A Little Help from Your Friends

Young people are often bewildered about mental health and mental illness, and Melanie Little loves explaining the difference to them. “When I asked high school students to define mental health, some of them didn’t know what to say,” said Little, director of Youth Services at the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County (MHA). “Others said it was ‘the wellbeing of the mind.’ Being mentally healthy is the ability to make positive decisions, cope with difficult emotions and enjoy one’s life, whereas mental illness is diagnosable and disrupts a person’s ability to carry out daily activities.”

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Melanie Little and the Kids First Summer Camp

Little empathizes with struggling teens. She’s been there herself. Originally from Rochester, she battled mental illness during her youth.

As Little, 27, recalls her own experiences growing up, her mental health issues were not taken seriously. Adults blamed her discontent on typical teen mood swings. She didn’t fit the stereotypes around mental illness; she earned good grades and had close connections in her life. However, this did not alleviate the pain she felt or obviate her need for help. It was not until Little attended Ithaca College in 2009 that she finally reached out to receive treatment.

Little has always been interested in social justice and in striving to make positive change in the community. She yearned to provide guidance for young people in a way that she felt had been lacking in her own upbringing. She heard about MHA’s Kids First Summer Camp, a program designed for children ages 5-18 experiencing a wide range of internal or external struggles, and quickly signed up to become a camp counselor. It was a summer job, but turned out to be the first stepping stone in a career path as a community mental health educator and advocate.

At Kids First, Little learned valuable lessons about mental health and the significance of working directly with children. “Sometimes it feels like you are getting nowhere,” said Little. “Mental health can’t be fixed overnight. But, people don’t need to be ‘fixed.’ They just need to harness their strengths, which takes time. You have to trust yourself and trust the process. You don’t always get to see the progress, but you’re planting seeds.”

Over time, Little watched as the children in the summer camp began to open up and grow closer to their peers and the adult supervisors. She learned how to discipline and set limits for the children while remaining compassionate and empathetic about the kids’ variety of personalities and needs.

“A common misconception is that all children who struggle come from broken homes or have a lower socioeconomic status,” said Little. “However, some of the children had families that were perfectly stable and loving. Mental illness can be genetic or come from other external environmental factors. Mental health doesn’t exist in a vacuum.” Little finds it rewarding to work with children who she recognizes are capable of change and growth.

As the director of Youth Services, Little is responsible for a wide variety of tasks pertaining to community outreach, education and individual peer support and advocacy. Part of her community outreach involves visiting health classes in high schools and middle schools in the Ithaca City School District as a guest speaker in its mental health unit. She provides Mental Health and Wellness 101 courses for students, faculty, and parents. She also attends Parent Teacher Association meetings to educate adults. Little supervises recreational programs for young people at the MHA-affiliated Saturday Group Respite at the YMCA. She also carries out the Youth Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) that helps to decrease and prevent intrusive or troubling behaviors, increase personal empowerment, improve quality of life and help a young person take steps to achieve their goals.

In addition, Little serves MHA as a Mental Health First Aid instructor. She works to combat the stigma around mental illness and educates adults about how to recognize signs of mental illness and actively support family members, friends, colleagues, and others in a way that is non-judgmental. She informs trainees that “no one size fits all,” meaning each individual is different and must be treated with patience and care. She teaches that recovery is possible for everyone. MHA offers regular Mental Health First Aid courses for the general public. The Sophie Fund has sponsored special MHA training sessions for members of Ithaca’s food service community.

Although there tends to be more openness, progression, and awareness pertaining to mental health advocacy, Little believes that there is still an abundance of work to be done; she says that “roughly one in three Tompkins County high school students reported feeling sad or depressed most days.” Little intends to continue providing support, guidance, and mental health education for adolescents and adults. She believes that teaching about mental health and mental illness should be a crucial part of health classes in schools to have children understand their own minds from a younger age, and to grow into empathetic and aware adults. She also wants to take her advocacy work to the next level by going with a group of youth advocates to Albany to speak to legislators about providing more funding for mental health organizations and health classes in schools.

—By Nicole Kramer

Nicole Kramer, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a Class of 2019 Writing major and Sociology minor at Ithaca College. She is a nonfiction editor for Stillwatera student-run literary magazine. She also enjoys creating mixed media image-text work and writing poetry. 

“You Have to Let Go”

Ashae Forsythe, a 21-year-old writing major at Ithaca College, strives to raise awareness about mental health through social media. On Facebook and Instagram, she promotes positivity by highlighting the little things that help you see everyday life through a happier lens. Forsythe’s friends and family tend to share her posts or message her directly via social media to show their appreciation of her kind and thoughtful words.

