics since joining the news organization in November 2021. She can be reached at zhessler@ithacavoice.com...