A Mental Health Champion, Always on the Front Lines

Micaela Corazón, who has spent a quarter century providing mental health support for people in the Ithaca area, is the Outreach Center coordinator at the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County (MHA).

Micaela Corazón at the Outreach Center in Ithaca

Opened in September 2022, the center is a multi-purpose facility providing space for classes, training, and meetings. Located on the first floor of Center Ithaca in the Ithaca Commons, it is home to MHA’s Social Drop-In Program that offers walk-in peer counseling for non-crisis situations and provides a relaxing setting for socializing and building connections.

“A lot of people who join us at the Outreach Center feel safe knowing they’re guaranteed help if they decide to seek it,” Corazón explained. “They don’t feel threatened like they do in some mental health treatment facilities. Instead, they’re able to take things at their own pace.”

Those who drop by the center are treated as guests, Corazón said, adding: “They enter our building and get support from brave people with real lived experiences with no judgement. It’s all about offering them what they need in a safe, comfortable environment.”

Prior to the Mental Health Association, which provides support, advocacy, and services for mental health recovery and prevention of mental illness, Corazón worked at AIDSWORK, the Southern Tier AIDS Program, and most recently, at Ithaca’s Suicide Prevention & Crisis Service.

But her life’s calling began with transformative experiences far from the shores of Cayuga Lake, after she moved from New York City to the West Coast in 1978 to attend San Francisco State University.

Just months after settling in the Bay Area, Corazón was shaken by the assassination of Harvey Milk, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and the first openly gay man elected to public office in California. Milk was a leader in the LGBTQ+ community; Corazón herself was part of that community and knew Milk personally.

Corazón began working at a health clinic as San Francisco became a focal point in the emergence of HIV/AIDS, then commonly transmitted through gay sex or sharing drug-injection needles. She worked with many patients sick from the disease and watched male friends in the city fall ill and die.

Corazón felt that she was being called to help. She joined the Shanti Project, which had been founded in 1974 to provide emotional and practical support to people with life-threatening illnesses.

Her assignment was providing peer crisis and grief counseling to HIV/AIDS patients and their loved ones in Ward 5A at San Francisco General Hospital, the first in the U.S. with beds dedicated for this illness. As a native Spanish speaker, she worked with many Latinx families.

Looking back, Corazón said, her experience in Ward 5A deeply informed her own spiritual beliefs and understanding about the concepts of life and death. “Ward 5A was a model for the world on how to offer caring and safe support to people with AIDS,” she said.

The soaring cost of living in the Bay Area prompted Corazón to continue her journey elsewhere. She accepted a post as interim director of AIDSWORK: HIV Support and Information for Tompkins County, formed in 1985 to mobilize a countywide response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In 2003, AIDSWORK merged with the Southern Tier AIDS Program, where she worked on the development of the first rural syringe exchange program in New York State.

In 2004, Corazón’s focus shifted to suicide prevention after a dear friend with HIV/AIDS took their own life.

“It was not the first time I had experienced this,” she recalled. “My cousin took his life when I was 17 years old and he was 27 years old. I saw how his suicide destroyed my uncle and aunt.”

Corazón initially joined the Suicide Prevention & Crisis Service (SPCS) as a volunteer counselor on the Crisisline. She would then spend 17 years as director of the Crisisline, which handles calls from people who are struggling. SPCS has been a regional call center for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which in 2022 became the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned through it all, it’s that we’re not separate from those who are struggling,” Corazón said. “People are no different just because they’re going through something difficult. They just need and deserve people to care about their safety. Selfless service is how I show up every day. It’s the least I could do.”

Josephine Gibson, MHA’s executive director, deeply respects Corazón’s decades of experience supporting vulnerable people, and the integrity and compassion she brings to that work.