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Ashae Forsythe

Recently, Forsythe initiated another way to reach out to others: she facilitated a discussion on mental health aimed at fellow classmates from the Caribbean. She is originally from Portmore, Jamaica, and is an active member of the Caribbean Students Association on her campus. One of the things she wanted the participants to ponder is the relatively strong stigma around mental illness back home compared to the United States.

“I came to terms with my mental illness much more when I came to Ithaca,” said Forsythe. “College made me more open to talking about it because in Jamaica, mental illness wasn’t something people saw as normal. No one wanted to put other people in a discomforting position. In Jamaica, people had the mentality that ‘whatever you are struggling with, that’s life, you don’t have time to wallow in self-pity.’” She thinks one reason that Jamaicans put less focus on personal mental health is that they are generally consumed with more basic issues of survival in a country historically beset by low economic growth and high rates of poverty and crime.

Ithaca College provides mental health support through the Center for Counseling and Psychological Services and peer-to-peer organizations like Active Minds. Yet, Forsythe felt the need to organize an open discussion where students from the Caribbean could share their stories and work through personal issues in a space of mutual understanding and support. This discussion was geared toward Caribbean students and other students of color, but it was open to the public.

“I wanted to create a safe space where people of color could talk about their struggles and experiences of getting families to understand their mental state,” she explained. “I wanted to address cultural practices and habits that exacerbate trends that further diminish mental health.”

It was the first time that the Caribbean Students Association had focused a meeting on mental health, and the members proceeded to share intimate experiences about how their parents tended to ignore certain thoughts and feelings that needed to be worked through and cathartically released.

Some of the students addressed ways in which they wouldn’t want to be like their parents, or things they wished their parents would have done better in child rearing. Nonetheless, they expressed how they were accepting that their parents had their own sets of troubles and traumas, and that holding on to anger and regret was unproductive and unnecessary.

“Forgiving parents for the sake of self, without them having to say they’re sorry, is an eye-opening experience,” said Forsythe. “Holding negative emotions is toxic and exhausting and takes a toll on your mental health. You realize, you have to let go and advance forward.”

Forsythe hopes to collaborate with Ithaca College’s African Students Association to open the conversation to a larger group of people. Forsythe also wishes to open up a foundation in Portmore, to help provide resources, funding, and awareness for families and individuals whose lives are affected by mental illness.

—By Nicole Kramer

Nicole Kramer, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a Class of 2019 Writing major and Sociology minor at Ithaca College. She is a nonfiction editor for Stillwatera student-run literary magazine. She also enjoys creating mixed media image-text work and writing poetry. 

A Day at the Alley Cat Café

Kristin recalls the afternoon when a troubled woman came into her Ithaca café. The woman had apparently just split up with a partner and was feeling the stress of managing her house and raising her children. “A cat came and laid on her chest, and she just started weeping,” said Kristin. “It was the first time she felt loved in a really long time.”

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Welcome to the Alley Cat Café on East Seneca Street, which has become a surprisingly popular downtown community hub since opening last June. As its name suggests, the establishment is a café, which offers drinks and tasty delights for customers who want to lounge for a while and for those on the run alike. But it is especially a haven for rescued cats with names like Luna, Ginny, and Mack, and Penelope and Millie Joy, who have their own large glassed-in quarters in the rear of the café where customers can play with them ($5 per 30 minutes) and adopt them if they wish.

Café owner Kristin, 36, who prefers to go by only her first name, has been rescuing abandoned and abused cats for two decades. She also runs Browncoat Cat Rescue, a volunteer organization that first took strides in 2012 to find and support abandoned cats in Ithaca to find new homes; Browncoat provides the cats for the Alley Cat Café and collects the $100 adoption fee. To date, according to Kristen, more than 20 cats rescued by Browncoat have been adopted from the Alley Cat Café.

At any given time of day, customers will be sipping a cappuccino or drinking tea in the front of the café while a handful of others will be canoodling with kittens in the back. You’ll see students popping in on the way to or from class, young lovers on dates, and parents with tons of kids in tow, all eager to hold a cat and take selfies with the feline menagerie.

There’s Freddy, with brown and black fur, and Clarissa, a ginger cat, who love to jump around with visitors. Among the most calming and relaxing cats is a sweet ginger kitty named Strawberry, the kind of cat who purrs on you, goes to sleep, and gives you the kind of connection many people need, Kristin said. Sitting on your lap, this kitten purrs at a healing frequency—the feline happiness helps heal human hearts, Kristin said.

