Suicide Prevention: Creating an Agency-Wide Response

FEGS Health & Human Services, a large and diverse organization serving 100,000 individuals annually, provides a full array of behavioral services through community-based treatment, rehabilitation, care coordination programs and residential and housing services to over 25,000 people a year. We have grown increasingly concerned about people for whom dying by suicide seems to be a solution. In August 2012, FEGS launched a multi-pronged Suicide Prevention Initiative with the New York State Office of Mental Health’s Suicide Prevention Center as a key partner. The purpose of the initiative is to become a suicide alert community, committed to caring for people with thoughts of suicide. Our primary goals are: to learn more about people who have thoughts of suicide; to lower the annual number of deaths by suicide and suicide attempts.

As reflected in the significant media attention, suicide prevention is a major concern in our society. More than 35,000 people in the United States die by suicide each year and it is the third leading cause of death in young people. Every day approximately 90 Americans take their own life. According to a recent article in The New York Times, the rate of suicide among middle-aged Americans has increased nearly 30 percent since 1999. Individuals that suffer from mental illness are at even greater risk, a driving force behind the suicide prevention initiative at FEGS.

Creating a suicide alert environment, an organizational culture where it is okay to talk about your thoughts of suicide without fear of being judged, blamed, or shamed, and where a call to 911 is not the only response, challenges our way of thinking and practice. Talking directly about suicide is difficult; in fact, it is not the way many Behavioral Health professionals have been trained. Staff is more likely to ask a person at risk if they are thinking of hurting themselves – not if they are thinking of killing themselves. Couple that indirect (fearful) approach with the feelings that people with thoughts of suicide often have – that their thoughts are bad, wrong, or that their thoughts go against their religion or their culture. In addition, after a person who has been hospitalized is stabilized, he/she is released back into the same environment with many of the same stressors still before them.

FEGS is moving toward our goal of becoming a suicide alert community through training AND research. Using the Suicide Prevention Center’s best practices called ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training) and SafeTALK, 350 FEGS staff has already been trained. Because suicide prevention is an issue for our entire community, not just for people with mental health diagnoses, our goal is to train staff throughout FEGS including those who work with youth in schools and across our Family Services operations.

FEGS’ research partner, the Columbia University School of Social Work, has launched a Suicide Prevention Research Program, (SPRP) under the leadership of Dr. Dana Alonzo, Ph.D., Associate Professor. The SPRP, of which FEGS is a member, is committed to developing new initiatives in the arena of suicide prevention and to developing collaborations with community providers. Dr. Alonzo believes that maintaining people in treatment helps to mitigate the risk for suicide. She has developed STEPS, Strengthening the Treatment Engagement of people at Risk of Suicide, a new intervention, which will be implemented in FEGS treatment programs and evaluated as to its impact on reducing suicide attempts and suicide. Funds provided by the New York State Office of Mental Health, through the New York State Mental Health Association will enable a feasibility study of the intervention which we hope will become the standard of care.

FEGS is especially proud that the Suicide Prevention Center of New York has recognized our agency as a 2013 SPCNY Excellence in Suicide Prevention awardee. Suicide prevention is a priority that we all must share.

Amy Dorin is Senior Vice President, Behavioral and Community Health, Peg Moran is Senior Vice President, Residential & Housing Services, and Ellen Stoller is Associate Vice President for Professional Development & Consumer Affairs, FEGS Health & Human Services (FEGS).

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