“Mica exemplifies our mission of centering people’s experiences in the way she welcomes all who walk through our doors, meets people with the utmost compassion and respect, and uplifts the strengths she sees in all of our peer staff and participants,” Gibson said. “Mica takes the time to sit and listen to our guests, meeting them where they are, validate their unique experiences and understand their needs.”

Corazón got one of her first lessons in compassion at age 13. Knowing that she was queer and not having anyone else to talk to about it, she picked up a phone and called a helpline in New York City. She was connected to a counselor named Victor, a disabled veteran. He listened to her with respect and care, offering advice about staying true to herself through it all. For the next year, Corazón called back every Friday afternoon, speaking to Victor about her identity, looking for comfort in it.

She often finds herself thinking about Victor and wondering if she’s ever been a Victor for someone else. The answer should be pretty obvious to the legions of people in Tompkins County and beyond who have been at the receiving end of Corazón’s compassionate support.

—Lyndsey Honor

The Outreach Center is located in Center Ithaca, 171 East State Street, Suite 115. For information, call (607) 273 9250.

CLICK HERE to learn more about the Mental Health Association’s support groups and community education programs. To make a donation, CLICK HERE.

Lyndsey Honor, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a senior at Ithaca College, majoring in Writing and minoring in Honors, French, and Theatre. She is the managing editor of the school’s Stillwater Magazine and has written for the Ithaca Times.

Better Together for Mental Health!

The sun shined and the crowds came to Stewart Park in Ithaca on May 13 for “Better Together for Mental Health,” an all-day festival to celebrate National Mental Health Month and raise awareness about support services in Tompkins County. Gratitude to Family & Children’s Service of Ithaca, Health and Unity for Greg, Jaydn McCune, Sandy True, Gloria Coicou, Don Manuel Presents, and all the other organizers and supporters of this important community event.

Michelle and Kayla Eells of Health and Unity for Greg

Attending the event in Stewart Park, Mayor Laura Lewis proclaimed May 2023 as “Mental Health Awareness Month” in the City of Ithaca “to increase public understanding of the importance of mental health and to promote identification and treatment of mental illness.”

“Every citizen and community can make a difference in helping end the silence and stigma that for too long has surrounded mental illness and discouraged people from getting help,” Lewis added. “Public education and physical activities such as today’s can encourage mental health and help improve the lives if individuals and families affected by mental illness.”

Nate the Great

Scuba Jerry

Evo Evolution

NEO Project

Crossroads the Clown

GIAC Jumpers

Family & Children’s Service of Ithaca

Alicia Kenaley of F&CS and Kari Burke of Ithaca City School District

Open Doors

Stacy Ayres and Crystal Howser

Mental Health Association in Tompkins County

Olivia Duell of The Advocacy Center of Tompkins County

Cornell Health’s Julie Edwards and Catherine Thrasher-Carroll

Tompkins Families

The Sophie Fund

Mental Health Heroes Wall

“One Thing I Do to Feel Better”

Mayor Laura Lewis

Luna Inspired Street Food

On the Street Pita

Purity Ice Cream

Meg-a-Moo’s Ice Creeam

Thanks to all the Sponsors! Health and Unity for Greg, Johnson & Johnson Services, Sciarabba Walker & Co., The Sophie Fund, True Insurance, Kinney Drugs, Northwestern Mutual, and Warren Real Estate

On a Mental Health Mission to Support Others

Although public speaking is not her favorite thing, Sandra Sorensen, the new executive director of the Finger Lakes chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), took the microphone like a seasoned emcee, welcomed the organization’s supporters, and led them in a countdown for her first fundraising walk.

Sandra Sorensen

“Four! Three! Two! One! Yay! Let’s go, everybody!” she shouted. With that, a hundred or so folks filed between two tall pillars of blue and green balloons and began a trek under a clear-blue sky along Cayuga Inlet in Ithaca’s Cass Park.

