World of a Campus Mental Health Advocate

Zoe Howland was a half hour into her day at the national headquarters of Active Minds when she got a call from the Washington Post. The reporter was seeking comment about a new study documenting the positive impact of the organization on student mental health on college campuses across the country. Howland, a summer intern, was the perfect spokesperson.

ZoeHowland

Zoe Howland

Howland is a senior at Ithaca College and the co-president of IC’s Active Minds chapter. She signed up as a member of the student organization in her freshman year, and now helps lead its campaigns to fight the stigma around mental illness and its education programs about mental health for the campus community. The IC chapter has several dozen members; Mikaela Vojnik serves as co-president.

“I love being a voice in student mental health, and I feel like the position of president of Active Minds really does help me do that,” Howland, who is double majoring in Sociology and in Culture and Communication and minoring in Women’s and Gender Studies, said in a recent interview.

One of the projects that Howland is helping oversee is “Send Silence Packing,” a traveling installation of 1,100 backpacks representing the number of college students who die by suicide each year. The day-long exhibition will be held in the IC quad, with the aim of provoking discussion and raising awareness about mental health, promoting suicide prevention, and connecting students to mental health resources. The Sophie Fund is a sponsor of the event.

Howland said that Active Minds also plans to continue building on the Speak Your Mind (SYM) panels, which are designed to reduce stigma through storytelling. Students who have gone through Active Minds training visit classes, share their experiences about mental health and mental illness, and participate in question-answer sessions with the students. This year, Howland seeks to expand SYM’s reach to places like the Business and Music schools. “It would be nice to branch out a little bit and get panels in classes that don’t focus on that in their content,” she explained.

Howland’s summer internship at Active Minds headquarters in Washington, D.C. fostered an even closer relationship for IC’s Active Minds chapter. “I got to work with the chapter coordinator, so I did a lot of corresponding with new and developing chapters to try and get their chapter off the ground,” she said. “I got to talk to people who were really passionate about mental health and just wanted help bringing it to their campus, and I got to see the behind-the-scenes of such a cool nonprofit.”

Howland also serves on the national Active Minds Student Advisory Committee, comprised of students from chapters across the country who contribute local perspectives.

Over the course of Howland’s college career, she has widened her own perspective on mental health. Her courses in Sociology and Culture and Communication studies have offered new lenses for her thinking. Where Sociology has allowed her to consider societal views on mental health and treatment, Culture and Communication studies has encouraged her to investigate how the ways we choose to talk about mental health shape our perceptions and ultimately our attitudes toward stigmas.

Advocacy through Active Minds, education in the classroom, and her personal experience have all played a part in Howland’s comprehensive outlook on mental health. And though she’s dedicated plenty of thought to the topic, she goes on to say, “But of course I’m always learning. There’s always more information to find and more articles to read.”

Over time, Howland has come to discover at the heart of her mental health philosophy is talking, sharing stories, and diminishing stereotypes. “I think you gain a lot of really valuable knowledge,” she explained. “Just getting to know people and their stories gives you a broader base to base your assumptions and knowledge when you’re talking to someone else about it.”

ActiveMinds

Active Minds national Student Advisory Committee

Howland has made no concrete plans for her future, but she is definitely interested in pursuing work in mental health after graduation next spring. She credits Active Minds for shaping so much of her college experience, both in and out of the classroom. “I think that it really ignited a passion in me that didn’t really exist before which has definitely shaped what I want to do with my life,” she said.

For now, Howland will focus her energy on writing her senior thesis on the topic of—you guessed it—mental health. “My thesis will be about how people talk about mental health on a day-to-day basis, how people trivialize mental health while also stigmatizing it,” she explained. Clearly, Zoe Howland has much to teach us, for a long time to come.

—By Margaret McKinnis

Margaret McKinnis, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a junior at Ithaca College majoring in Writing and minoring in English and Honors. She is a nonfiction editor at Stillwater, a student literary magazine, and an assistant director of the New Voices Literary Festival.

