Sexual Assault Survivors and Allies

Hope Gardner, a junior at Ithaca College, found herself spiraling downward after being sexually assaulted in 2018. She could hardly eat or sleep for days. But she soon turned her personal traumatic experience into a passionate cause: to change the conversation around sexual assault on the Ithaca College campus and in the wider Ithaca community.

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Sydney Muraoka, Hope Gardner, and Sobeida Rosa

Gardner, along with the support of colleagues and encouragement of friends, established IC Strike, a student organization that seeks justice for assault survivors and provides them with tangible support. The group is on a mission to empower assault victims and break the stigma around the issue.

“I was failed by the justice system and was feeling very helpless,” Gardner said in an interview about her inspiration for launching IC Strike. “I was frustrated by the lack of resources. I felt like I needed to find some sort of action that I could do in order to continue healing, so I approached a couple of friends with my idea for this organization and was immediately met with widespread support and interest from everyone I talked to.”

Gardner is president of IC Strike. Alongside Vice President Sydney Muraoka, and Treasurer Sobeida Rosa, she is building the organization by creating a network of survivors and allies. IC Strike carried out numerous programs and fundraisers in the fall 2019 semester. It sponsored a talk by Associate Professor Paula Ioanide on alternative forms of justice for survivors of assault. On December 11, it hosted an end of semester banquet to present funds and toiletries the group collected in support of the Advocacy Center of Tompkins County, an organization that aids sexual assault and domestic violence victims.

“My goal is that IC Strike will change the narrative on campus about sexual assault survivorship and allyship, helping survivors to regain a sense of agency,” Gardner explained. “My hope is that we will create a brave space where we can challenge the status quo, the stigma, and the belief that survivors need to be quiet about their experiences.”

Gardner believes that the space created by IC Strike can be helpful for survivors as they process the trauma of their assault.

“It can affect your self-image, your ability to be intimate, and how you live your day to day life,” she said. “I was barely able to eat or sleep for days. I found myself in a downward spiral due to PTSD, anxiety, depression. The effects of assault do not go away once the attack is over, and it’s vital that we offer support and resources for survivors, helping them however we can in adjusting to their new normal.”

For Muraoka, challenging the status quo includes reforming Ithaca College’s judicial system for handling sexual assault cases according to federal law. Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 protects students from sexual harassment and violence and requires schools to handle assault allegations.

Gardner commented that many students believe the judicial system at IC is severely lacking and in turn re-traumatizing for victims while yielding few positive results. This can be extremely damaging to students’ physical and mental health, she said.

“I know people who have had to switch out of courses that are vital to their majors because the person who assaulted them was in that same class,” she said. “Not feeling safe on campus can have an incredibly negative affect on survivors’ mental and physical well-being, as well as academic performance.”

Gardner and Muraoka are hopeful. They have confidence in Linda Koenig, Ithaca College’s Title IX coordinator, who they believe goes “above and beyond” for students. They are closely watching the administration’s actions to hire a new assistant director for Judicial Affairs, who chairs Conduct Review Boards for cases of alleged sexual misconduct and serves as a member of the Title IX SHARE Advisory Committee and Policy, Procedure, and Practice Committee.

“We need someone who knows Title IX and has proper training in areas such as dealing with victims of trauma, including sexual assaults and domestic violence,” said Muraoka. “We hope to help see things improve for students that come forward in the future.

Campus rape and domestic violence cases steadily increased from 2016, according to the Ithaca College Office of Public Safety and Emergency Management’s Annual Security and Fire Safety Report released in October. Reported rape cases on campus rose from eight in 2016 and 11 in 2017 to 13 in 2018.

A 2017 Campus Climate Research Study survey of students, faculty, and staff reported that 15 percent of respondents experienced “unwanted sexual conduct,” and 3 percent experienced “unwanted sexual contact” defined as rape, assault, or fondling.

Lara Hamburger, Campus Educator at the Advocacy Center, commended IC Strike’s work.

