Grasping the Profound Pain of Suicide

Describing depression to those who haven’t experienced it can be clumsy. The analogy I’ve found that best embodies my experience is “cloudy days.” The sun is still there but I’m unable to access that light. Instead, I’m cold and muted. Sometimes it’s cloudy for so long it’s hard to remember what the sun looks like. Sometimes it’s hard to believe the sun is there at all.

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A sculpture from “Schism” representing Sophie Hack MacLeod

As someone who has battled depression for years and intimately understands the pain surrounding suicide and mental illness, I want my art to make a statement about this epidemic. Art is visceral and can describe an effect or experience in deeply powerful ways. This, and my drive to grow as an artist, pushed me to complete a minor in fine arts as an undergraduate at Cornell University.

My installation, “Schism,” is featured in Still I Rise, an exhibition curated by Laura Rowley with the work of 12 artists on view at the Tompkins County Public Library from July through September. “Schism” deals with the pain of losing loved ones to suicide, commenting on the profound hole the deaths leave behind. With rising mental health concerns among my generation, the ability to outwardly mourn for people who die by suicide is incredibly important along the path to healing.

Yes, suicide is a sensitive topic. No, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it. Treating suicide as a taboo topic not only stunts the healing process for suicide loss survivors, but teaches those plagued with suicidal thoughts that it’s something to be ashamed of, a weakness, which can deter them from seeking support. Open and empathetic conversation is critical to combat such tragedy.

“Schism” contains three sculptures. Each is a life-size, wooden silhouette of a suicide victim that is painted black with the best runner up to Vantablack commercially available, Black 2.0. It’s a special paint that is meant to absorb a higher percentage of light, creating the visual effect of “a schism in space.” This is meant to convey the loss felt when someone is a victim to suicide, to reveal the hole that remains in their physical shape in space they inhabited in life.

This installation is designed to represent loss of the individual, as each sculpture is a personalized and unique silhouette. Further, it is intrinsically connected to Ithaca as the individuals represented were all affiliated with the area: Sophie Hack MacLeod, 23, a Cornell fine arts major; Jason J. Seymour, 40, a Cornell systems analyst; and Alexander Joseph Reposh, 25, an Ithaca filmmaker and musician.

When someone is having suicidal thoughts, it’s far too easy to think, “I don’t matter, no one will even miss me, what’s the point? It’s suffocating.” I hope that “Schism” can be a reminder to those experiencing suicidal thoughts that your life is not trivial but is something to be cherished. “Schism” is also a symbol for those mourning a loved one and the horrific loss they must cope with.

—By Brianna Evans

briannaBrianna Evans is a 2018 graduate of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University. “Schism” was created as an independent study project supervised by Professor Roberto Bertoia of the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning. She wishes to thank The Sophie Fund, and the families of Sophie Hack MacLeod, Jason J. Seymour, and Alexander Joseph Reposh, for their support.

“Be the Change You Want to See”

When the story of American authorities separating children from their parents at the U.S.–Mexico border hit the headlines in mid-June, we knew we had to act. Six of us—Cornell University students staying in Ithaca during the summer break—met up and brainstormed what we could do.

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We were deeply concerned about the consequences of the Trump administration’s “Zero Tolerance” policy targeting asylum seekers and other migrants.  The Department of Homeland Security reported that 2,342 children had been separated from adults between May 5 to June 9. Many psychologists and health professionals condemned the separation and detention of children as a traumatic, emotionally damaging experience that could cause them “irreparable harm.” We were mindful, too, that nearly 100 South Asian asylum seekers were being detained in Oregon.

Motivated by what we saw as a gross abuse of political power, and inspired by the mass action taking place across the country, we decided to support fundraising for the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services. RAICES is one of the largest immigrant rights nonprofits in Texas that has been supporting immigrants and their families in securing legal representation, translation services, and other services. Almost overnight, a Facebook campaign had raised more than $20 million for the organization.

I remember wanting to donate but feeling helpless because I could not afford more than $5.00 from my own pocket. From the ubiquity of Facebook posts and conversations that were happening around the issue, I realized that many felt the same way. Unaware of any other effort to mobilize contributions from the Cornell community, six of us—Tarannum Sarwat Sahar ’20, Rose Ippolito ’20, Lizzie Lee ’19, Jaylexia Clark ’19, Anuush Vejalla ’20, and myself—got to work with three ideas in mind.

