Meet Ithaca College’s New Counseling Director

Brian Petersen took over as the new director of Ithaca College’s Center for Counseling and Psychological Services last September. He sat down with The Sophie Fund to discuss his position and plans.

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TSF: How do you describe your job?

Brian Petersen: I supervise all of our programs and interventions with students as well as work with our counselors to help them enact our model of care. I also represent the Counseling Center on campus-wide task force and committee projects related to Mental Health and Wellness on campus.

TSF: What led you to Ithaca College?

Brian Petersen: I was the associate director for the Counseling Center at Pace University in New York City. I managed the day-to-day provision of intake and outreach services and participated in our pre-doctoral internship program in Health Psychology as a clinical supervisor. I worked there for 12 years. Ithaca offers me an opportunity to continue working in a university/college counseling role. I wanted to work at a smaller school due to the focus on creating a coherent community and Ithaca College has that reputation. I am originally from Brockport, New York, so I also am happy to have the opportunity to return to central-western New York.

TSF: Do you have specific interests?

Brian Petersen: I am interested in working with performing artists on their personal relationship to/experience of their craft and how that intersects with their identity. I am committed to suicide prevention and education. I also have an interest in parapsychology. My doctoral dissertation was on interviewing people about their experiences of the paranormal in the context of grief and bereavement. I really enjoy working with young adults on the creation of existential meaning in life.

TSF: What is your favorite thing about CAPS?

Brian Petersen: We have a very talented and creative staff who are committed to helping students achieve both their personal and academic goals.  It is nice to work with colleagues who truly care about what they do.

TSF: What is your least favorite thing, or what you most want to improve? 

Brian Petersen: Our services are in high demand and not all students can be seen for long-term therapy. We offer a wide range of services and interventions including Let’s Talk, our Toolbox Skills groups, group therapy, and coping skills education, and we try to match clients with the best solution to what they want to work on. For students that want long-term therapy, that can be frustrating though we will help to find a referral off-campus to a therapist with whom they can work for the full time they are at Ithaca.

TSF: Where do you see CAPS going in the future?

Brian Petersen: We are currently in the process of integrating more with healthcare services at Ithaca College. The goal is to allow students to experience holistic care of both physical and mental health needs. I would also like to increase our visibility on campus through a year-long schedule of outreach events. We are happy to work with faculty/staff/students on specific outreach projects related to mental health and overall wellness, especially around the issue of self-care.

TSF: What is your opinion about the current mental health situation in the Ithaca College community?

Brian Petersen: I think students at Ithaca are hard-working and this can create a lot of pressure to perform. With that comes stress and anxiety, two of the main reasons that students utilize our services. We also see students who are having difficulty transitioning to college and early negative experiences can create a lot of self-doubt. We see approximately 20 percent of the student body for some form of intervention each year and this is a substantial number of students. I do find that more and more students are coming to college with a high degree of knowledge and experience with mental health treatment  and they are often very informed consumers of our services.

TSF: What is the importance of mental health?

Brian Petersen: I think our mental health is the foundation through which we create meaning and connection in life. When we feel mentally healthy, we have the courage to engage with life. When we struggle, we disengage and then isolate.

TSF: Anything you’re working on right now that you can share?

Brian Petersen: I would like to create a more sustained outreach focus on suicide prevention and education so that all members of the Ithaca College community can notice and assist others who are feeling hopeless and disconnected. Very small interventions can yield life-saving results.

TSF: What do you think Ithaca College could do to help the stigma that still exists on this campus? 

Brian Petersen: I appreciate an interview like this as it allows me to be public about what CAPS and the university are doing to prioritize mental wellness. I feel that the administration at Ithaca College is truly committed to creating a community that destigmatizes mental illness or distress. The President [Shirley M. Collado] has spoken openly about her commitment and I think that has a real impact on allowing others to openly acknowledge and talk about difficult topics. I, personally, hope to reach out to students who feel marginalized or categorized at Ithaca College and I hope to meet with student groups and leaders over the spring semester. I just started at Ithaca College in September and I feel I am steadily gaining the knowledge and connections I need to begin to be proactive with this goal.

—By Meredith Nash

Meredith Nash is a senior Writing major at Ithaca College and an intern at The Sophie Fund

A Voice for Abuse Victims and Survivors

Way back in the winter of 1977, some women in Ithaca gathered in their living rooms to discuss a dire need for many in the community: how to provide assistance and support for women who were suffering violent abuse from spouses or domestic partners. An all-volunteer organization was born, called the Task Force for Battered Women, to create a network of homes willing to take in victims and their kids fleeing abusive relationships.

