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.

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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.”

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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.

All About Margaret

Hello, Instagram friends! Welcome Margaret McKinnis, our fall intern at The Sophie Fund, who will be posting on our Instagram account for the next few months as well as writing blog posts for the website. She 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. In her spare time, Margaret loves winding down with a good book, painting with watercolor, or challenging herself with a fun puzzle (preferably cat-themed). She enjoys exploring all Ithaca has to offer, whether finding a new trail or garden, or stumbling upon a new coffee shop or bookstore. Send her your ideas for images at thesophiefund2016@gmail.com.

Margaret. Instagram

Albany Honors The Sophie Fund with Mental Health Advocacy Award

The New York State Office of Mental Health on Thursday presented The Sophie Fund with an Excellence in Suicide Prevention award for its mental health advocacy work in Tompkins County at the state’s 2018 Suicide Prevention Conference held in Albany.

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The Sophie Fund and its founders, Scott MacLeod and Susan Hack, received the state’s Journey of Healing Award for “exemplary advocacy by a Suicide Attempt or Suicide Loss Survivor.”

MacLeod and Hack established The Sophie Fund to support mental health initiatives aiding young people after the 2016 death by suicide of their 23-year-old daughter, Sophie Hack MacLeod, a Cornell University student.

“The Sophie Fund is a beautiful example of how a tragic loss can transform a community,” said New York State Office of Mental Health Commissioner Dr. Ann Marie T. Sullivan.

“Scott and Susan took their painful loss and channeled it into a passion to save lives in Tompkins County. We thank Scott, Susan and everyone involved in The Sophie Fund for their hard work and commitment to suicide prevention.”

Said Lee-Ellen Marvin, executive director of Ithaca’s Suicide Prevention & Crisis Service (SPCS): “Scott and Susan have transformed their grief in just two years into a powerful force of influence for suicide prevention in Tompkins County.”

SPCS, the Tompkins County Mental Health Department, and Tompkins County Legislator Shawna Black nominated The Sophie Fund for a 2018 Excellence in Suicide Prevention award. State officials cited The Sophie Fund’s “tenacity” in securing the adoption of The Watershed Declaration in 2017, which called for intensified suicide prevention efforts in the county, and in advocating for the Zero Suicide Model to be adopted by local healthcare providers.

The Sophie Fund also has sponsored student mental health programming at Cornell University and Ithaca College; mental health first aid training; a series of bookstore readings by authors of books on mental health; and artists who address mental health and suicide themes. It is working on an initiative to support college students taking a health leave of absence. The Sophie Fund also sponsors the annual Ithaca Cupcake Baking Contest to raise mental health awareness and raise monies for local mental health nonprofits.

MacLeod and Hack thanked the Office of Mental Health and the Tompkins County nominators for Thursday’s recognition.

“In the loss of our precious Sophie in 2016, we witnessed the profound depths of mental illness and the immense tragedy of suicide,” they said in a statement released by the Office of Mental Health. “In establishing The Sophie Fund in her memory, we resolved to do everything possible to support young people battling mental disorders. Suicide is preventable, and we also resolved to do everything we could so that we do not lose one more person, young or old, to suicide in Sophie’s adopted Ithaca–Tompkins County community.”

MacLeod and Hack also paid thanks to “the countless people who have made The Sophie Fund’s work a reality”—supporters and partners in Tompkins County, friends, family, and others in the greater Ithaca area and beyond, and the New York Suicide Prevention Office.

Sophie was born in Johannesburg and spent her childhood living in South Africa, then France, and eventually Egypt. But she adopted Ithaca as her hometown, spending five summers in the violin program of the Suzuki Institutes at Ithaca College and then enrolling at Cornell in 2010. At the time of her death, she was on a health leave of absence from Cornell and working in Ithaca’s vibrant culinary scene.

Photo caption: Sigrid Pechenik, associate director, New York State Suicide Prevention Office; Susan Hack, co-founder, The Sophie Fund; Jay Carruthers, director, New York State Suicide Prevention Office; and Garra Lloyd-Lester, director, New York State Suicide Prevention Community Initiatives

Mental Health Awareness for Musicians

Being a musician can be one of the most fulfilling and wonderful things a person can do with their life. It can also be one of the most stressful and pressure-filled careers a person can choose.

Students at Ithaca College’s School of Music have become increasingly concerned about the overwhelming silence about mental health in higher education, including in our particular school. To combat the silence and better educate our community about this issue, last year a group of music students led by Mikaela Vojnik founded the Mental Health Awareness for Musicians Association (MHAMA).

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Music students face pressure to practice for hours and hours each day and to constantly perform their best. The pressure of being a student with an average of 18 credits per semester, and being a musician, and being a person, and all at the same time, can really take a toll on someone’s mental health. Even beyond academia, many musicians struggle to take care of themselves. They often value themselves based on their musical abilities rather than who they are as people.

