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.

Sleepless in Ithaca

Instead of falling asleep at 10 p.m., Daniel, a junior psychology major at Ithaca College, has just woken up. He was too tired to stay awake in the afternoon, but now he won’t be able to get back to sleep until 2 or 3 a.m. Because he won’t get enough sleep at night, tomorrow he’ll be tired again in the afternoon.

The Fountains at Ithaca College

College students are notorious for their unconventional sleep schedules. The transition to online classes during the Covid-19 pandemic has merged school and personal time, meaning even more students are having difficulty getting enough sleep at night and staying awake during the day. The Ithaca College Center for Health Promotion hosts the THRIVE @ IC Wellness Coaching program, which includes one-on-one sessions and group workshops for building resiliency to help students address these sleep difficulties and other health concerns. According to Program Director Nancy Reynolds, a Health Education Specialist and National Board-certified health and wellness coach, anyone can start taking steps today to improve their sleep cycle and overall wellness.

A good night’s sleep might be hard to get for some, experts agree, but it’s easy to define. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adults college-aged and up need seven to nine hours of sleep every night. Sleep is generally better without frequent awakenings and when you keep a consistent routine, waking up and going to bed at similar times every day.

Reynolds points out signs of a poor sleep schedule that may sound familiar to college students.

“Do you feel well-rested in the morning?” Reynolds asks. “What’s your fatigue level during the day? Because that’s another marker of if you’re not getting enough sleep or a good quality of sleep. You’re going to notice during the day that you’re feeling groggy, maybe you’re falling asleep in class, you’re having to take naps every day because you’re so tired.”

It’s a stereotype that college students choose to stay up past midnight and sleep into the afternoon, but many students like Daniel, who requested that his full name not be published, really do have difficulty getting up and staying awake.

According to Reynolds, various aspects of student culture contribute to unhealthy sleep schedules. When students spend time on phones and laptops late into the night, she noted, blue light from these devices prevents the brain from releasing sleep chemicals. Reynolds said that many students also struggle with time management, especially when they’re juggling a lot of responsibilities. That can force students to stay up late to complete all their tasks or assignments, she said. Reynolds also points to a strange element of college culture in which students “compete” to be the busiest or the most sleep deprived—which some students dub the “Sleep Olympics.”

The switch to online learning has further complicated student sleep problems, Reynolds said. Students face even more hours of screen time, and the line between schoolwork and rest of life is blurred. It’s not unusual for students to log in to a class on Zoom and see several classmates attending from their beds. Reynolds explained that taking online classes from the same room all day may be another reason students are struggling with sleep.

“We’re not getting variety in our day in terms of social connections and moving around to different environments—walking around campus, going to the library, hanging out in different students’ rooms,” she said. “We’re not getting the same amount of stimulation that our brains need to make our bodies ready for sleep at night.”

Along with lack of stimulation, Covid-19 has introduced new stressors, such as social, financial, and health-related worries, that may keep students up at night, Reynolds said. She noted that many people are coping with feelings of grief for those they have lost to Covid-19.

Reynolds said that sleep and mental health are strongly interconnected. Bad moods, low energy, and difficulty in focusing due to lack of sleep take a toll on mental health.

Reynolds explained that sleep cycles necessary to maintaining mental wellness can be interrupted for many reasons, one of which is substance use.

“Some students are self-medicating with cannabis,” she said, explaining how students use marijuana to help them fall asleep at night. “The downside is we know scientifically that THC and cannabis prevent us from going into REM sleep, which is dream sleep. If you don’t get dream sleep on a continual basis, your mood may suffer.”

Struggling with mental health can cause poor sleep, and in turn poor sleep can make it difficult to focus on one’s mental health, Reynolds said. Anxiety specifically feeds into this cycle, as racing thoughts keep people awake, and the resulting poor sleep causes them to feel like they can’t handle challenges in their lives, she added.

Daniel agreed that the two were related, saying, “When my sleep schedule is off, I’m often anxious about class work, since I don’t have time or energy to get it done.”

It can seem like an endless cycle. At Wellness Coaching, Reynolds focuses on finding a first step that can help students move forward. This may be anything from mindfulness to a new exercise routine.

