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. 

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

Send Silence Packing @ Ithaca College

Backpacks were scattered all over Ithaca College’s Emerson Suites on Monday. No, this high-traffic space wasn’t a convenient dumping ground for students taking mid-terms or heading to the cafeteria for a meal. The backpacks were a powerful exhibition called “Send Silence Packing,” a suicide prevention initiative traveling to American college campuses. The 1,100 backpacks represent the average number of college students who die by suicide every year.

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“Send Silence Packing” is a project of Active Minds, a national organization promoting student mental health through branch chapters at colleges around the county. Ithaca College’s chapter, led by co-presidents Zoe Howland and Mikaela Vojnik, hosted Monday’s exhibition in Emerson Suites.

The display is immersive and thought provoking. Each backpack includes a personal story or a quote from someone who has lost a loved to suicide. “I feel like the visual display really invokes a certain feeling that just talking about it doesn’t necessarily do,” Howland said.

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“There were a lot of people who came through on the way to their classes and were really intrigued with all the stories that were on the backpacks,” said Active Minds member Kristin Butler. She said that the event was an opportunity for “continuing the conversation on campus, which is great.”

Junior anthropology major Paige Twinning commented: “Powerful and important. The visual representation and personal profiles of individuals really made an impact.”

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“Send Silence Packing,” which has visited almost 200 campuses and reached nearly a million people, is intended to generate discussions about suicide and provide information about suicide prevention resources.

Ithaca College’s day-long event, sponsored in part by The Sophie Fund, began at 7:30 a.m. and included an evening Speak Your Mind panel discussion on suicide prevention moderated by Active Minds member Kelly Madden. Participating in the panel were representatives from key local mental health organizations, including the Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service, Mental Health Association in Tompkins County, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Finger Lakes, and the Advocacy Center. Said Kaylee McGillicuddy, a sophomore psychology major: “It’s just nice to know there are people who care.”

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Based on surveys, the Active Minds national organization reports that most people attending the “Send Silence Packing” installation are left wanting to know more about mental health, and 95 percent of attendees rate the experience as powerful.

Active Minds has chapters or other operations on more than 600 college campuses across the country. In June, a study of Active Minds published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry reported that student peer organizations’ activities can improve college student mental health attitudes and perceived knowledge and significantly increase helping behaviors.

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The Fall 2015 National College Health Assessment, in a survey of 19,861 students at more than 40 American schools, reported that 35.3 percent “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function.”

According to the 2017 annual report of the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, data collected from 147 college counseling centers showed that 34.2 percent of 161,014 college students seeking counseling in the 2016–17 academic year had “seriously considered attempting suicide.” The rate increased for the seventh year in a row, up from 24 percent in the 2010-11 academic year. The data also showed that 10 percent of the students seeking counseling had actually made a suicide attempt.

—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.

[If you or someone you know feels the need to speak with a mental health professional, you can contact the Crisisline (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) at 1-800-273-8255 or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.]

Cornell Mental Health: Students Speak Out

When I first got involved in mental health advocacy as a freshman, Cornell University was behind in the game. Cornell is an Ivy League school with a very “work hard, play hard” mentality that creates a lot of mental health issues. There are various intersections with related issues, such as high sexual assault rates and substance abuse rates. Cornell is situated within a rural health system, not in an urban area that has a large number of top-rated physicians and psychiatrists. Over time, I saw my friends suffer from the grueling amounts of stress, diagnoses of depression and anxiety, and difficulties finding help including the stigma around seeking help.

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Memorial Room, Willard Straight Hall, Cornell University

These factors led me, along with some fellow students, to establish a student task force on mental health earlier this year. The task force consists of more than 20 students from various backgrounds and campus communities, people with different motivations and different goals. Some of the task force members had been on leaves of absence related to mental health. Some had struggled with anxiety and depression themselves. Others were just very active advocates in the community, whether in service generally or in mental health issues specifically. We all had the common goal of improving mental health at Cornell and in the wider Ithaca community.

Over the course of six months we have worked diligently to research initiatives and policies, gain an understanding about the systems and issues that face Cornell specifically, and develop recommendations with the hope of making Cornell the gold standard for student mental health. We sought to reflect on ourselves critically, and explore areas where efforts were lacking. Is it the administration? Is it students? Is it staff? Is it faculty? Is it mental health services? Or is it the connection with the Ithaca community?

We focused on three key areas: mental health services, academics, and leaves of absence.

We examined what mental health services are provided to students at Cornell, specifically professional help. This involves the Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), but it also involves a lot of other players including therapists and clinics in the Ithaca community. At Cornell, there has been an uptick not only in depression and anxiety but in help-seeking behavior. Both these things are causing CAPS to be overloaded regardless of how many qualified counselors they hire. We need to hire more counselors. We need to reduce the long wait times for therapy and psychiatry appointments. We want to make sure there is a strong system for referring students to therapists in the community. We need to ensure that students who require regular and constant help are getting it either at CAPS or in the community.