The results from Sorensen’s first NAMIWalks event on May 6 were gratifying: 113 individuals and 16 teams collected more than $24,000, three times the organization’s goal of $8,000. Sorensen herself was the top fundraiser, bringing in $3,120 in donations. (Buoyant Punk was the leading fundraising team, with $5,100.)

To make a late DONATION, go to the NAMIWalks webpage here.

NAMIWalks in Cass Park

For all her enthusiasm, Sorensen’s initial connection with NAMI Finger Lakes, a decade ago, was not under the best of circumstances.

Her husband Michael was struggling with mental illness, but because of stigma he kept that to himself. A friend told Sorensen about NAMI’s Family to Family Program, a group where people can get support and learn how to best aid loved ones. Once a week, she would get the kids to bed, then sneak out to join the group’s meetings.

“It was something I had to do, but it had to be done in secret,” Sorensen recalled. “My husband kept this part of himself private. I felt a huge weight lifted from my shoulders. I was surprised to learn that what I really needed was how to better take care of me so I could support him.”

“I felt supported and understood by all the others in the class going through similar things,” she added. “I no longer felt alone. I was, for the first time, able to share my story in a confidential, safe space. Nobody made any judgement on my husband, something he was so fearful about. There was no stigma, and no judgement. Only empathy and love.”

Walking for Mental Health

Michael’s story, like too many others, Sorensen shared, ended in tragedy. He died by suicide in 2021. As she and her five children grieved the loss and adapted to their new life, Sorensen decided she could use her experiences to help others, just as NAMI support group members had done for her. When the position at NAMI-FL opened up last year, she jumped at the opportunity.

NAMI is a national grassroots organization founded in 1979 and dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness. NAMI-FL provides free support, education, and advocacy for people closest to those living with mental health conditions.

At NAMI-FL, Sorensen explained, it’s all about peer support. A NAMI-FL help line is staffed by volunteers with lived experience, helping callers feel heard and supported. The same goes for the Family to Family Program, which NAMI-FL offers as an eight-week class. Sorensen oversees NAMI-FL’s programs, with the goal of helping people facing similar situations to her own not feel alone. More projects are in the works.

Sorensen’s passion for mental health advocacy and nonprofit management is shaping a career journey she never expected. She graduated from the University of Massachusetts Lowell in 1995 with a degree in Polymer/Plastics Engineering, and worked in the field for six years before leaving to homeschool her children. Eventually, she took a bookkeeping job with a pregnancy crisis nonprofit, using skills she’d picked up from her husband’s construction business.

After volunteering to help with bookkeeping at Second Wind Cottages, she ended up staying on as the nonprofit’s first executive director.” “I was there through the pandemic, and it was disheartening to see how quickly the need for mental health care was escalating in the community and throughout the world,” Sorensen said.

Sorensen’s main goal as NAMI-FL executive director is to promote the organization’s services. She describes the challenge of reaching people who desperately need connections yet are unaware of NAMI-FL’s programs. “It’s a hard pill for me to swallow,” she said. “This supportive organization exists without many people knowing about it, but they should. No one deserves to feel lost in crisis.”

Support, Education, Advocacy

NAMI-FL board member Kathy Taylor, who likewise first became connected to NAMI when a family member was struggling, is thrilled to have Sorensen on board.

“Her passion for the mission of NAMI is clear,” Taylor said. “She has a true understanding of the burdens of mental illness, and she’s using her knowledge to destigmatize and advocate for all who struggle.”

Taylor supports Sorensen’s goal of raising NAMI-FL’s profile in the community. “We need to continue making connections with outside organizations, supporting each other the best we can, in order to help destigmatize mental illness all over. The more people that know about us and what we stand for, the more support we can offer.”

NAMI Finger Lakes volunteers Jason Hungerford and Melissa Lorah

Sorensen no longer tiptoes when leaving home for NAMI meetings. As the local chapter’s executive director, she is determined to spread the word about the organization’s support services to everyone within earshot and beyond. Judging from her NAMIWalks success, people are listening.