Community Profile: Jacob Parker Carver

Jacob Parker Carver is the Community Educator at the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County. A typical week puts him at the Tompkins County Public Library where he gives trainings in Mental Health First Aid, or on the Cornell University campus where he recently gave a talk at a mental health awareness event. Parker Carver’s job also takes him to a place that most of us would prefer to avoid: the Tompkins County Jail.

jacobparkercarver  Jacob Parker Carver

Parker Carver along with other colleagues runs two regular mental health programs at the 82-inmate institution, the Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP), and a less formal program he just calls Talk. As Parker Carver sees it, mental health support is critical to giving prisoners a better chance in life once they are released. The county jail’s WRAP program began in April 2016 after Tompkins County Corrections Division Supervisor Captain Raymond Bunce recognized that prisoners needed more mental health services and the Mental Health Association reached out with help.

The idea behind WRAP, Parker Carver explained in an interview with The Sophie Fund, is self-help training—“teaching people how to identify the things that give them strength, that make them healthy, that keep them healthy.” It sounds straightforward enough, yet Parker Carver found it tough going at first. Much like the challenges that mental health providers face with the regular population, getting inmates to overcome the stigma around mental illness and treatment is no easy matter.

“We realized that we were not getting access to everybody in the jail who could use the service, partially because of the stigma around mental health,” Parker Carver recalls. “Especially within the jail, if you identify as having a mental health issue, that makes you a target. Behind those bars you’re easier to take advantage of if you have a mental health problem. So people don’t necessarily want to sign up for that. When someone is in that seat in front of me, they really want to be a part of that group.”

To get around the stigma and create a different environment for inmates turned off by a formal wellness and recovery program, the Mental Health Association began offering Talk, a less structured group session. In an ideal world all the inmates would take advantage of this support, but Parker Carver has found that often times it’s the same group of people. Giving prisoners the space to express themselves, Parker Carver says, is not as easy as it sounds. While they are very appreciative to have someone who cares about how they feel, it is hard for them to escape the norms imposed by the criminal justice system.

“They’ve talked to correctional officers or probation officers, or some of them have drug and alcohol counselors,” Parker Carver explains. “They’re part of the system and that means they’re used to having to tell something from a script, having to jump through hoops, having to say the right thing to make sure that their kids don’t get taken away from them or that they don’t have to get sent to rehab or this that or the other thing. So they’re very used to having to figure out what people want to hear and then saying that back to them.”

Parker Carver’s methods enable some inmates to open up with surprising candor. “Someone who would tell their drug counselor that they want to get clean might tell me ‘As soon as I get out of this cell and get to go home I just need to go find crack because I can’t think of anything else that’s going to make being alive okay,’” he says. “That’s a hard thing to hear. But you’re not really able to help anyone unless you’re hearing the truth of what they’re going through.”

As Parker Carver explains it, WRAP and Talk also help inmates cope with the immense stresses of their incarceration. “Not everyone in jail is happy and holding hands and ready to get along,” he says. “You’ve got two people who are locked up and there’s no reason for them to hate each other. If anything, because they’re in the same difficult situation they should be supporting each other. But they’re both stressed, anxious, afraid, and on high alert—always in that ‘fight or flight’ situation. They can’t focus their anger in any place productive so they take it out on each other. That’s definitely sad to see.”

In jail cells, traditional coping mechanisms don’t apply. “When you’re in jail I can’t tell you to listen to music,” Parker Carver says. “I can’t tell you to take a yoga class. You’re stuck in this place so you’re limited to coping mechanisms that you can use in a small space, with very limited resources.”

That’s where the Mental Health Association comes in. WRAP trains inmates to understand the little things people can do in each day to try to take control of their mental health and communicate to other people about their needs. Parker Carver says it also teaches inmates how to be mindful of triggers—“the things that set us off, the things that are going to make it harder for us to stay in control.”

Parker Carver, 30, is a 2008 graduate of Ithaca College, where he studied cinema production. He spent four years teaching English in Shanghai before returning to Ithaca. He joined the Mental Health Association initially as its Youth Services Coordinator, before taking up his current position in 2015. He is mindful that after listening to the stories of pain and suffering in the county jail he needs to take care of his own mental health. Explains Parker Carver: “I spend a lot of time building little things into my day, into my life, that give me that energy, hope, and strength.”

—By S. Makai Andrews

S. Makai Andrews is co-president of Active Minds at Ithaca College, and a contributor to The Mighty