MHAMA strives to promote healthy lifestyles and self-care for all students in the School of Music. It also aims to improve understanding among students as well as professors about mental health disorders and how to address them in the context of an extremely competitive environment. There is a lot of pressure from professors and peers alike to perform at a high level, making it feel as though there is very little room for error. This demand for perfection can make it difficult for students to take care of their mental health, especially if they are living with a preexisting or newly developed mental illness.

Our organization strives to educate and create conversations about mental health in the music school specifically focused on how being a musician intersects with mental health. We have hosted workshops that discussed performance anxiety, meditation, and stress management. We have held events that focused on depression, suicide prevention, and how to use resources on campus as a way to reach out for help and support.

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MHAMA’s overall goal is to create a more positive and inclusive environment within the School of Music, to promote a better understanding of mental illnesses and mental health, and to encourage people to reach out for help when they are struggling. It is important for us to create a culture with greater empathy and compassion for mental health.

By Hannah Cayem and Mikaela Vojnik

Mikaela Vojnik is a senior at Ithaca College majoring in Music with an Outside Field in Counseling and Sociology and the founder and president of MHAMA.

Hannah Cayem is a senior at Ithaca College majoring in Music Education and Vocal Performance and the vice president of MHAMA.

Contact for more information about the Mental Health Awareness for Musicians Association at Ithaca College: icmhama@gmail.com

 

College vs. Mental Health

Arriving on campus for a new academic year can be exhilarating—and intimidating. College represents an amazing opportunity to study and explore—and party. It is also a time of transition, which can elevate life stresses and exacerbate existing mental health conditions. Don’t take this lightly.

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If you are one of the students experiencing conditions like depression and anxiety at Cornell University, Ithaca College, or Tompkins Cortland Community College, you are not alone. Not at all. It is important that you recognize when you need help, and to seek help when you need it.

As the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law puts it, “Students who seek treatment are not ‘weak’ or ‘crazy.’ Therapy is a hopeful and affirming act of caring for yourself.”

Bazelon publishes a manual called Campus Mental Health: Know Your Rights. The subtitle is “A guide for students who want to seek help for mental illness or emotional distress.”

In the introduction, the manual notes:

“If you are experiencing depression, anxiety, mood swings, sleep disturbances, delusions or hallucinations, or if you feel overwhelmed, immobilized, hopeless or irritable, there is treatment that can help. You may also benefit from therapy to address common issues such as body image or low self-esteem, to help with a crisis involving your relationship or family, or if you are in the middle of a transition, such as beginning a new school.”

Some eye-opening data about college mental health from the Bazelon manual:

Many college-age students suffer from anxiety, depression and other mental health concerns. Anxiety is the issue most often mentioned by college students who visited campus mental health services. Students also named depression as one of the top ten impediments to academic performance as well as stress, sleep difficulties, relationship and family difficulties.

In the 2016 National College Health Assessment, 38.2 percent of the 33,512 students surveyed reported they “felt so depressed it was difficult to function” during the past year, and 10.4 percent said that they had “seriously considered suicide” during the year.

More than 80 percent of all college freshman report feeling overwhelmed a great deal of the time—college women, even more (about 90 percent). In 2016, more than 19 percent of college students reported experiencing an anxiety disorder within the previous year. While anxiety disorders are common among individuals of all genders, women are twice as likely to have them as men.

Eating disorders affect 20 million women and 10 million men, with the highest rates occurring in college-age women. Ten percent of students reported experiencing an emotionally abusive relationship in the last school year.

It is not just college-age people—America at large is experiencing a serious mental health crisis. The National Alliance on Mental Illness says that 43.8 million American adults are living with mental illness in a given year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported a 25.4 percent increase in the national suicide rate since 1999.

The mental health crisis hits close to home here in Ithaca.

At Cornell University, for example, the 2017 Cornell PULSE Survey of 5,001 undergraduates reported that 71.6 percent of respondents often or very often felt “overwhelmed.” Nearly 43 percent said that they had been unable to function academically for at least a week on one or more occasions due to depression, stress, or anxiety. Nearly 10 percent of respondents reported being unable to function during a week-long period on five or more occasions.

Nine percent of the respondents—about 450 students—reported “having seriously considered suicide at least once during the last year.” About 85 students reported having actually attempted suicide at least once in the last year.

In an area known to have very harmful short- and long-term effects on mental health, 9.8 percent of Cornell undergraduate female respondents reported having been the victims of rape or attempted rape since enrolling at the university, according to the 2017 Cornell Survey of Sexual Assault and Related Misconduct.

Thus, guides like the Bazelon manual are worth a good read—you may discover a need for more mental health knowledge for yourself, or for a friend.

In a section entitled “Seeking Help,” questions are discussed such as:

What are the steps for choosing a therapist? Where do I go? On campus or off?

What will happen when I call to make an appointment?

What happens if I call, and they can’t see me for two, three or four weeks?

What to do if I am in crisis and need immediate help

What should I expect at my first visit? What’s the first session like?

What are the different types of therapy?

What happens if I don’t like my therapist?

Click here to download Campus Mental Health: Know Your Rights

Click here for The Sophie Fund’s Resources page for more links on mental health issues