NAMI Finger Lakes help line can be reached at (607) 273-2462 or by email at namiflsupport@namifingerlakes.org.

—Lyndsey Honor

Lyndsey Honor, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a senior at Ithaca College, majoring in Writing and minoring in Honors, French, and Theatre. She is the managing editor of the school’s Stillwater Magazine and has written for the Ithaca Times.

Celebrate Mental Health Month in Tompkins!

Rock and R&B bands strumming and singing, a pop DJ spinning hit tunes, a juggler who thrills, music and writing workshops, nature walks, story times and face painting for kids, yoga classes, pickleball matches and frisbee tossing, street food and ice cream dished up for free—it’s all happening at Stewart Park on Saturday May 13 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Neo Project Will Perform at Better Together for Mental Health May 13

“Better Together for Mental Health,” inviting the public to celebrate National Mental Health Awareness Month, is the effort of more than a dozen community stakeholders supported by local musicians, artists, mental health practitioners, volunteers, and sponsors.

Besides the festival’s fun and games, local mental health organizations will be on hand to provide wellness tips and information on how and where to get help for those struggling with anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and other challenges.

“The last few years have shown us that there is so much strength in our community, but also so much need for additional support,” said event organizer Josiah Jacobus-Parker, director of development at Family & Children’s Service of Ithaca.

“More people than ever are talking openly about their mental health—which is great!—but there are still so many people who are struggling with mental wellness on their own. We loved the idea of having a day where anyone in the community could come and learn from real mental health professionals about how to better support themselves, and learn about the incredible array of resources to be found here in Tompkins County.”

Mark Maynard, frontman of the Jerry Garcia-inspired band Scuba Jerry, will perform from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and the R&B dance band Neo Project will take over the stage from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Evo Evolution will DJ music for kids, and acoustic musicians will play their instruments around the park. Street performer Nate the Great will dazzle with his juggling act, and maybe even do a little fire-breathing.

Mark Maynard, frontman for Scuba Jerry

Story House Ithaca will put up a Mental Health Heroes Tribute Wall, where anyone can post the names of people who have helped them, and another wall where people can post notes describing “One Thing I Do to Feel Better.”

“Nature Rx” advocate Don Rakow will take attendees on a forest therapy trek; Amber Smith of the Family Reading Partnership will lead young children on a Story Walk and leave them with free copies of Breathe, written by Becky Hemsley and illustrated by Siski Kalla.

Mark Cox of FreeVoice along with Elisa Sciscoli Keeler and Ephemera will host a workshop on Music as Medicine that includes breath work and singing. Cindy Overstreet will lead a workshop on “empowered calm through mindful motion.” Lee-Ellen Marvin will share traditional stories for kids and lead a workshop on storytelling for caregivers.

Erin Durkin of Family & Children’s Service will lead an activity on ageism and senior mental health care, and a trainer from Cayuga Addiction Recovery Services will demonstrate the use of Narcan/fentanyl strips.

Nate the Great

Attendees can help themselves to snacks provided by Luna Inspired Street Food, On the Street Pitas, Meg-a-Moo’s Ice Cream, and Purity Ice Cream.

DOWNLOAD: Mental Health Support and Crisis Services Tompkins County

“We aim to focus on uniting the community through advocacy events that exercise physical and mental health, continually striving to end the stigma for all, ” said Michelle Eells, of Health and Unity for Greg (HUG), an event organizer. “We believe being the CEO of your mind and mentally aware through meditation, walking outside, yoga, listening to music, and so much more, is imperative on a daily basis.”

Sandy True is another event organizer and longtime mental health advocate. “No one escapes mental health challenges, and I am so proud that our community has so many resources and wonderful professionals who are able to help,” she said. “Please prioritize your own mental well being and help others who need you to recognize that they are struggling. We truly are ‘better together.’”