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Everyday customers can enjoy a menu including items like lentil spinach soup and almond chocolate cupcakes. There’s also a long list of hot and cold beverages, many of them feline-themed (and served up by purr-istas, of course): The Cat Lady (mocha latte with lavender), The Black Cat (French press coffee with double espresso shot), and the Meowcchiato (double espresso with a dash of frothed milk).

Special events also bring in the crowds, such as Knitten’ Mittens with Kittens, Slow Flow Cat Yoga, craft afternoons, and board game nights (Exploding Kittens, Cat Stax); the café also hosts talks about gender, sexuality, and healthier relationships.

The cats, meanwhile, have their own entertainment: besides cuddling with their affectionate human visitors, they enjoy a Romper Room of high perches, hideaways, and meandering obstacle courses that allow them to leap or just sleep as they like. In December, Kristin inaugurated Movie Night—for the cats—with a film about bird watching.

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As the story of the weeping woman indicates, the Alley Cat Café functions as a de facto animal therapy space. “There are a lot of people who are missing their friends, or a sense of connection, and just being able to connect with our cats meets their needs, even if it’s just for thirty minutes,” said Kristin.

Kristin goes so far as to say that some customers reported significant improvements in their mental health after visiting the Alley Cat Café. “Multiple people would thank us for the effects on their emotional health and said that us being here has kept them from self-harm and literally saved their lives,” Kristin said.

Families who have adopted cats from the café also report benefits. One family adopted a cat for a 5-year-old girl who was having trouble making friends. “She was able to blossom as a person and improved her social skills with her peers,” Kristen said. The café also runs a cat foster program where people can take a cat home for a limited period of three months, which Kristen says has been popular with law and engineering students.

Alley Cat Café has proved a success with young and old. In a Facebook comment in November @IthacaAlleyCat, Lyn Stone wrote: “I love what you do! I’m 82 years old and don’t travel much but my granddaughter is coming in from Colorado in early December and I can’t wait to bring her to your café.”

—By Amber Raiken

Amber Raiken, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a junior at Ithaca College majoring in Writing, with a Creative Writing Concentration, and minoring in Education Studies. She is a writer and the social media director for IC Distinct Magazine, a student-run culture and fashion publication.

Photos courtesy Alley Cat Café

Mental Health and People of Color

The BOLD Women’s Leadership Network was founded by Ithaca College’s president, Shirley M. Collado. It is an initiative developed for young women underrepresented in higher education and passionate about social justice issues. The nine women chosen as Ithaca College BOLD Scholars for the 2018–19 academic year designed a program called Engaging Mental Health for People of Color (EMPOC).

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BOLD Scholars with Ithaca College President Shirley M. Collado (second from right)

Ithaca College’s first-ever BOLD cohort collectively chose to create EMPOC with the mission of creating a physical space for people of color on campus to de-stress and that provides comfort in discussing stigmas of mental health.

Mental health for people of color has become a popular topic throughout the media and within various communities of marginalized groups. This topic has a different affect on people of color because they experience racialized economic and social barriers that result in lack of resources and support of mental health.

For minority groups, mental health correlates with systems of oppression and that is why it is such a difficult conversation to have with family, friends, or even institutions. BOLD Scholars recently organized introductory discussions on mental health facilitated by an Ithaca College alumna, Rita Bunata—a social media event on self-care, pop-up de-stress events, and an R&B yoga night. They also co-facilitated a discussion on sexual assault and healing with Stephanie Nevels, a counselor at Ithaca College, and organized a showcase for art by people of color,

At the weekly meetings, BOLD Scholars discuss and organize every event as ways to shift the conversation to be inclusive of underrepresented individuals and focus on creating a space to serve the mental health needs of people of color. As the cohort includes women of all backgrounds, they collectively discuss the importance of education on this topic by creating things like fliers with information on mental health and others specifically for allies who are not people of color.

“We need to be able to talk about specifically through a racialized lens, what mental health looks like for people of color,” said Belisa Gonzalez, director of the Center of Culture, Race, & Ethnicity at Ithaca College and the BOLD Scholars faculty mentor.

For programs like EMPOC, it is difficult to know exactly how effective the conversation is or be able to know about positive outcomes from these events. Gonzalez describes this as a lingering question: “How do you measure changing the hearts and minds of people?” The very first event organized by EMPOC was facilitated by Tynesha Wright-Lindo, a clinical social worker at Cornell University, which received a large audience and effective feedback, as students felt, “This is what I needed.”

