According to Ontario County Public Health, the county lost 137 people to suicide between 2006 and 2016. The despair runs deep. Multiply one lost life by the number of family members and friends — the people left behind in anguish over the loss of their loved ones — and that’s the real number of those affected.
“One is too many for the heartache that suicide causes,” says Mary Beer, director of Ontario County Public Health.
Taking Aim at Prevention
Every three years Ontario County Public Health administers a Community Health Assessment. Results help the department decide how to best use their limited resources to make meaningful improvements in the community. The last assessment was completed in December 2016.
Out of that last assessment, Public Health put together a Community Health Improvement Plan targeting three categories: obesity, hypertension, and substance abuse and mental health. This last category calls for an increased focus on suicide.
“Ontario County is one of the few counties in the state without a suicide coalition,” Beer says.
When Public Health put out a request to attend a community discussion on mental health, the community responded. Beer raises the questions, “How can we de-stigmatize mental health issues? How do we provide resources for these folks? How do we support those left behind when there is a suicide?”
The Partnership for Ontario County
The Partnership for Ontario County is an independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to creating, supporting and administering alliances to cultivate positive social change within Ontario County. When Public Health identified the need for an Ontario County Suicide Coalition, it turned to The Partnership to organize and run it with assistance from the Public and Mental Health Departments.
The Suicide Coalition began its journey in February 2017, and progress is solid. There are currently about 30 people who participate in the Suicide Coalition on a regular basis and represent a spectrum of agencies across both municipal and private organizations.
“We meet about once a month,” says Bonnie Ross, executive director of The Partnership and chair of the Ontario County Suicide Coalition. “We’re looking for opportunities to provide education and for folks to share their knowledge. But we want our programming and strategies to be evidence-based.”
Mission, Vision and More
Committee members of the Suicide Coalition have developed a mission and vision on which to build the Coalition’s programs. The mission: Citizens committed to the development of a community that reflects hope and healing for those touched by suicide. The vision: A suicide-free community.
After these were established, members broke into groups focusing on the community’s various stakeholders — health care, businesses, school systems and parents. The purpose of these groups is to talk about what interventions will work. The input comes from authentic sources.
“We opened up the Suicide Coalition to youth participation,” Ross says.
This move resulted in the participation of Dianna Paige, a student from Hobart and William Smith Colleges and mental health advocate. Paige does speaking engagements, including a Ted Talk titled “I am Depressed.” Using her personal insights is one example of how the Suicide Coalition aims to identify truly effective ways to reach those who need it.
“Dianna knows from first-hand experience what she needed, when and what would have been most helpful,” Ross says.
Another approach is to look at the coalitions in other counties and see which ones are active and doing meaningful work. Then look at how they do that work.
“We want the Coalition to be thoughtful and not willy-nilly,” Beer says. “It’s an important topic and we are just beginning our journey.”