Art Therapy

Alex sits across from her therapist, tapping her foot anxiously on the floor, not speaking. Her therapist looks empathetically at her, and asks if she could possibly describe her feelings at the moment. Alex keeps her eyes on the floor, and shifts her position uncomfortably. The therapist wonders if she can recount her experience reconnecting with home friends with whom she shared a traumatic middle school experience. Finally, Alex looks up and begins to tell her story.

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Cast of alex getting better

Alex is the main character of alex getting better, a play written by 21-year-old Audrey Lang, a junior theater studies major at Ithaca College. The play was performed last fall in The Dillingham Center, home of Ithaca College’s theater program. Throughout the play, Alex, a college student, begins to work through and come to terms with being a young woman who was a victim of sexual assault in middle school. She had not thought about this traumatic episode in her life for a long while. She chose to bury the memory of a boy she had once been friends with and who had touched her and her friends in a way that was unwanted and inappropriate.

Lang portrays the diverse approaches that victims of sexual assault can take toward healing. Some of Alex’s friends had repressed the memories and remained friends with the assailant; others had forgiven, and moved on. Throughout the play, the feelings of shame, discomfort, and paranoia are visceral and perturbing as we watch Alex striving to work through her fears, accept the trauma, and learn to let go.

In the Fall 2018 semester, Lang wrote a 10-minute play for a theater class, which served as the backbone for alex getting better. She based the story loosely on trauma she had experienced in her own life, while asserting creative control in the play when necessary. Lang found the content to be relevant, informative, and universal, as she has known many women and girls who have dealt with similar forms of assault.

Because the play dealt with intimate, triggering, and vulnerable content, Lang made sure that she and the cast and crew members felt safe to voice their own personal stories during the time they were delving into Alex’s journey of recovery. “I chose to work with all females,” said Lang. “There was an all-female cast as well as an all-female rehearsal room. These events are so deeply related to things women and girls are dealing with. But, I wanted the play to be seen by people of all ages and genders.”

This performance not only gave Lang a platform to voice a traumatic event that happened to her depicted through her play, but it also gave the cast members a chance to empathize and vocalize similar occurrences that happened in their lives. This presents significant benefits of theater; the community and support that the participants in the play receive, as well as the chance for the playwright themselves to share and perform experiences for an audience to empathize with.

Lang has been a writer for as long as she can remember. In 2016, prior to alex getting better, Lang wrote another play about issues young women face, Dear Anna, which was performed with MCC Youth Company’s FreshPlay Festival and with the Ithaca Theater Collective. “I always loved writing,” said Lang, “but I was always mostly interested in dialogue and human interactions. Theater can bring life to stories in a way that feels more real because you are actually seeing the bodies.”

Rather than solely working through her struggles and experiences on her own, Lang and many other playwrights who create plays about mental illness or sexual assault work through their pain with a medium that enables others to be fully present with them when they are most afraid and vulnerable. This advocacy work is personal and intimate but the themes and issues addressed are universal. Lang chooses to write her plays about marginalized groups to give these people a platform to share their stories. “Typically, my plays are about women,” she said. “Especially queer women. I try to show them in places of strength and complication.”

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Audrey Lang

In theater, the audience can become engrossed with the story in a way that can indulge most of their senses, while also having a space where one is allowed to become emotional and vulnerable. “Theater should be educational and entertaining,” said Carin Etsy, an Ithaca College senior who directed alex getting better and is also a playwright who has written autobiographical pieces about sexual assault. “It forces you to be more engaged because, unlike watching a movie or reading a book, you can’t just leave. Theater is a continuous act; you have to sit there and be faced with another’s experiences and emotions.”

—By Nicole Kramer

Nicole Kramer, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a senior Writing major and Sociology minor at Ithaca College. She is a nonfiction editor for Stillwatera student-run literary magazine. She also enjoys creating mixed media image-text work and writing poetry. 

Brief Guide to Student Mental Health Advocacy

Mental disorders, from anxiety and depression to dependency on alcohol and opioids, are an increasing challenge for American society. Today’s college students face a mental health epidemic as they leave home for the first time at an age of life common for the onset of mental illness. Due to concerns about reputation, liability, cost, and other factors, college administrations have broadly failed to meet the growing crisis with a scaled response.

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Student advocates play a critical role in improving mental health policies and practices. On the occasion of the 4th Annual Ivy League Mental Health Conference hosted by Cornell University April 26-28, The Sophie Fund presents the Brief Guide to Student Mental Health Advocacy. The guide highlights useful facts and figures, key advocacy goals, resources on student rights, and campus mental health best practices.

Some statistics underlining the urgency of supporting student mental health (Please note that some of the material below in this post may cause distress for some readers.)
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  • 43.8 million American adults—18.5 percent of the population—are experiencing mental illness in a given year, and 75 percent of mental illness cases begin by age 24, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

 

 

  • 46.8 percent of college students surveyed reported that academics have been “traumatic or very difficult to handle,” and 39.3 percent “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function,” according to the 2017 National College Health Assessment; 12.1 percent seriously considered suicide in the last 12 months, and 1.9 percent had attempted suicide.

 

  • 35.8 percent of surveyed college students seeking counseling in the 2017-18 academic year had “seriously considered attempting suicide” (up from 24 percent in the 2010-11 academic year), according to Center for Collegiate Mental Health 2018 Annual Report; 10.3 percent of the students seeking counseling had actually made a suicide attempt.