“You have to go at it from both aspects—improving the sleep and reducing anxiety,” Reynolds explained.

All aspects of health are related, which Wellness Coaching illustrates through a “Resilience Pyramid” graphic. The bottom building blocks of the pyramid are eating well, “balancing substance use,” moving your body, and getting good sleep. All of these elements are essential for building up personal health and moving up to higher goals on the pyramid such as connecting with others and adopting a growth mindset.

In a first visit with Wellness Coaching, students typically assess their own strengths and challenges on the pyramid. They can then start finding solutions. Wellness Coaching is currently available virtually at no cost for all Ithaca College students. Reynolds encourages students to reach out, even if they only need assistance for one session. (Email healthpromotion@ithaca.edu for more information.)

Reynolds said there are several first steps that a student can take today to getting their sleep cycle back on track. For example, she said, take the time to go for a walk outside, allow yourself breaks between classes, and stay connected with the important people in your life. Be mindful of activities that may be disrupting your sleep cycle, such as upsetting media, substance use, and long naps, Reynolds advised. She also recommends establishing a nightly wind-down routine, a period of 30 to 60 minutes before bed when you shut off your devices and do something quiet like stretching or listening to a podcast.

As the semester nears an end, Daniel is feeling hopeful. With three of his five classes now meeting in person, he’s having less difficulty separating work and leisure environments. He’s also monitoring his afternoon habits, trying to avoid  too-long naps. Daniel’s latest report: the sleep cycle is getting back on track.

—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.

Fighting Sexual Assault on Campus

Sexual harassment and assault are worldwide problems. IC Strike is an Ithaca College student organization formed in 2019 and dedicated to education, action, and allyship surrounding sexual assault. We believe it is our duty to inform the Ithaca community because sexual assault and violence is, more often than not, swept under the rug.

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), every 73 seconds an American is sexually assaulted, meaning you regularly interreact with survivors of sexual assault every day.

There are differences in direct and indirect sexual assault prevention. The opportunity to distract people involved in a dangerous situation can be a safer way to provide a friend or a stranger a way out of an uncomfortable encounter. Asking directly or getting help from a figure of authority like a Resident Assistant, campus safety officer, or calling 911 can also save people from potentially traumatic situations.

Additionally, it’s important to create safe spaces to talk about uncomfortable situations. This can help individuals so that they don’t have to take on the big issues alone by helping to create safety and support networks for those that need them. Of course, education is at the core of sexual assault prevention. Education helps to create a safe space where conversations can be held about traditionally taboo topics such as consent and sexual violence.

April 2021 marks the 20th anniversary of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. There are many campaigns, some with different themes, designed to share information around sexual assault awareness and prevention. These campaigns stem from historical and intersectional branches of activism that continue to show how anyone can be affected by this issue.

IC Strike partnered with The Sophie Fund and the Advocacy Center of Tompkins County to launch an education campaign on social media during Sexual Assault Awareness Month. We are trying to reach as many people as possible to educate them on our core issues.

IC Strike was created as a response to our founder’s experiences navigating the legal and health systems following a assault. Like her, many of our members seek validation and answers to questions surrounding their own experiences. As an organization, we strive to fulfill the needs of survivors and to educate our community to prevent the same trauma from occurring to others.

These issues of sexual violence affect everyone, and we believe that facilitating a safe and respectful space for learning and navigating tough conversations within a college community leads to personal growth and social progress. 

IC Strike adamantly believes in the power of education and communication. Our society struggles to have conversations about sex, trauma, and sexual violence. In breaking the social stigma surrounding these topics, people are able to learn more about themselves and the society they live in. The social gag rule on sexual assault fosters ignorance and perpetuates harmful behavior and values. By equipping students with the facts and the vocabulary to discuss these issues, productive conversations can be had and stigmas can be broken.

By Carmen Enge, Lindsay Sayer, and Julia Siegal

Carmen Enge, Lindsay Sayer, and Julia Siegal are students at Ithaca College and serve, respectively, as treasurer and co-presidents of IC Strike

READ: Sexual Assault Awareness Month