Our Community Walks to Prevent Suicide

Thanks to everyone who participated in Saturday’s annual “Out of the Darkness” Walk in support of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Our mission to save lives and bring hope to those affected by suicide would not be possible without you. This year, the 383 people taking part in the walk held in Myers Park in Lansing raised more than $34,000.

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AFSP started as a research-based organization, when a small group of families affected by suicide banded together with scientists who wanted to understand more. The funds raised in “Out of the Darkness” walks throughout the country help fund innovative and exciting research that will enable us to find better ways to stop suicide. This past year, AFSP invested nearly $5 million dollars in cutting edge scientific research.

The funds also help AFSP develop and share education programs like “Talk Saves Lives,” and “It’s Real,” a film about college students and mental health. These programs give people practical strategies for recognizing the warning signs, and preventing suicide in their communities. AFSP’s Interactive Screening Program gives students, workers, and veterans a safe way to reach out for support. Together, we are creating a culture that’s smart about mental health.

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By joining us, walkers help us to provide support to the many people affected by suicide. In the Survivor Outreach Program, for example, those who have lost a loved one to suicide can receive a visit from a trained volunteer who is also a suicide loss survivor. This way, someone who is further along in their healing journey can share their wisdom about what helped them after their loss. Our annual Survivor Day events reach more families affected by suicide each year.

The funds also enable AFSP advocates in Washington to do their work of fighting to pass legislation that will save lives. Many states now have better mental health programs and mandatory suicide prevention training for teachers. This is real and lasting change.

By joining us in Myers Park Saturday, the walkers sent the message that mental health is as real as physical health, and that reaching out for help is the strong thing to do. The walkers showed others that suicide, which is currently the tenth leading cause of death in the United States, can no longer be swept under the rug.

As a community, we know we have much to do, as we lose close to 45,000 lives to suicide every year in our country. While we are saddened by these deaths, we also see them as a call to action for our nation to do more to prevent suicide. Our annual walks help us continue to fight for a day when no one will die by suicide. By walking with us, you honor the memory of the loved ones we’ve lost.

—By Crystal Howser

Crystal Howser is the co-chair of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Greater Ithaca Walk

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Photo credits: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention & Friends

Click here for more information about the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Central New York chapter

Click here to add your donation to the Out of the Darkness Walk

[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.]

Ready? It’s Time for Ithaca’s 4th Annual Cupcake Contest!

Tasty cakes. Delicious frostings. Creative toppings. We can’t wait to see what cupcake delights our amateur bakers have in store for us again this year. The 4th Annual Ithaca Cupcake Baking Contest will take place in the Commons on Saturday October 19.

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Contestants of all ages are invited and will be eligible for dozens of prizes including a Grand Prize valued at $250. (Open to amateur bakers only.)

Attention Teens and Pre-Teens: A $100 gift certificate redeemable at dozens of downtown Ithaca shops will be presented with this year’s Special Youth Award!

The contest is organized by The Sophie Fund, which was established in 2016 in memory of Cornell University art student Sophie Hack MacLeod to support mental health initiatives aiding young people.

The 4th Annual Ithaca Cupcake Baking Contest is sponsored by GreenStar Natural Foods Market, Alternatives Federal Credit Union, and Cayuga Medical Center.

To enter the cupcake contest, contestants are asked to bring their submissions to the Bernie Milton Pavilion in the Ithaca Commons from 10–11:30 a.m. on Saturday October 19. The winners will be announced and prizes awarded at a ceremony at the Pavilion later the same day at 3 p.m. There will be musical acts throughout the day!

Sophie’s passion for baking cupcakes inspired the launch of the contest in 2016. At the time of her death by suicide at age 23, while on a medical leave of absence from Cornell, Sophie was active in Ithaca’s vibrant culinary scene. According to her family, she hoped to open her own bakery after completing her Cornell degree.

In conjunction with the contest, The Sophie Fund is again organizing a “Cupcake Button” fundraising campaign, with monies donated this year to the Advocacy Center of Tompkins County, which fights sexual assault and domestic violence.

Click here for all the information on contest procedures and rules, and to download a registration form.

El Paso, Dayton, and Mental Illness

Is mental illness behind the mass shootings that occur in America—251 in the past 216 days? President Trump and leading Republicans are blaming mental illness in the aftermath of the latest killings, in El Paso and Dayton. Professional psychologists say mental illness is not the problem, guns, racism, intolerance, and bigotry are. Blaming mental illness for violence dangerously reinforces the stigma around mental illness, making it less likely that those who need treatment will receive treatment.

