Student’s podcast advances her mission to prevent suicide
Helping others to feel comfortable talking about mental health is vitally important to new Pennsylvania College of Technology graduate Tori Siler: because 800,000 people worldwide die by suicide every year (an average of one person every 40 seconds), because most individuals see a medical professional within a month of taking their life, and on the most personal level, because her father took his life in 2015, when Siler was 14 years old.
“My ‘why’ for everything I do is pretty much my dad,” said Siler, of Havre de Grace, Maryland, who earned a combined bachelor’s/master’s degree in physician assistant studies on Aug. 5.
In her Senior Capstone class, Siler was tasked to come up with a project that changed something in health care. Siler teamed up with her sister, Kaylee, to co-host a podcast series titled “Make Mental Matter.” The series aims to destigmatize suicide and mental health issues.
The eight episodes that make up her senior project – what will become the first season in an ongoing endeavor – focus on helping health care providers in all specialties become more comfortable broaching the topic with their patients.
“During my research for my project, I found that most people who take their own lives see a health care provider, regardless of what specialty it is, within a month of their death,” Siler explained. “This stat is very alarming and made me wonder why suicidal ideations and screenings for mental illness are not implemented universally in every office setting or hospital setting.”
As she completed the clinical rotations required for graduation, she and Kaylee interviewed many of the health care professionals she encountered: an emergency room crisis evaluator; an orthopedic surgery physician assistant; a pediatrician; hospitalists; a licensed clinical psychologist and a psychiatric nurse practitioner who practice in a prison; and a family medicine physician assistant.
“I asked multiple questions about their current strategies for mental health issues and suicide prevention as well as what they think could be done better either in their setting or worldwide,” Siler said.
“A lot of the advice that the providers were able to give me, I used throughout my rotations and plan to take into my future career,” she added.
Siler, who hopes to work in pediatrics or orthopedics, initially explored the medical field at her father’s urging: He was a teacher and wrestling coach at Harford Technical High School in Maryland and encouraged her to enroll in its sports medicine track. He saw her smarts and knew she could succeed in medicine, and she relished the opportunity to say that she graduated from her father’s school.
Initially interested in becoming an athletic trainer or physical therapist, the softball player fell in love with the physician assistant field when she researched the career as part of a class assignment.
Her search for physician assistant programs brought her to Penn College, where she continued her softball career with the Wildcats and helped to initiate the team’s first “Yellow It Out” suicide prevention game, held April 3, 2019 – the fourth anniversary of her father’s death. Yellow It Out is a campuswide Penn College initiative to highlight suicide prevention and awareness. In addition to providing educational resources, events encourage students and employees to don yellow, the color associated with suicide prevention. The second-base player also played the part of the Wildcat mascot during other athletics teams’ Yellow It Out games – two basketball games and a soccer game.
“I love helping with Yellow It Out,” she said.
In addition to her efforts on campus, Siler raised almost $7,000 for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Her fundraising, mainly achieved through a cornhole tournament, enabled her – along with her fiancé, her sister, Kaylee, and Kaylee’s boyfriend – to participate in the organization’s Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk in Washington, D.C., in June. The 16.2-mile walk began at dusk and concluded with a sunrise ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial. The foursome walked as the team Make Mental Matter for Gary W. Siler.
“Our fundraising far exceeded my goal,” Siler said.
It’s all part of her hope to open avenues for those who are struggling with suicidal thoughts or other mental health issues to talk – beginning with their encounters in health care.
Her conversations with other health care providers yielded five takeaways that she plans to use in her own career. She hopes that others will do the same.
- Show empathy
- Know your resources. “There is a crisis in mental health funding, so resources are limited, and our patients deserve to know that,” Siler said.
- Don’t be afraid to ask the scary, uncomfortable questions. “My favorite saying is: Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Regardless of what your specialty is,” she said. “I think it’s ridiculous how screenings are only implemented in primary care, psychiatry and the emergency room when someone presents with a mental-health crisis.”
- Make time for these conversations in your schedule. “A 15-minute appointment with a patient won’t cut it when they are facing difficulties,” she said.
- Create a safety plan that involves the health care provider, the patient and the patient’s family. “It’s a whole team effort, which is what PAs do: We work as a team and try to get to the bottom of things as a team,” Siler said.
“From the moment I introduced the project to my professor (Heather S. Dorman, instructor of physician assistant), she was ecstatic,” said Siler. Dorman, in turn, shared episodes of the podcast with others. One of those individuals confided to Dorman that they had been thinking about suicide, as well.
“I cried when she told me because that’s powerful,” Siler said. “A lot of good things have come from it, and that’s why I’m the most proud.”
She will post the final episode of Season 1 on Aug. 24. The series is available on Spotify, Apple Music, Google podcasts, iHeartRadio and Amazon. In future seasons of “Make Mental Matter,” Siler plans to talk with those who have overcome thoughts of suicide.
Penn College offers a Master of Science in physician assistant studies. To learn more, call 570-327-4519.