Another priority of our task force is the intersection of academics with mental health. We asked, “In what ways are academics either contributing to the mental health epidemic or supporting it?” We found that specific campus communities, or tracks, at Cornell are very stress-inducing. For example, cultures around engineering and architecture support students staying up past 2 a.m. to do work and destroy their bodies for the sake of their future careers. This is obviously not very conducive to a solid mental health foundation for any individual. We looked at measures such as the implementation of mandatory training for Resident Assistants, faculty, and staff that enables us to identify students in distress more quickly. We would like to see leeway given to struggling students, such as a check on their attendance even when they are unable to attend classes. We cannot have academics causing students to cascade into very stressful situations or even suicide.

The third priority is the university’s leave of absence policy, and whether it is conducive or not for students seeking leaves for mental health reasons. We would like to see the administration better supporting such leaves. We ask, “How can we align students with better support as they seek a leave of absence, when they are on leave, and when they are returning from a leave?”

The task force will host a community forum on Friday, October 19 from 5–7 p.m. in the Memorial Room of Willard Straight Hall. We will present our findings and recommendations, and solicit more student input as well as comments and suggestions from the Ithaca community. We seek a candid and open discussion about how student mental health can be improved.

Soon, following the input we receive at the forum, we will circulate our recommendations, invite signatures of support from students, faculty, staff, and others, and present them to the Cornell administration. Our message will be: “Here is what we found. How can we as students continue to work with you on this.” We don’t want it to necessarily be a bash of the administration. We want the recommendations to highlight the critical things that the administration is not doing or could do better, so that we can all work together to achieve the mental health goals we want to see in our community.

We applaud the administration’s recent announcement that it will pursue a “comprehensive review of student mental health.” We call on the administration to ensure that this review is independent, thorough, and transparent. There needs to be multi-stakeholder involvement, including administration, staff, faculty, and community members. And the independent review must include full student participation. We the students know what we need. We the students know what needs to be changed.

—By Matthew Jirsa

Matthew Jirsa ’19, a Biology and Society major in Cornell University’s College of Arts and Sciences, is the co-chair with Joanna Hua of the student task force on mental health. He is also co-president of Cornell Minds Matter, and co-chair of Cornell Mental Health Awareness Week 2018.

Ithaca’s Best Cupcakes 2018

Here are the top winners in the 3rd Annual Ithaca Cupcake Baking Contest organized by The Sophie Fund in the Ithaca Commons on October 13. (More winners will be posted soon!)

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Zoe Dubrow (right) won the Grand Prize

 

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Zoe Dubrow’s “Strawberry Surprise Cupcakes” contained a cored whole strawberry filled with salted butterscotch. The concoctions were topped by a brown sugar cream cheese frosting, decorated with a chocolate fan, sliced strawberry, mint leaves, and a mini chocolate strawberry macaron.

1st Prize

$250 gift certificate for GreenStar Natural Foods Market

Zoe Dubrow

 

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Jennifer Dobmeier’s “Key Lime Pie Cupcake” is the Second Prize winner in the 3rd Annual Ithaca Cupcake Baking Contest! The Key lime-scented vanilla cake with a lime curd filling was topped with a Key lime buttercream frosting.

2nd Prize

La Tourelle Hotel, Bistro, and Spa gift certificate (one night stay, Bistro breakfast, August Moon Spa)

Jennifer Dobmeier

 

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Erin Morris won the Third Prize in the 3rd Annual Ithaca Cupcake Baking Contest with German chocolate cupcakes topped by a swirl of pink icing made from homemade jam using local farmer’s market strawberries.

3rd Prize

$50 gift certificate for GreenStar Natural Foods Market

Erin Morris

 

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Kyra O’Toole won the Youth Award for 18s & Under. She overcame tough competition with a set of chocolate cheesecake cupcakes, with an Oreo crust, chocolate cream filling, chocolate cream frosting.

Youth Award

$100 gift certificate from the Downtown Ithaca Alliance (redeemable at more than 100 local businesses)

Kyra O’Toole

 

Snapshot of all the Winners

1st Place (Grand Prize)

Zoe Dubrow

2nd Place

Jennifer Dobmeier

3rd Place

Erin Morris

Youth Award

Krya O’Toole

 

Honorable Mention

Alexandra and Taylor Beauvais

Sophie Callister

Hannah and Cheryl Stephenson

Patti Meyers and Hudson

Tamarynde Cacciotti

Mary Sever-Schoonmaker

 

Special Awards

Natalie McCaskill-Myers

Sally and Rebecca Brenner

Aušra Milano

Robyn Schmitt

Claire Litwin

Isabella Jones and Navia Marshall

Ali Strongwater

Rhonda Williamee

Sean Vickroy

Alana Craib

Matilde Portnoy

Ella Corson

Maggie Chutter

Cierra Howard

Jessara Thomas

Oluademi James-Daniel

Ella Kain

Ibtisaam Ahmed

Jenna Kain

Lianna White

Sadie Hays

Sul Jordan

Talon Jordan

Cristin McLaughlin and Searra Lindhurst

Sonia and Ella Carr

Matt Jirsa for Cornell Minds Matter