True recalled her own experience with postpartum depression. “I know how much we need to reach out for help during those dark times,” she said. “I was unable to understand what was happening or ask for help. But my mother-in-law, as a social worker, recognized the signs and got me some help. I will be forever indebted to her for saving me and ultimately my family.”

Better Together organizers include: Racker, Family & Children’s Service of Ithaca, Advocacy Center of Tompkins County, Mental Health Association in Tompkins County, Story House Ithaca, Health and Unity for Greg, The Sophie Fund, Tompkins County Youth Services Department, FreeVoice, Mama’s Comfort Camp, Tompkins Learning Partners, Community Foundation of Tompkins County, and Don Manuel Presents.

“Challenges brought on by the pandemic together with broader issues facing our society today are driving increased needs for mental health support for everyone,” said Greg Hartz, president of Tompkins Trust Co., one of the event’s sponsors.

“Tompkins is pleased to support Better Together in an effort to continue to raise awareness about the importance of taking care of our mental health. Thank you to all of our mental health professionals for all you do!”

Other sponsors include Health and Unity for Greg, Johnson & Johnson Services, Sciarabba Walker & Co., The Sophie Fund, True Insurance, Kinney Drugs, Northwestern Mutual, and Warren Real Estate.

“I’m glad to help sponsor an event where a goal is to publicize the many available mental health supports in the community,” said Jay True, president and owner of True Insurance.

Agreed Andrew Hart, Sciarabba Walker’s marketing director: “Mental health is the cornerstone of a healthy community. Sciarabba Walker is proud to sponsor this impactful event to help provide some fun ways to strengthen our collective well-being.”

Click here for more information about Better Together for Mental Health

Students Walk at Cornell University to Fight Suicide

Nearly 200 people traveled a collective total of 337 miles in the rain and raised $11,692.32 on April 30 in the first-ever Out of the Darkness walk for suicide prevention to take place on the Cornell University campus.

Cornell Swimming & Diving Team

Throngs with ponchos, umbrellas, yellow galoshes, or just getting soaked in an April shower, including Cornell fraternity brothers, the Swimming & Diving, Tennis, and Volleyball teams, among others in the Cornell community, trekked the two-mile route from Corson-Mudd Hall, to the College of Veterinary Medicine, Feeney Way, and back again.

“By showing up today, you are sending the message that mental health is as real as physical health,” said chief organizer Cheyanne Scholl during an opening ceremony inside the Corson-Mudd atrium.

“You are sending the message that reaching out for help is the strong thing to do. You are showing others that the issue of suicide cannot and will not be kept in the darkness. And thanks to you, we remain hopeful.”

More than 500 Out of the Darkness walks are held across the country each year by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) to raise awareness, collect research funds, and send a message that “suicide is preventable and no one is alone.” In 2022, Overnight, Community, and Campus walks raised more than $21 million.

Among the participants in the Cornell walk were 14 campus fundraising teams, with Team Malibu raising the most funds, $1,450. Other top teams included SCL-TCOB, Cornell Vet, Alpha Gamma Rho, and The Statler Hotel. Skye Krehbiel was the top individual fundraiser with $1,210, and Michelle Moyal was second with $698.02.

Local businesses also supported the walk with donations, including Wegmans Panera Bread, Mirabito, Uncle Marty’s Shipping Office, Big Red Barbershop, and Cornell University.

Stacy Ayres and Crystal Howser of AFSP, and Co-Chair Cheyanne Scholl

In her remarks, Scholl explained that she has been involved with AFSP since 2017, when she participated in a walk at Iowa State University to honor a very close high school friend, Jack, a student there who had recently died by suicide. She was a first-year student at the time, and she recalled how “my life flipped on me” as she grieved Jack’s death.

“As a new college student experiencing such a tremendous loss, I was very lost and did not know where to turn,” she said. “The support and help I received from everyone around me was incredibly helpful. I learned that it is okay to reach out when you need help, you are not alone.”