First, we wanted to multiply the amount of money we could have donated on our own. We also wanted to engage people on the family separation issue face to face. Lastly, we wanted to restore our own faith that positive and swift action could be taken by college students against injustices, even during a time of year when we are “on break.”

We figured we wouldn’t raise a huge amount—we would be content with even $200. On June 26, we began a week of tabling at the bus stop in front of the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts. We had to cancel two of the days due to the weather, but were overjoyed to have raised almost $560 by the weekend. We were excited by the prospect of reaching $750—half of the $1,500 minimum needed to pay the bond for a detained migrant at the border.

Suddenly, we experienced a dispiriting misfortune—during our Saturday shift, an individual stole the entire contents of the cash box, taking off with most of the donations we had received at that point.

The blow was difficult to bear in the moment. June 30 happened to be the date when thousands of people in Ithaca and across the United States were marching and protesting the Zero Tolerance policy and family separation. So we took to our online networks and began to spread the tale of our predicament to our friends in every corner of the country, and even to the friends who were abroad for the summer. Within 20 minutes, I saw my personal Venmo account jump by nearly $100.

Our donations surged past $500 just a few hours later. It was utterly surreal. Over the next 24 hours, money continued to arrive, in $20, $10, and $5 increments—and even one 87-cent donation. By Sunday afternoon, we crossed the $1,000 mark with more donations pouring in.

For us, this became a story of a community coming together—people rallying around the immigration issue, and also friends responding to our SOS. It was incredible to see our friends (and also people we didn’t know!) contributing their support so quickly and generously.

We are extraordinarily grateful for the kindness and goodness of those around us. We know that in the end, this goodness will always drown out the negative actions of others. We are extremely thankful for every single donor, every single volunteer, and every single person who has taken interest in our fundraising effort.

Throughout the week, we talked to more than 200 people passing by our table. They gave us spare change, any dollars they could spare, and more importantly, took out time in their day to support a simple idea: #KeepFamiliesTogether. We want this to serve as a reminder that there is always a way to be the change you want to see in the world—no matter what time of year, no matter with what resources, and even when upsetting things happen.

Our fundraiser is closed–our final total was $1,120–but we ask that any and all further donations be sent directly to RAICES via its website here (scroll down to the donate box).

—By Winnie Ho

Winnie Ho is a senior in Cornell University’s College of Arts and Sciences studying neurobiology and sociology

Dash! Splash! It’s Newfield’s Color Run!

The grounds of Newfield High School were ablaze in festive shades of pink, blue, and orange on Saturday as some 250 students, parents, and community members took part in the school’s annual spring Color Run.

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Under a brilliant sun and cloudless sky, everyone from senior citizens to toddlers in strollers to families with pets in tow trekked along their choice of routes—the standard five-kilometer course, one-mile course, or the “family” half-mile track. At five stations along the way the joggers and walkers were doused with colored powder, sometimes to shrieks of delight. With dozens of volunteer organizers on hand to help, music, lawn games, and hot dogs rounded out the day’s fun.

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The Color Run is sponsored by—and raises money for—a great student club at Newfield High School, Sources of Strength (SOS). This is part of a national peer-led suicide prevention program, originally developed in North Dakota in 1998, that promotes hope, help, strength, and connections, and provides support to struggling students.

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Newfield High School heard about Sources of Strength six years ago, and affiliated researchers and trainers at the University of Rochester offered two years of support and a bit of funding to help pilot the program in some Tompkins County schools.

What made this program so appealing to us at Newfield was the unique focus of having peer leaders deliver powerfully positive, strength-driven messages. The University of Rochester researchers had already collected solid data from several schools in North America proving the effectiveness of Sources of Strength.

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As Sources of Strength explains it:

“A best practice youth suicide prevention project designed to harness the power of peer social networks to change unhealthy norms and culture, ultimately preventing suicide, bullying, and substance abuse. The mission of Sources of Strength is to prevent suicide by increasing help seeking behaviors and promoting connections between peers and caring adults. Sources of Strength moves beyond a singular focus on risk factors by utilizing an upstream approach for youth suicide prevention. This upstream model strengthens multiple sources of support (protective factors) around young individuals so that when times get hard they have strengths to rely on.”