EMPOC will carry on as an Ithaca Collge student organization in its own right once the current cohort of BOLD Scholars graduate. Chasia Bambo, a BOLD scholar majoring in Biology and Accounting, hopes that the future of the program will “become less known as a project for women of color and more for people of color,” encourage more men of color to participate in events, and “to delve into the different issues that can impact the wide range of people of color.”

—By Chanelle Ferguson

Chanelle Ferguson, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a sophomore Bridge Up Scholar at Ithaca College majoring in Writing and minoring in Journalism and African Diaspora. She is a writer at IC View, Ithaca College’s alumni magazine, and a student assistant at Career Services.

Art Therapy

Alex sits across from her therapist, tapping her foot anxiously on the floor, not speaking. Her therapist looks empathetically at her, and asks if she could possibly describe her feelings at the moment. Alex keeps her eyes on the floor, and shifts her position uncomfortably. The therapist wonders if she can recount her experience reconnecting with home friends with whom she shared a traumatic middle school experience. Finally, Alex looks up and begins to tell her story.

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Cast of alex getting better

Alex is the main character of alex getting better, a play written by 21-year-old Audrey Lang, a junior theater studies major at Ithaca College. The play was performed last fall in The Dillingham Center, home of Ithaca College’s theater program. Throughout the play, Alex, a college student, begins to work through and come to terms with being a young woman who was a victim of sexual assault in middle school. She had not thought about this traumatic episode in her life for a long while. She chose to bury the memory of a boy she had once been friends with and who had touched her and her friends in a way that was unwanted and inappropriate.

Lang portrays the diverse approaches that victims of sexual assault can take toward healing. Some of Alex’s friends had repressed the memories and remained friends with the assailant; others had forgiven, and moved on. Throughout the play, the feelings of shame, discomfort, and paranoia are visceral and perturbing as we watch Alex striving to work through her fears, accept the trauma, and learn to let go.

In the Fall 2018 semester, Lang wrote a 10-minute play for a theater class, which served as the backbone for alex getting better. She based the story loosely on trauma she had experienced in her own life, while asserting creative control in the play when necessary. Lang found the content to be relevant, informative, and universal, as she has known many women and girls who have dealt with similar forms of assault.

Because the play dealt with intimate, triggering, and vulnerable content, Lang made sure that she and the cast and crew members felt safe to voice their own personal stories during the time they were delving into Alex’s journey of recovery. “I chose to work with all females,” said Lang. “There was an all-female cast as well as an all-female rehearsal room. These events are so deeply related to things women and girls are dealing with. But, I wanted the play to be seen by people of all ages and genders.”

This performance not only gave Lang a platform to voice a traumatic event that happened to her depicted through her play, but it also gave the cast members a chance to empathize and vocalize similar occurrences that happened in their lives. This presents significant benefits of theater; the community and support that the participants in the play receive, as well as the chance for the playwright themselves to share and perform experiences for an audience to empathize with.

Lang has been a writer for as long as she can remember. In 2016, prior to alex getting better, Lang wrote another play about issues young women face, Dear Anna, which was performed with MCC Youth Company’s FreshPlay Festival and with the Ithaca Theater Collective. “I always loved writing,” said Lang, “but I was always mostly interested in dialogue and human interactions. Theater can bring life to stories in a way that feels more real because you are actually seeing the bodies.”

Rather than solely working through her struggles and experiences on her own, Lang and many other playwrights who create plays about mental illness or sexual assault work through their pain with a medium that enables others to be fully present with them when they are most afraid and vulnerable. This advocacy work is personal and intimate but the themes and issues addressed are universal. Lang chooses to write her plays about marginalized groups to give these people a platform to share their stories. “Typically, my plays are about women,” she said. “Especially queer women. I try to show them in places of strength and complication.”

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Audrey Lang

In theater, the audience can become engrossed with the story in a way that can indulge most of their senses, while also having a space where one is allowed to become emotional and vulnerable. “Theater should be educational and entertaining,” said Carin Etsy, an Ithaca College senior who directed alex getting better and is also a playwright who has written autobiographical pieces about sexual assault. “It forces you to be more engaged because, unlike watching a movie or reading a book, you can’t just leave. Theater is a continuous act; you have to sit there and be faced with another’s experiences and emotions.”

—By Nicole Kramer

Nicole Kramer, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a senior Writing major and Sociology minor at Ithaca College. She is a nonfiction editor for Stillwatera student-run literary magazine. She also enjoys creating mixed media image-text work and writing poetry.