Want to get involved? AFSP Greater Central New York will host a Greater Ithaca Walk on September 9, 2023. Click here to register or donate. To volunteer with AFSP, click here.

When Scholl moved to Ithaca from Iowa last summer to start a new job at Cornell, she spent part of the 16-hour car ride researching the local AFSP chapter determined to explore holding a Cornell walk. Backed by AFSP Greater Central New York, Scholl and a team of Cornell students and staff members including Scholl’s co-chair Daniel Richter spent months organizing the event on the sprawling campus.

Alpha Gamma Rho

Also speaking at the event was Kathleen Stathopoulos, whose son Yiannis ’24, a third-year Doctor of Veterinary Medicine student in the College of Veterinary Medicine, died by suicide last summer. He was president of the Student American Veterinary Medical Association, and worked at an animal hospital. Stathopoulos shared that Yiannis was a mental health advocate who sought to reduce the high suicide rate among vet school students.

Stathopoulos said her son was known for his self-assurance. The 24-year-old was an avid body builder who loved to ski, golf, fly his drone, ride his motorcycle, and attend Mets games. “Yianni, above everything, loved his family,” she said. In the weeks before he died, he had rescued two kittens and a rabbit and nurtured them back to health. Yiannis’s death, she said, seemed to come out of the blue.

“Yianni was active, he was engaged, he was involved,” Stathopoulos recalled. “He was a person who was alive. He smiled an infectious smile. I had no idea that Yianni had any kind of suicidal thoughts. His family had no idea, the closest of his friends, his teachers and administrators, they had no idea. Everybody was shocked.”

She added: “When they came to Yianni’s memorial in Brooklyn, people said, ‘Yianni? Not Yianni. Yianni had it all. He was living the dream. How did this happen?’ But it did happen.”

Stathopoulos said that while Yiannis projected strength, he appears to have been very good at hiding behind that image. “How could a person who’s looked at like a Greek god, so confident, now say to people, ‘I’m having a problem. I feel like I might do something to myself.’ That would be shattering the image. Yianni had that image and protected it. If Yianni could have just realized it’s okay not to be okay. Mental illness is just like any other illness. It’s not a character flaw.”

Yiannis’s mother urged the students participating in the walk to seek mental health support if they are struggling. “If there’s anyone out there thinking that something’s wrong, if that bully in the brain is telling you you’re not good, fight it, tell somebody, tell a professional, tell a friend, tell a loved one. Talk to somebody. It will help.”

Another speaker was Scott MacLeod, whose daughter Sophie ’14, a senior in the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning, died by suicide in 2016 at age 23 while on a health leave of absence from Cornell. MacLeod described how his family and friends established The Sophie Fund in Ithaca to advocate for improved mental health support for young people, including students at Cornell and other local campuses.

Why We Walk

Some of the comments written on the Cornell walk’s “Why We Walk” banner:

“All our loved ones we have lost, and to those who keep fighting each day. You matter and are not alone. My Dad, my hero.”

“For Sam, my best friend.”

“For the Czymmek family and in the loving memory of Will. We are still here for you.”

“For Chris. You are loved!”

“For Greg and his family, and everyone who struggles.”

“For all the student athletes and those struggling.”

“For my mom’s struggle.”

“For my brother Kyle, and all those who suffer.”

“For my trans siblings, I love you.”

“For Dong Hao.”

“Never stop fighting!”

Laurie Conlon, Jessica Withers, and Co-Chair Daniel Richter

Cornell Women’s Volleyball Team

Carolina Baquerizo, Alayzha Turner-Rodgers, and Hannah Van Bergen of the College of Veterinary Medicine

Hope Walks Here

Honor Beads

Have a Real Conversation

Hope Walks Here

Cornell walkers raised $11,692.32 for AFSP educational programming and research

If you or someone you know feels the need to speak with a mental health professional, you can call or text the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 9-8-8, or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.