A Syracuse doctor is taking a one-of-a-kind approach to save lives with a program that uses intensive psychotherapy to get to the root of the problem that is causing children to try to take their own lives.
Inside the Upstate Psychiatric Center on the edge of downtown Syracuse, there is something unique happening. It is a specialty suicide prevention program that is helping to save lives. "The only one in the country or the world is actually in Syracuse," said Dr. Robert Gregory, the founder of the Psychiatry High Risk Program.
Dr. Gregory launched the program in 2017 primarily to treat people 16 to 40-years-old. Five years later, it continues to expand. "We've had so many patients come into the program and say this is my last resort," Dr. Gregory told NBC3 Anchor Megan Coleman this past spring.
Last year, the program saw 151 new patients comes through its doors. A third of them were children.
"During the pandemic and especially over the last year, we saw more and more younger teens and actually even pre-teens showing up in the emergency room with suicide attempt. It's kind of mind blowing even for me." - Dr. Robert Gregory, Psychiatry High Risk Program
So he decided to start taking patients as young as 14-years-old. Kids who were struggling so much they were thinking about harming themselves or attempting suicide. "There are studies indicating the more time spent on social media, the worse the mental health is for the adolescents," Dr. Gregory said. During the years of the pandemic, children did much of their learning on devices and interacting with their friends online.
Recognizing the need, Dr. Gregory assembled a team of 10 mental health professionals who developed a special adolescent program with therapists dedicated to treating kids. The approach was to dig deeper to deal with the underlying issues that were leading kids to think suicide was the only way out of their pain. "So we're really trying to heal from the inside out. Get at the root of what's driving the suicide, what's driving some of these problems," he said.
Dr. Gregory says MRI studies show suicidal people have an impaired emotional processing system where higher levels of their brain shut down and go on autopilot. The lower areas light up, causing people to act impulsively. Dr. Gregory's team uses therapy to try to heal their brain from the inside out. "They have atrophy or dysfunction of these different brain areas and we're really trying to remediate that, have them process their emotions in a different way. Get their emotion processing system back online," Dr. Gregory said.
The program couples weekly individual therapy with medications along with family and group therapy as needed. Within three to six months, Dr. Gregory says patients start seeing significant improvement. The next six months are spent in therapy, focusing on healing, self-acceptance and self-compassion while dealing with the grief and loss that has brought them here. "So that for those very high risk kids, there is somewhere to go that can provide the treatment that they need to keep them out of the hospital and keep them safe," he said.
The program boasts a 94% success rate. It is typically covered by insurance, and they are still accepting patients.