 

 

  • In a campus-specific study, Cornell University’s 2017 Perceptions of Undergraduate Life and Student Experiences (PULSE) Survey of 5,001 undergraduates reported that 71.6 percent of respondents often or very often felt “overwhelmed,” and 42.9 percent said that they had been unable to function academically for at least a week on one or more occasions due to depression, stress, or anxiety. Nearly 10 percent of respondents reported being unable to function during a week-long period on five or more occasions. Nine percent of the respondents—about 450 students—reported “having seriously considered suicide at least once during the last year,” and about 85 students reported having actually attempted suicide at least once in the last year.

 

Click here to read the Brief Guide to Student Mental Health Advocacy, or click here to download a PDF.

“Be the One”: Caring Connections in Tompkins County

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. To promote the occasion in 2018, members of the Collaborative Solutions Network (CSN), a broad association supporting family mental health throughout Tompkins County, came up with a campaign. They called it “Be the One,” and the goal was “to spread the belief that everyone needs a safe, secure and nurturing relationship.”

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Lansing Middle School students join the “Be the One” movement

Thanks to community enthusiasm, “Be the One” turned out to be much more than a fleeting slogan. More than 100 people representing some 30 organizations came together at The Space @ GreenStar on December 10 to formally re-launch “Be the One” as an ongoing public wellness project to promote supportive relationships. The New York State Office of Mental Health provided funding, and Mayor Svante Myrick issued a proclamation declaring 2019 “Be the One Year in the City of Ithaca.” Ithaca Voice, Ithaca Times, and The Lansing Star have featured the campaign in their news reports.

Students throughout the county are wearing “Be the One” T-shirts and hoodies, and matching motivational silicone wristbands, and sharing “Be the One” stories in classroom discussions. “Be the One” has a website with information explaining the campaign and toolkits and downloadable posters for bringing it to schools and community groups, and an active Facebook page and Twitter account sharing updates about “Be the One,” news about community wellness events, and inspirational stories from the world’s headlines. There’s even a “Be the One” song, which goes in part:

Imagine what this world could be

If kindness led each thought and deed

Building our communities

In peace and love and harmony.

In a time of rising anxiety and depression, “Be the One” has resonated with its message that safe, stable, and nurturing relationships, based on feeling cared for and connected to other people, build resilience in individuals and communities. Tompkins County has been rocked by three teen suicides in the past year. “Stress can get in the way of letting relationships happen,” Jaydn McCune, a program director at Racker and coordinator of CSN, said in an interview with The Sophie Fund. “But when we have someone to relate to, we can then gain a sense of lightness and possibility.”

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Lansing Central School District decoration

Superintendent Chris Pettograsso has overseen an enthusiastic rollout of “Be the One” in the Lansing Central School District. In late January, two campaign volunteers held sessions helping Lansing students share how they and their teachers could “Be the One.” In mid-March, Lansing Middle School students ran a program to introduce “Be the One” to fifth graders. On March 26, Lansing held a special session to encourage teachers and staff to embrace the “Be the One” ethos and improve empathy and support for students.

“Students have gained much more self-awareness of who really care for them and how they can care for others, and they have been very open to talking to their teachers about that,” Pettograsso told The Sophie Fund. On March 23, a “Be the One Lansing Team” took part in the 6th Annual Ithaca Polar Plunge at Taughannock Falls State Park Beach to support the Special Olympics.

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Lansing Middle School students sharing the “Be the One” campaign with 5th graders

Liz Klohmann, director of the Ithaca Youth Bureau and a member of the campaign planning committee, said the organizers are developing a common curriculum “that can be used by teachers and youth directors all throughout the Tompkins County community.” The campaign encourages schools to introduce “Be the One” in health class, invite students to write stories about their own “Be the One” experiences for English class, create “Be the One” awards, and create community outreach projects around the campaign theme.

Community members have begun posting experiences about their “Ones” on the “Be the One” website—about inspirational teachers, friends, an family members. An anonymously posted story recounted the relationship between a teacher and her elementary school teacher and their re-connection decades later.

“As a fourth grader I’d been happy and alive. Not so as an adult— I felt boxed-in and very, very sad. Mrs. N and I got into a pattern of visiting every week. I could tell her anything. Sometimes we sat and said very little. At one point she said to me, ‘I’m not worried about you, B. You have such vast inner resources.’ That was lifeline!”

McCune tells a story of how “Be the One” helped a teacher change course in the Dryden Central School District. The teacher was complaining to a colleague about a fourth-grader who was driving her up the wall with misbehavior in her classroom all day. She then noticed another teacher wearing a “Be the One” bracelet. “She stopped and realized that she needed to ‘be the one’ for her student,” McCune said. “The teacher realized that her student was having trouble, and that she wanted to do her best to help him.”

—By Amber Raiken

Amber Raiken, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a junior at Ithaca College majoring in Writing, with a Creative Writing Concentration, and minoring in Education Studies. She is a writer and the social media director for IC Distinct Magazine, a student-run culture and fashion publication.

Photo credits: Courtesy of the Lansing Central School District

Meet Our Interns

Hello, Friends of The Sophie Fund! We’ve been fortunate to work with three interns from Ithaca College’s Department of Writing during the Spring semester. Look for their articles on local mental health heroes and other topics in the coming weeks.

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Amber Raiken, Chanelle Ferguson, and Nicole Kramer

Amber Raiken is a junior majoring in Writing, with a Creative Writing Concentration, and minoring in Education Studies. She is a writer and the social media director for IC Distinct Magazine, a student-run culture and fashion publication.

Chanelle Ferguson is a sophomore majoring in Writing and minoring in Journalism and African Diaspora. She is a writer at IC View, Ithaca College’s alumni magazine, and a student assistant at Career Services.

Nicole Kramer is a senior Writing major and Sociology minor. She is a nonfiction editor for Stillwater, a student-run literary magazine. She also enjoys creating mixed media image-text work and writing poetry.