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Stairways represented at regional suicide conference

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Service providers, mental health professionals and those personally affected recently joined together to help shine a light on a topic that is ignored all too often.

The Erie County Suicide Task Force, a consortium of professionals, survivors and families working to prevent suicide in the community, held its second annual conference at the Ambassador Banquet and Conference Center Sept. 30. Task force members in attendance included staff of Stairways Behavioral Health, a sponsor of the event which brought in an audience in excess of 300 people.

As part of their position on the task force, Jana Zybowski, Kelly Roberts and Rashell Ulrich of Stairways’ Blended Case Management (BCM) program were active in helping assemble this year’s conference.

The conference was broken down into morning and afternoon workshops and included presentations and displays by the sponsoring organizations.

The morning workshop consisted of a panel discussion on the topic of suicide survivors and presentations on children, trauma and evidence-based suicide intervention. Following a lunch that included introductions and recognitions, attendees also heard presentations on the topics of the biology of suicide and took part in a second workshop that included addresses on crisis intervention and suicide and the elderly.

Zybowski, Roberts and Ulrich all described as eye-opening the presentation that highlighted the role biology and physical irregularities play in suicide. The research that was presented pointed to mitochondrial imbalances and cerebral folate deficiency (CFD) as factors that could influence suicide.

“Looking at the biology of suicide is what was really of interest to me,” Zybowski said. “There isn’t much that is known about it yet because the research is new, but if it is able to pinpoint the physiological components and say that suicide isn’t just about being depressed, it could change the way we look at suicide.”

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) was a key sponsor of the event and is a funder of much of research on suicide. Ulrich is a main volunteer for the local AFSP chapter and helped facilitate its involvement in the conference.

“There isn’t always a lot of funding there yet for much of what we saw but a lot of the research at the conference came from what the AFSP was able to fund,” she said.

Experts on the issue of suicide, including researchers from education institutions such as the University of Pittsburgh and Mercyhurst University as well as those from service providers, such as Safe Harbor Behavioral Health and the Warren Psychiatric Institute presented on the topic. Advocacy organizations, including American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and Boots on the Ground, a group dedicated to the issue of suicide and veterans, also served as presenters.

Participants of the conference also had the opportunity to receive education credit hours.

In Erie as well as statewide, the prevalence of suicide is staggering. According to the AFSP, suicide is the 11th-leading cause of death in Pennsylvania. Among children ages 10-14, it is the leading cause of death, and ranks as the second-leading cause for persons between the ages of 15 and 34.

The task force began in 2010 when the Erie County Department of Health conducted a needs assessment that revealed Erie and its surrounding counties needed to build a comprehensive approach to suicide prevention, policy, awareness and education. The team now consists of more than 30 members, including professionals in the mental health field.

Roberts noted the mission of the task force being consistent with the work of Stairways.

“We heard a lot about the primary issues that contribute to suicide, like housing and other things, things that BCM already does that are so central to the issue,” Roberts said. “This is really in step with what Stairways is undertaking.”

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