Each fall, the club’s co-advisors—myself and high school counselor Rick Pawlewicz—take our group of diverse peer leaders through a half-day training to learn about the mission and key messages of Sources Of Strength.

In becoming key “connectors” in their school, the peer leaders focus on identifying and utilizing eight different strengths in our lives: positive friends, healthy activities, family support, mentors, spirituality, generosity, medical access, and mental health. They share stories at weekly SOS meetings about struggles, stressors, and how they use personal sources of strength to get through tough times. Helping to break the silence around mental health, peer leaders actively seek out others to connect them with resources and to their own sources of strength. They continually send the message that it’s okay to talk about tough times, and that it’s essential to tap into our personal strengths and reach out for help.

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SOS peer leaders at Newfield High have created, facilitated, and engaged in countless messaging activities inside our school and in the wider community. The activities include simple, visual messages like posters, cards, videos, and social media posts; trivia games during all lunch periods; Sources of Strength Weeks; pep rallies; and the annual Extravaganzas—nights of fun on campus with games, music, art, and food. The peer leaders give community presentations on their activities, to the Newfield Central School District Board of Education and the Tompkins-Seneca-Tioga Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES). And, of course, hundreds of community members come out for the annual Color Run.

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We are proud of Newfield High School’s peer leaders and the mentors (teachers, staff, administrators, coaches, etc.) who support their efforts to promote hope, help, strength, and connections throughout every corner of our community. Our goal is that every student knows that they are not alone, and there is always help and support available.

—By Jamie McCaffrey

Jamie McCaffrey, LCSW is a social worker in the Newfield Central School District

Photos courtesy Jamie McCaffrey

 

Who Runs for Newfield High?

Fancy a splash of color in your life? We mean that literally! Come out and join the annual Color Run at 10 a.m. Saturday June 16 at Newfield High School. Participants in the five-kilometer trek (walkers and cheering supporters are welcome, too) are doused at eight intervals with colored, non-toxic cornstarch. All for a great cause: to support Newfield’s Sources of Strength, a school club dedicated to spreading hope, help, and strength in the community.

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Scene from Sources of Strength’s 2017 Color Run

Runners and walkers wearing white t-shirts pass through eight color stations, each one representing a “source of strength”: family support, positive friends, mentors, health activities, generosity, spirituality, medical access, and mental health.

Besides fostering community spirit, the event is a fundraiser for Sources of Strength, which promotes mental health and wellness for fellow students. The group meets regularly for rap sessions focused on promoting personal strengths and community-message brainstorming, and directs struggling students to helpful resources. It organizes de-stressor events like SOS Extravaganza, which turns the high school campus into a night-long party with movies, games, and snacks.

Click here for the sign-up form.

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Anthony Bourdain: “The Sheer Weirdness of the Kitchen Life”

Anthony Bourdain was a character much loved by chefs, servers, and bartenders everywhere. This was no less the case in Ithaca, a small town with a large appetite for life—and life’s culinary pleasures. Thus, Bourdain’s death by suicide is very hard to comprehend and absorb. To The Sophie Fund’s dear friends in the kitchens and dining rooms of Ithaca: please take the time to care for yourself and show extra kindness to friends and colleagues.

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The Sophie Fund is proud to sponsor training in Mental Health First Aid, which gives us tools for supporting ourselves and others when we may be experiencing a mental health crisis. If you or your establishment would like to participate in a training, please contact us at thesophiefund2016@gmail.com.

Anthony Bourdain put it well, in a poignant reminder of why we need to look after each other in the food and drink business:

“I love the sheer weirdness of the kitchen life: the dreamers, the crackpots, the refugees, and the sociopaths with whom I continue to work; the ever-present smells of roasting bones, searing fish, and simmering liquids; the noise and clatter, the hiss and spray, the flames, the smoke, and the steam. Admittedly, it’s a life that grinds you down. Most of us who live and operate in the culinary underworld are in some fundamental way dysfunctional. We’ve all chosen to turn our backs on the nine-to-five, on ever having a Friday or Saturday night off, on ever having a normal relationship with a non-cook.” (The New Yorker)

A wonderful talk with Bourdain about his life in the kitchen, on NPR’s Fresh Air in 2016:

 

Photo Credit: Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown (Facebook)