The Advocacy Center Steps Up

Kristi Taylor sits at her computer and logs on to Zoom. The education director at the Advocacy Center of Tompkins County smiles about the technical difficulties using the software. She holds up the soft blanket that covers her lap, just one of the little rituals that get her through long video conferences in a changing work environment.

Kristi Taylor, education director at the Advocacy Center of Tompkins County

Putting in endless hours online hasn’t been the only change in Taylor’s routine at the Advocacy Center, an Ithaca nonprofit organization that supports victims of domestic violence. While the Covid-19 pandemic brought a suspected spike in cases of domestic violence, stay-at-home guidelines made it more difficult for victims to reach out for help. In March 2020, the Advocacy Center’s hotline went cold.

“We weren’t able to connect with survivors, and we weren’t hearing from people,” Taylor explained. “And that was really, really concerning for us, because what that told us is that people were trapped with their abusive partners.”

The center moved swiftly to address the new conditions, finding solutions in technology and social media as the center’s work went remote almost entirely (a notable exception being the center’s 24/7 shelter for abuse victims). First, the center significantly increased its use of Instagram to spread awareness and combat any impression that its activities had ceased. It launched an Instagram campaign with the hashtag #wearestillhere. Staff members posted pictures of themselves holding posters with the hashtag message, putting the center’s contact information in the caption. The center also added podcasts and blog posts to its education outreach mix.

By the summer, pandemic restrictions began to ease somewhat and the Advocacy Center’s hotline began buzzing again. The center upgraded its technology to handle multiple hotline calls simultaneously, and introduced a hybrid virtual platform for training additional hotline volunteers to manage the influx.

The Advocacy Center also moved its in-person support groups for domestic violence survivors online, the Survivor Empowerment group and Knowledge is Power group. The groups utilize secure video conferencing software during meetings to give a face-to-face connection while also protecting attendees’ privacy. Group numbers fluctuate due to the center’s “drop-in” policy, but usually seven to 10 people attend the once-a-week meetings lasting an hour or more.

Between July and October, hotline calls increased 55 percent over the same period in 2019. That aligns with a study published in December in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine, which indicates that cases of domestic abuse have significantly risen since the start of the pandemic in early 2020.

Pandemic conditions from stay-at-home orders to work-from-home practices meant that abuse victims became more isolated from their support systems, and as a result, more deeply trapped in their abusive relationships. “One of the most powerful tools that abusers have is creating isolation,” said Taylor.

Between July and October, the Advocacy Center provided support to 34 percent more domestic abuse survivors compared to the same period in 2019. Compared to the previous year, in 2020 the center also supported 44 percent more children and teens who had been sexually abused.

The Advocacy Center was founded in 1977 as the Task Force for Battered Women. At the time, its purpose was to provide women who had suffered from domestic abuse and their children a safe place to live. The organization also helps victims of sexual assault and rape, victims of child sexual abuse, family members of survivors, and people of any age and gender who have experienced domestic and sexual violence.

—By Margaret Kent

Margaret Kent, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a senior at Ithaca College majoring in Communication Management and Design with a concentration in Corporate Communication and a minor in Writing.

Why This Professor Cares about Student Mental Health

Ten to 15 students a day would come around to the Muller Faculty Center office of Derek Adams to discuss African American literature and ask questions about assignments. Then the Covid-19 pandemic forced Ithaca College classes online and turned the professor’s office hours into Zoom calls as well. Only a couple students a week showed up after office hours went virtual.

Adams regretted the lost mentoring time, but he had an even greater concern: his students’ mental health. A professor who cares deeply about student wellbeing, Adams uses office hours to keep an eye on how his students are doing.

“I don’t think it takes a license to actively listen, or to be open minded and listen to what somebody has to share,” said Adams, an associate professor of English who came to Ithaca College in 2012. “That’s something we should all be able to do. That’s just a very human thing that we do.”

Professors can often be the first to notice if a student is struggling with their mental health. On the first day of classes, Adams addresses students with three ice-breaker questions that demonstrate how he incorporates their wellbeing as a priority in his teaching: What is something you want to take from the class? What is something you’re willing to give to it? What is something we should know about you to get to a place where we can do the work that we need to do?

From there, Adams strives to create a classroom community with strong student connections that he believes benefits their mental health. For example, he requires students to learn each other’s names and encourages them to address each other as such in classroom discussions.

“I think, the better the state [my mental health] is in, the more I retain from what my students share with me, the more I retain from what I’m reading and what I’m conveying, the better I’m able to make connections between things,” Adams said. “And so, I just imagined that if that was true for me, it would be true for students as well, so I wanted to make that a core part of my pedagogy.”

