Head of Crises Services talks about suicide in Western New York and what her agency does to reduce the problem
By Brenda Alesii
The mere mention of the word suicide can strike fear in the heart of many people. At Crisis Services, located on River Rock Drive in Buffalo, thoughts of suicide mean one thing: Even in one’s darkest moments, it is OK to talk about it. That sentiment comes into even clearer focus now as September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month.
In Good Health recently spoke with Jessica Pirro, president and chief executive officer of Crisis Services, Erie County’s only 24-hour crisis services center. A Syracuse native who holds a Master in Social Work degree and has been at the agency for 24 years, Pirro oversees a staff of 98 employees.
Q. How prevalent is suicide in this area and how do you shine a light on this delicate subject?
A. It is useful to look at a year-by-year perspective of our deaths by suicide:
We have seen a decrease during the pandemic years. COVID brought conversations about mental health into the forefront, helping to reduce the stigma and making it more comfortable to ask for help. In 2022, for example, we trained on awareness, intervention and services with 811 school personnel, 400 community members and 731 professionals from various disciplines. The Suicide Prevention Coalition and the suicide review team regularly monitor suicide rates, all in an effort to help with prevention.
Q. Who is most at risk and why?
A. The highest rate of suicide occurs with middle-aged white males; overall the rate is two-thirds men, women at one-third. We have had a slight increase in the rate of females taking their own lives over the last few years. In that same time frame, we have seen an increase in suicide by people in their 70s and 80s. For men, there is still some stigma in seeking services; they may feel the weight of historical and cultural expectations and some people, including veterans, have more immediate access to lethal means.
Q. What advice can you offer for an individual contemplating suicide or if there is concern about a loved one’s mental health?
A. There is hope. We can help people in those dark moments. I encourage individuals or their loved ones to call our Crisis Hotline day or night: 716-834-3131 or call 998, the national hotline. We cover five counties in WNY for 988; Niagara County crisis services cover the other three counties. You will speak confidentially with a specialist who knows how to help guide and support what you’re going through. We’re ready to help, no matter what. Our counselors will evaluate the situation, and help to put a safety plan in place. Part of our support includes referrals to other behavioral health care providers as well.
Q. Crisis Services offers much more than hotline services, correct?
A. We employ a mobile outreach team that responds around Erie County in pairs. They are licensed and qualified under New York state regulations and hold at least a master’s degree. The team evaluates the mental health crisis and sets a course of action. We are able to divert over 60% of our interventions from needing higher levels of care like hospitalization. Our goal is to keep individuals safely in the community. If there is a potential safety risk in the visit, we will partner with law enforcement during this critical, life-saving work.
Q. What are some of the typical warning signs of suicide?
A. Talking about taking one’s life; a feeling of hopelessness and helplessness; dramatic mood changes; a feeling they are burden to friends and family and withdrawal from normal activities.
Q. With your agency never taking a day — or an hour off — funding must always be in the forefront of your mind. Do you have a major fundraiser planned?
A. Yes! Our “Men Who Cook” fundraiser is back in a different format. It will be held on Oct. 25 at the Admiral Room, featuring professional chefs and food stations. More info on this fun event is at www.crisisservices.org.
Q. With the demands of this job, how do you decompress?
A. At Crisis Services we talk a lot about self-care. I’m lucky because I have an amazing family and colleagues that provide support. I’m very regimented about working out, which helps relieve the stress in this demanding work.