Wellness Blog

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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.”

Stairways Case Manager to Participate in National Suicide Walk in Memory of Brother

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Rashell Ulrich knew she had to find a way to remember him.

Her brother had meant too much to her to let something as conclusive as suicide have the final word on him.

Dealing with the grief would be a challenge in itself, but appropriately honoring her brother would become her mission.


On a late August afternoon in 2010, Jamie Wilt and his girlfriend, Magen Porter, were on their way to catch the sunset aboard his motorcycle when a drunk driver blindsided the couple at an intersection.

Porter, the passenger, died at the scene. Wilt was in critical condition but would pull through.

Though he sustained injuries including a punctured lung and broken bones, it was Porter’s death that rendered Wilt a broken man. During the months that followed the crash, it was clear life was difficult for Wilt, a person his family had always leaned on during trying times.

“My brother was always the strongest person that I’ve ever known—he was not scared of anything,” Rashell said. “After that accident, he couldn’t sleep at night, he was depressed, he definitely had post-traumatic stress.”

Without treatment, Wilt never recovered from the psychological wounds he incurred that late summer day and died by suicide the following March.

For Rashell, she didn’t just lose her younger brother, but one of her best friends and the man who walked her down the aisle at her wedding.

“My brother’s death impacted me in ways that are unimaginable,” she said. “I’m a different person, but I knew I had to do something.

“If I didn’t have something to keep his memory alive, I don’t know how I would survive this whole thing.”

On June 27, Rashell will have a chance to honor her brother’s memory on a national stage when she walks more than 16 miles overnight at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s (AFSP) Out of the Darkness Walk in Boston. Having raised the $1,000 that is required to participate, she will be joined by thousands of other walkers whose lives have been in some way affected by suicide.

“It’s very weird, but the second my brother died, I knew I needed help,” she said. “And I just found them.”

For Rashell, that “them” was the AFSP, a non-profit organization dedicated to the fight against suicide through research, education and advocacy.

Since Wilt’s death, Rashell has become increasingly involved with AFSP. She has attended the organization’s national conferences and has helped organize Erie’s community Out of the Darkness Walk, AFSP’s annual walk against suicide held in cities across the United States.

This year, the local walk will take place Sept. 27 at Presque Isle State Park.

By taking part in the national walk, Rashell hopes that others in similar situations to her brother may be inspired to seek help when struggling.

“Guys like my brother — who are these big strong guys who take care of everybody— and then he gets sick and won’t get help for it,” Rashell said. “I want guys like him to feel safe getting help.”

To that end, Rashell will decorate a luminary adorned with Wilt’s photo and a candle that will join thousands of others lining the walk route—each representing a life touched by suicide.

“It’s very special to me that my brother will be lit up and represented there,” Rashell said. “My whole point in doing this was to have him represented.”

To contribute to Rashell walking in honor of her brother, click http://afsp.donordrive.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=donorDrive.participant&participantID=753305. Rashell will also be selling for $5 apiece Country Fair coupon books valued at $25. One-hundred percent of the proceeds will go to AFSP Erie.

For more information about the Out of Darkness walk, visit https://www.afsp.org/out-of-the-darkness-walks.

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