“Groups like IC Strike create space for survivors and allies to create meaningful change on their campus and beyond,” Hamburger said. “They create an environment where folks can speak out against violence while having a real impact on their community.”

She added: “While still a very new club at Ithaca College, IC Strike has already done great work. They’ve shown their solidarity to survivors in the community by organizing a toiletries drive for the Advocacy Center, and raised funds for our organization. Groups like these have great symbolic value as well. They serve to break the silence and isolation around these issues, and take a public stand so that their classmates and colleagues know that sexual violence won’t be tolerated on their campus.”

—By Meredith Nash

Meredith Nash is a senior Writing major at Ithaca College and an intern at The Sophie Fund

Get a Cupcake Button!

Student organizations are fanning out across Ithaca to support this year’s “Cupcake Button Fundraising Campaign” organized by The Sophie Fund, which will hand over all donations to the Advocacy Center of Tompkins County.

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Students will be tabling at GreenStar Natural Foods Market, on college campuses, and other locations around town, collecting donations in exchange for a colorful button featuring a painting of a cupcake. The campaign is held in conjunction with the annual Ithaca Cupcake Baking Contest, which will be held in the Ithaca Commons on Saturday, October 19.

“We are honored to designate the Advocacy Center as the recipient for this year’s Cupcake Button Fundraising Campaign,” said Scott MacLeod, a co-founder of The Sophie Fund. “The Advocacy Center does incredibly valuable work in our community, fighting sexual assault and domestic violence and providing essential support to victims of abuse.”

Last year’s cupcake button campaign raised $1,367.50, which was given to the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County.

Student groups participating in the 2019 campaign include:

—Active Minds at Ithaca College

—Active Minds at Ithaca High School

—Cornell University student organizations: Cornell Minds Matter; Alpha Phi Omega Gamma Chapter; Phi Sigma Pi honor fraternity; PATCH (Pre-Professional Association Towards Careers in Health); and the Mortar Board Der Hexenkreis senior honor society

Image caption: Detail from Evolution (2009), a painting by Sophie Hack MacLeod

Undergrads: Need a Mental Health Support Group?

Getting through college isn’t easy, and getting through it while dealing with a mental health issue is harder. The Mental Health Association in Tompkins County is happy to announce that we are creating a support group for undergraduate students attending local colleges.

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The Mental Health Association is a local nonprofit organization that specializes in providing peer support services—creating spaces where people with shared experience dealing with mental health issues can turn to one another for support. While not a replacement for other mental health treatments, peer support can play an integral role in care and recovery.

Beginning Thursday September 26, we will be offering a weekly peer support group specifically for college students who are navigating mental health concerns. This program is free of charge and offers a safe space for undergraduates of all backgrounds from area schools to come together and support one another through the challenges of pursuing an education while dealing with a mental health issue.

The group will be run on a drop-in basis, so students do not need to commit to attending each week in order to receive support, and no advanced sign-up is needed to participate. Our goal is to make this group as accessible as possible in a time when many other supports entail long waiting lists and red tape.

As facilitators, Amanda Kelly (Wells College ‘12) and myself (Ithaca College ‘13) draw on our personal experiences of attending college while on our own mental health recovery journeys. Coming from this perspective, we work to create a compassionate, empathetic space and offer genuine peer support.

Meetings will take place on Thursdays from 2–3 p.m. in downtown Ithaca at the Mental Health Association on South Geneva Street, two blocks from the Ithaca Commons, a central location for college students from across Tompkins County that provides space and privacy away from campus environments.

—By Melanie Little

Melanie Little is the Director of Youth Services at the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County (MHATC)

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Undergraduate Students Support Group
Time: Thursdays, 2pm-3pm
Location: Mental Health Association’s Jenkins Center for Hope and Recovery, 301 S. Geneva St, Suite 110 (basement level) Ithaca, NY 14850

For More Information
Melanie Little, Director of Youth Services
mlittle@mhaedu.org
(607) 273 9250

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.