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March for Our Lives protest, Los Angeles, March 24, 2016

“These are people that are very, very seriously mentally ill,” Trump said of the mass shootings. Texas Governor Greg Abbott, also a Republican, said in El Paso after the Walmart massacre there: “Mental health is a large contributor to any type of violence or shooting violence.”

Rosie Phillips Davis, president of the American Psychological Association, immediately pushed back against the blame in a statement on Sunday.

“Routinely blaming mass shootings on mental illness is unfounded and stigmatizing,” she said. “Research has shown that only a very small percentage of violent acts are committed by people who are diagnosed with, or in treatment for, mental illness. The rates of mental illness are roughly the same around the world, yet other countries are not experiencing these traumatic events as often as we face them. One critical factor is access to, and the lethality of, the weapons that are being used in these crimes. Adding racism, intolerance and bigotry to the mix is a recipe for disaster.”

More from the APA president’s statement:

“Our condolences are with the families and friends of those killed or injured in these horrific shootings and with all Americans affected every day by the twin horrors of hate and gun violence.

“As our nation tries to process the unthinkable yet again, it is clearer than ever that we are facing a public health crisis of gun violence fueled by racism, bigotry and hatred. The combination of easy access to assault weapons and hateful rhetoric is toxic. Psychological science has demonstrated that social contagion — the spread of thoughts, emotions and behaviors from person to person and among larger groups — is real, and may well be a factor, at least in the El Paso shooting.

“That shooting is being investigated as a hate crime, as it should be. Psychological science has demonstrated the damage that racism can inflict on its targets. Racism has been shown to have negative cognitive and behavioral effects on both children and adults and to increase anxiety, depression, self-defeating thoughts and avoidance behaviors.

“If we want to address the gun violence that is tearing our country apart, we must keep our focus on finding evidence-based solutions. This includes restricting access to guns for people who are at risk for violence and working with psychologists and other experts to find solutions to the intolerance that is infecting our nation and the public dialogue.”

Here are perspectives from a 2016 interview with Liza Gold, clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University and editor of Gun Violence and Mental Illness:

“Most serious mental illness is only weakly associated with violence of any kind—and with gun violence in particular. Most people with serious mental illness are not violent; most people who are violent do not have serious mental illness. Individuals with mental illness are responsible for about 3 percent to 5 percent of all types of violence in the U.S.—when they do become violent, they are most likely to assault family members or commit suicide.

“Firearm violence committed by individuals with serious mental illness against strangers is one of the rarest forms of gun violence in the US. Of the approximately 33,000 firearm deaths each year, two-thirds are suicides. Less than 1 percent of all firearm deaths in the US occur in the context of mass shootings by individuals, with or without mental illness. So unless the media and politicians are talking about suicide deaths by firearms—which they never are—they are simply perpetuating negative stereotypes and stigma associated with mental illness.

“The thinking goes like this: only someone who is crazy would commit such a horrible act and kill innocent people. We all know that crazy people are dangerous and violent; therefore, it must be people with mental illness who are behind these horrible acts. However, mass shootings are not invariably associated with people who have acute mental illness or a history of mental illness. Some do, but some don’t.

“Improved funding and resources for mental health systems and treatment would of course be welcomed. However, the repeated calls to “improve the mental health system” heard after mass shootings do not result in increased spending or funding. They merely serve as a politically expedient method to avoid talking about instituting sensible firearm regulation.”

Gold says the refrain to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill does a disservice to American society:

It reinforces the stigma and negative stereotypes associated with mental illness, making it less likely that those who need treatment will receive treatment.

It does not result in improved funding of or access to mental health treatment.

It allows politicians and media to avoid discussing sensible gun regulations.

Because no effective change results, the American people have come to believe that “nothing can be done” to stop the high toll of gun violence, despite the fact that we are the only country in the world with this kind of civilian gun violence problem.

The APA points to a variety of resources for people who are suffering distress in the aftermath of the shootings in El Paso and Dayton:

Winnie, We’ll Miss You!

There’s a Cornell University student who Ithaca will dearly miss when she leaves town and goes out to make the rest of the world a better place. Her name is Winnie Ho.

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Winnie Ho at Cornell University’s 2019 graduation ceremonies

Since arriving from Syosset, Long Island, in 2016, Ho, 22, has worked on the ground with countless community organizations on issues such as mental health, suicide prevention, homelessness, substance use, and science education. She has served as a volunteer with multiple organizations, spearheaded numerous fundraisers and events, and supported students pursuing community engagement as an Engaged Ambassador with the Office of Engagement Initiatives. She has co-delivered the keynote speech at the “2019 What’s Great in Our State” mental health conference hosted by the New York State Office of Mental Health.

