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.