A caring community in which students are allowed to feel vulnerable facilitates a greater understanding of literature, Adams believes. “I don’t know that we will ever get to the level of instruction and transmission of knowledge and the sharing of information that we want to get to without at least acknowledging that mental health is a core part of our experience,” he said.

But after the pandemic hit, Adams’s classroom community became more difficult to build in a Zoom gathering. The casual chatter before and after class—about things in the news, or popular culture—largely disappeared. “There’s just something about being in person that I think makes students feel more free to share those things,” he said. “Without those, it was harder to establish that kind of bond with my students.”

In response, Adams tried out some new ideas to rebuild his classroom community. He asked his students to address a letter to someone they trusted and cared about, exploring current events and how they felt about them. As they shared their letters with the Zoom class, Adams felt a better connection to his students and to the state of their mental health.

“Just giving students the platform to do that helped cultivate that sense of community that I’ve been able to hit on in my in-person classes for so many years,” Adams said. “I was learning to do this for the first time online.”

Adams also made clear that he is sensitive to obstacles in online learning and has adjusted expectations accordingly. He reminds students to prioritize their well-being and gives them pep talks. “Look at what you’re doing right now,” he tells his students. “How incredible is it that, in the middle of the pandemic, you can pick yourself up?”

Adams understands that many students struggle to be open with their professors, wary to admit they are having trouble keeping up. He believes that’s why it is essential for professors to pay attention to their students’ mental health. Although he is not a clinician, he can offer an empathetic ear. And, when he sees a cause for greater concern, he refers students to other resources such as Ithaca College’s Center for Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).

CAPS Director Brian Petersen agreed that everyone on campus can help improve the mental health climate.

“Mental health support for students is the responsibility of the entire campus community and Ithaca College is committed to creating a campus-wide culture that is focused on mental wellness,” Petersen explained.

Petersen believes that faculty members should be formally trained to recognize warning signs for distress and even suicide. Currently they are provided with a resource guide for directing students to support services on and off campus.

 “Our goal is to help faculty feel comfortable with this kind of intervention,” said Petersen. “We also talk with faculty about boundaries and how to be helpful without being too invested or psychologically or emotionally enmeshed with the student.”

Adams is looking forward to seeing students in his daily office hours again. But he doesn’t want to forget the lessons he’s learned about community building during the pandemic  “Whatever happens from this point forward, I would like there to be a continued focus—a renewed focus—on mental health and well being,” he said.

—By Lorelei Horrell

Lorelei Horrell, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a second year Ithaca College student with a Writing major and double minor in Sociology and English.

Take a Mental Health Test

May is Mental Health Month! Why not do a self-check to see how your mental health is doing right now? Mental Health America (MHA) provides a quick-and-easy-to-use online screening tool to test whether you are experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition. MHA says that 3 million Americans have taken a test during the Covid-19 pandemic in the past 12 months.

Click here to take MHA’s mental health tests

You can screen for anxiety, depression, postpartum depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Eating Disorder, psychosis, and addiction. Parents can also take a test to understand whether their children may be experiencing emotional, attentional, or behavioral difficulties. There is also a similar test with youth-themed questions that young people can take to check on themselves.

Following screening, you will be provided with information, resources and tools to help you understand and improve your mental health.

MHA notes that online screening tools are meant to be a quick snapshot of your mental health. “If your results indicate you may be experiencing symptoms of a mental illness, consider sharing your results with someone,” MHA advises. “A mental health provider (such as a doctor or a therapist) can give you a full assessment and talk to you about options for how to feel better. Mental health conditions are real, common and treatable, and recovery is possible.”

“We at Mental Health America have witnessed an unprecedented increase in the numbers of people experiencing mental health problems,” said Paul Gionfriddo, MHA president and CEO. “In November 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 44 percent of us were dealing with either depression or anxiety. While historically data shows us that 1 in 5 adults will experience a mental health problem, these days it certainly feels like it’s 5 in 5.”

For Mental Health Month, MHA is providing a package of materials that can be used by healthcare providers, community organizations, schools, and social media users to encourage greater awareness and treatment for mental health conditions.

DOWNLOAD: MHA’s “Tools 2 Thrive” toolkit

The toolkit highlights six topcis:

Adapting After Trauma and Stress

Processing Big Changes

Getting Out of Thinking Traps

Radical Acceptance

Taking Time for Yourself

Dealing with Anger and Frustration

During Mental Health Month, follow and share The Sophie Fund’s education campaign on Instagram and Facebook to learn about screening tools, treatment methods, suicide safety plans, crisis hotlines, and mental health statistics.

The infographics relay expert information from sources such as Mental Health America, National Alliance on Mental Illness, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and Suicide Prevention Resource Center. The campaign was created by Margaret Kent, an Ithaca College student and intern at The Sophie Fund.