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Advocacy Center: Getting the word out

Four decades later, the Advocacy Center of Tompkins County, as it is now called after a 2003 name change, runs a wide range of crisis and legal services and education programs with a paid staff of more than 25 specialists as well as dozens of trained volunteers. Financial support for the nonprofit organization comes from federal, state, and local governmental grants, charitable organizations such as the United Way, and corporate and private donations. “The agency has grown a lot over the years, but we remain committed to our roots and mission of providing compassionate, trauma-informed, survivor-focused services and education for all people in our community,” said Education Director Kristi Taylor.

The Advocacy Center provides shelter as well as advocacy, support, and education services to survivors of all ages, gender identities, and sexual orientations who have been impacted by domestic violence, sexual assault, and child sexual abuse.

Since the early 1980s, the center has run a project to support victims of child sexual abuse, young people as well as adults who experienced abuse as children. Today, the center also provides confidential services, counseling, and advocacy for people experiencing emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. In 2018, some 1,300 adult and youth survivors received support from the center’s services.

Taylor emphasized how victims and survivors have helped inspire and shape the center’s mission. “I’ve been in this work for nearly 11 years and have been honored to witness the bravery and strength of folks who have been able to reach out with their experiences,” she said. “I have learned so much about how far we still have to go.”

The Advocacy Center operates a 24-hour hotline at (607) 277-5000 for immediate help, receiving about 2,000 emergency and other calls per year. The center also lists an email address (info@theadvocacycenter.org) for responding to non-urgent queries. The center’s website (www.actompkins.org) provides an extensive listing of local emergency contacts, and resources with advice about what to do in the event of sexual assault, domestic or dating violence, and child sexual abuse. The advice section includes information on how parents and friends can best support victims and survivors.

Legal services is the latest addition to the Advocacy Center’s toolkit. The center’s Civil Legal Services Program is staffed by an attorney who provides free legal presentation for abuse victims working through civil proceedings. The new program was made possible last year by a five-year, $602,346 grant from New York State’s Office of Victim Services.

Center staff members also provide information about legal options in criminal court and family court cases, assist in obtaining protection orders or emergency custody, and advocate with Child Protective Services and the Family Assessment Response Team at the Tompkins County Department of Social Services.

The center offers numerous crisis services for sexual assault victims, filling a gap after the closure of the Center for Crime Victims and Sexual Assault, originally known as Ithaca Rape Crisis.

Besides the opportunity to speak by phone to a counselor 24/7 or find support in a safe house, the center provides direct medical and legal assistance. A center staffer can accompany sexual assault victims to Cayuga Medical Center for a Sexual Assault Nurse Exam, for example. The center also provides support for court appearances, and meetings with police and the district attorney’s office. The center offers assistance in filing for financial reimbursement of expenses through the state’s Office of Victims Services.

In addition to its crisis services, the center runs education and prevention programs and survivor support groups that reach thousands of Tompkins County residents every year. It works closely with area schools and colleges to promote better understanding about issues like domestic and sexual violence. The center provides customized trainings in domestic and sexual violence to health care providers, counselors and therapists, youth workers, school staff, college staff, police, and social service providers.

Supporting young adult and teen victims is an important focus of the Advocacy Center’s mission. In addition to its array of services for all sexual assault victims, the center provides assistance in dealing with campus investigators under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, which requires schools to probe sexual assault allegations. The center’s Campus Educator and Adult Sexual Assault Advocate co-facilitate a weekly discussion group for survivors of abuse in the basement of Ithaca College’s Muller Chapel. “While there is no one solution, we know that seeking support through advocacy, therapy, and support groups can be a great way to connect with others and explore strategies for managing the impacts of the trauma,” Taylor said.

The center stresses that teens have a legal right to call the Advocacy Center and receive ongoing assistance without their parents or guardians knowing or granting permission. Given that many teens lack easy and affordable access to transportation, center personnel will arrange meetings at confidential locations convenient for teens in need.

In 2018, the center formed ACTion, a group of teens from all over Tompkins County to fight sexual and relationship violence. In November, the activist group hosted a benefit concert to raise funds and awareness called Consent Rocks! at Ithaca High School. “Youth in our community have been doing incredible work for years in raising awareness about the issues of abuse and supporting survivors,” Taylor said. “The work of ACTion and success of the Consent Rocks! concert highlights the power and importance of youth voices in bringing the cultural change needed to end domestic and sexual violence.”

—By Meredith Nash

Meredith Nash is a senior Writing major at Ithaca College and an intern at The Sophie Fund