We are very grateful for Ho’s indispensable contributions to The Sophie Fund. For example, in her role as vice president of Service and then president of the Alpha Phi Omega (APO) Gamma Chapter, Ho marshaled volunteers from APO as well as numerous other student groups to support The Sophie Fund’s annual cupcake contest and related fundraising.

Besides helping run the mid-October event in the Ithaca Commons, Ho’s army of good Samaritans collected monies that The Sophie Fund passed on to local mental health organizations—more than $500 donated to the Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service in 2017, and $1,300 to the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County in 2018. Ho has also served as a member of The Sophie Fund’s Student Advisory Group, offering endless perspectives and advice on everything the organization does.

The Sophie Fund was proud to learn that Ho was selected to receive The Cornell Tradition Senior Recognition Award at her graduation ceremonies last month. Cornell honored Ho for her many contributions to community service during her undergraduate years. In conjunction with the award, Ho generously donated a $500.00 honorarium to The Sophie Fund.

Ho was a double major in Biological Sciences (Neurobiology) and Sociology in Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences; she minored in Inequality Studies and Global Health. For the next two years, she will be pursuing pharmaceutical drug policy research with the Division of Pharmacoepidemiology and Pharmacoeconomics at the Harvard University-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, with plans of continuing her advocacy and activism in health inequality everywhere. She hopes to one day pursue a career that combines her passion for service, social justice, and medicine.

Due to her work with Ithaca’s community organizations, Ho will move on not just with a Cornell degree but a profound appreciation for the importance of helping others—and ourselves—when it comes to mental health.

Ho puts it best herself:

“As I look to what lies beyond the ivory tower and beyond Ithaca, I reflect on my experiences here, and realize that one of the most important lessons I learned during my time here is that we all have mental health, and that it is absolutely critical to take care of oneself in the process of chasing our dreams. APO gave me a home like no other to pursue service in the company of the most kindhearted and loving individuals I’ve ever met, and I am so proud to call my fellow peers some of the most devoted advocates and volunteers for mental health I’ve ever seen.

“Change begins when we are willing to support ourselves and those around us. Service to mental health starts by choosing kindness and understanding. Not all big change comes in the form of huge events or big fundraisers or legislation (though these are all critically important). The biggest changes that have occurred during my time here have been the result of everyday people choosing to ask those around them how they are doing as opposed to what they are doing. Mental health intersects with every single aspect of our lives. Whatever comes next, we always have the choice to care for ourselves and each other.”

—By Scott MacLeod

Scott MacLeod is a co-founder of The Sophie Fund

Exploring Strategies to Stop Bullying

Surveying students about the prevalence of bullying. Training teachers, coaches, parents, and young people on how to respond. Encouraging youth to be upstanders. Holding annual Bullying Prevention Day activities to spread awareness. These were a few of the ideas discussed Saturday at a two-hour Community Forum sponsored by the Tompkins County Bullying Prevention Task Force.

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Celia Clement reviewing feedback on school bullying

The Task Force held the forum to introduce its work to the public and to solicit ideas from the community on strategies to address bullying. More than two dozen government agencies, community organizations, and representatives from the county’s six school districts formed the Task Force in March.

“A lot of these conversations and diving deep into these topics can become very personal and very painful, which we want to honor,” said Nigel Gannon, a Healthy Living Program Specialist for New York State 4-H Youth Development, who moderated the forum.

“We have to develop spaces where we can have those emotions in a positive way. Remember that we are all feeling the same [about bullying], in some way, as individuals, as loved ones, as community members. We are not happy to be here, I think we are hopeful to be here. We’re going to help the Task Force get the information they need to try to move this forward.”

Scott MacLeod of The Sophie Fund kicked off presentations by Task Force working groups by reviewing basic information about bullying in national, regional, and local contexts.

He noted the federal government’s definition of bullying, and how it should be distinguished from other behaviors such as conflict, rudeness, and meanness:

“Bullying is any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths who are not siblings or current dating partners that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated.”

MacLeod explained how bullying has psychological, physical, and academic effects, and adversely affects youth who are bullied as well as those who engage in bullying. He said that youth who are perceived as different, especially LGBTQ children, are at greater risk. Persistent bullying, he added, can lead to or worsen feelings of isolation, rejection, exclusion, and despair, as well as depression and anxiety, which can contribute to suicidal behavior. MacLeod said that while there is no federal stature that expressly outlaws bullying, New York State’s Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) came into force in 2012 to protect students from bullying, harassment, and discrimination.

Citing statistics, MacLeod’s report said 19 percent of American high school students are bullied, and 14.9 percent experience cyberbullying. He said that data for the 2017-2018 school year, most likely reflecting underreporting, showed that Tompkins County school districts had 109 incidents of discrimination, harassment, and bullying , and 20 incidents of cyberbullying.

Celia Clement, a retired school social worker and now an independent consultant, delivered a report on potential approaches for addressing bullying in schools. She identified five areas for attention:

  • Communication: Families are not always getting the information they need about bullying definition, prevention, intervention, education, district policies and the laws involved such as the Dignity for All Students Act.
  • Education: Families and school staff want help around recognizing signs that their youth are struggling with mental health challenges, social challenges, or bullying. Students need to be educated as well around what is bullying, recognizing the difference between peer conflict and bullying, knowing the warning signs when adults need to be informed, and ways to intervene effectively when they see bullying, harassment or cyber bullying, or suicide warning signs.
  • Prevention: The key to successful intervention models is to include students as the core drivers when building programs that promote positive school cultures. There are existing local programs that can serve as models: Friendship Assistance Brigade, Stars, Be the One, and Welcoming Allies and Mentors.
  • Intervention: There is a need to educate school teaching staff and administrators about best practice around intervention when situations of conflict, bullying, harassment and cyber bullying occur—such as restorative practices as a way to support the target and to help the aggressor make changes. There is a need to offer strategies and tools to work with families in a way that promotes outcomes where everyone feels good about the process of addressing conflict and bullying situations.
  • Assessment: Schools need to conduct surveys about bullying to inform decisions for addressing the problem.

MacLeod also delivered a working group report on potential approaches for addressing bullying outside school property. He cited numerous ideas including holding an annual community forum and student leadership summit, providing training and information workshops, and launching awareness projects such as an annual Tompkins County Bullying Prevention Day.

Beth Hogan, a member of the Task Force’s Family Advisory Group, delivered a working group report on the concerns of parents surveyed by the group. She said parents experienced a significant increase in stress over bullying, and felt that they themselves were effectively being bullied. The parents believed that bullying was causing heightened levels of anxiety and depression in children, she added.

Hogan said that schools were reactive rather than proactive, and that mental health services inside and outside schools were inadequate. Hogan’s report called for frequent communication about bullying, including about the Dignity Act, to staff, families, and students. She said youth and parent involvement in bullying prevention should be a priority, and that the work should begin in the elementary grades.

Sophie Callister, a former student in the Lansing Central School District and now a student at Ithaca College, is the coordinator of the Task Force’s Student Advisory Group. “The bullying task force is something that means a huge deal to me because from third grade all through my school career it was a huge problem,” she said. “I want kids to feel like there is somebody willing to listen and help them and that they feel safe every day. I never really felt safe in school.” She said that rather than school counselors or psychologists the only person she felt she could go to for support was a math teacher. Callister said a goal of the task force is “to get the community involved—parents, students, everybody. This is not a time to be quiet.”

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Community Forum on Bullying Prevention, Tompkins County Public Library

Forum participants provided feedback and engaged in discussion in breakout sessions. On school programs, participants argued that schools under report bullying incidents and do not create safe spaces for students. They noted that teachers and coaches themselves sometimes engage in bullying by humiliating students/athletes. Participants suggested strategies including peer mentors and giving students tools for confronting bullying.

For public action, participants proposed holding local public forums within the county’s six school districts to better encourage family participation in bullying prevention initiatives. Participants supported the idea of providing training and workshop opportunities to educate the community about bullying and prevention methods, and called for a centralized resource to provide information about the Dignity Act and how to file complaints about bullying incidents. The participants also endorsed exploring synergies with existing programs and activities, such as the “Be the One” campaign.

Participants who focused on family and student involvement emphasized the need for developing a common language to understand bullying, and the importance of student-led initiatives for success. They noted that it was essential to view those who bully as people also in need of support to address the underlying causes of their behavior.

Some participants called for greater attention to students who may be experiencing suicide ideation, noting that four young people from the Lansing community have died by suicide in just the past year. Participants highlighted opportunities for students to become involved by forming chapters of organizations such as Active Minds and Sources of Strength, and participating in activities such as Mental Health First Aid for Teens.

Click here to read Becky Mehorter’s Ithaca Voice article on the Community Forum, “Task force brings community together to address bullying in local schools.”

Click here to read Matt Steecker’s article in the Ithaca Journal on the Tompkins County Bullying Prevention Task Force, “Finding solutions to bullying: Task force to hold forum at library.”

Click here to visit The Sophie Fund’s website resource page on bullying prevention.