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.

Why Care?

May is Mental Health Month, and a great time to celebrate the fantastic work done by organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and its local chapter NAMI-Finger Lakes.

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NAMI is running a campaign throughout the month called “Why Care?” As NAMI explains it, the campaign is an opportunity to share the importance of mental health treatment, support and services to the millions of people, families, caregivers and loved ones affected by mental illness and a challenge to address broken systems and attitudes that present barriers to treatment and recovery.

From NAMI:

Care has the power to make a life-changing impact on those affected by mental health conditions. Through our own words and actions, we can shift the social and systemic barriers that prevent people from building better lives.

WhyCare?

Care is a simple 4-letter word, but a powerful way to change lives for people affected by mental illness.

It’s an action. It’s a feeling. It’s a gift we give to ourselves and to each other. People feel loved when someone cares. People feel heard when someone cares. People recover when someone cares. Society changes when people care. Entire systems change when people care. For more than 40 years, NAMI has been a beacon of help and hope by providing the support, education and advocacy to ensure that all people affected by mental health conditions get the care they need and deserve.

Central to the campaign is encouraging others to learn the facts about mental illness. NAMI’s goal is to bring mental health education to all corners of our communities. With education, people can identify warning signs of mental health conditions and help someone who may be struggling.

Navigating life with mental illness can be difficult, and NAMI wants to make it easier to find resources and people who care. The WhyCare? campaign features a webpage, sharable graphics and a downloadable emoji pack for smartphones— resources that can be used as a way to reach out to someone or to show your community that you care about those with mental illness.

By caring and working together, we can create positive change. We can shift the social and systemic barriers that prevent people from getting appropriate care and treatment. We can work towards a nation where everyone affected by mental illness can find the support and care they need to live healthy, fulfilling lives.

Tell the world why you care using the hashtags #WhyCare and #NAMIcares

To join NAMI’s Why Care? campaign, check here.

Click here to connect with NAMI-Finger Lakes.

Thank You, Cornell Student-Athletes!

Cornell University’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) this week announced that its “Spike for Sophie” mental health fundraising event in December collected $909.00 in donations to The Sophie Fund.

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Sophie Jones of The Sophie Fund (center) with SAAC members at “Spike for Sophie”

“The event was a huge success!” said Morgan Chall ’19, a varsity gymnast, who is SAAC co-president and the NCAA Ivy League SAAC representative. “We had an awesome turnout with a little over 100 student-athletes, administrators, non-student-athletes and strength coaches rolling through throughout the event. Aside from everyone coming together to support a worthy cause, it was a really fun event that brought together the Cornell community through a shared love of sports.”

The “Spike for Sophie” spikeball tournament and related “Bench Press for Sophie” took place on December 5 at Cornell campus sports facilities. The event was co-sponsored by SAAC, Cornell Minds Matter, the Spikeball Club, Athlete Ally (LGBTQ+ inclusion in sports), and the Red Key Athlete Honors Society. The event stemmed from an NCAA Division 1 SAAC focus on mental health awareness in athletics during 2018.

“We chose The Sophie Fund because it allowed us the opportunity to give back to a local Ithaca organization fighting a cause our athletic community cares deeply about,” said Chall, a student in Global and Public Health Sciences. “Not only was it a fun and exciting afternoon, but the event was a huge success, by uniting students, student-athletes, faculty and athletic administrators over an important public health issue.”

Chall said that the event highlighted SAAC’s #Don’tBearItAlone campaign “by reminding every member of the athletic community the importance of taking care of your mental health.” She added: “’Spike for Sophie’ showed the Cornell and Ithaca community that decreasing the stigma against mental health and improving resources especially within the athletic community is an important issue we all take very seriously. The wide range of support from faculty to students showed just that.”

Scott MacLeod, a co-founder of The Sophie Fund, said the organization was grateful to receive the donation, noting that it would help support mental health initiatives aiding young people in the greater Ithaca community. “The Sophie Fund expresses its truly heartfelt thanks to the Cornell Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and other student groups for spreading awareness and knowledge about mental health and providing hope to fellow students who may be struggling. Cornell students continue to be champions for mental health both on campus and off campus.”

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Brandon Womack ’19 and Eli Bienstock ’17, and Cornell University Athletic Director Andy Noel at “Spike for Sophie”

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Photo Credits: Courtesy Sophie Jones and the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee

Spike for Sophie

Cornell University’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) is holding its annual fundraiser next week featuring a spikeball tournament and a bench press challenge. This year’s theme is mental health and all proceeds will be donated to The Sophie Fund.

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The “Spike for Sophie” fundraiser will take place in the Richard Ramin Multipurpose Room of Bartels Hall on December 5 from 2–4:30 p.m. The spikeball tournament is open to the whole campus, a single-elimination event with a $10 per team entry fee. Pick-up spikeball will be available. Teams, which will compete for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place prizes, can sign up for the tournament at this link.

The event also includes “Bench Press for Sophie,” where Cornell student-athletes and coaches will raise money from their sponsors—family, friends, and professors—by bench pressing as many reps as they can—55 lbs. for women and 95 lbs. for men. The event will take place in the Friedman weight room.

There will be bench press t-shirts, sports massages ($1/minute up to 10 minutes), free food, and mental health information tables. Public Health Fellow and former Cornell football student-athlete Baba Adejuyigbe will staff the Cornell Health table. It will focus on educating students on the various mental health support services on Cornell’s campus in addition to counseling, with an emphasis on the new resources available to student-athletes. Representatives from The Sophie Fund will also host a table with information about the organization and to answer questions from students.

SAAC is the voice of student-athletes on the Cornell campus, and strives to promote a positive student-athlete experience through providing feedback to conference and national legislation on campus issues, organizing community service events, and acting as a communication line between student-athletes and campus administrators.

The NCAA Division 1 SAAC as a whole has put a focus on mental health awareness in athletics this year, so our SAAC here at Cornell took it upon ourselves to raise awareness and address the mental health issues on our campus. We believe mental health is a big and unaddressed issue in the student-athlete community at Cornell and we are committed to changing this culture.

Student-athletes face all the struggles of a normal student at Cornell, in addition to the time restraints of practices and workouts. Although student-athletes have superior time management skills, it is very common to feel extremely overwhelmed. Additionally, we constantly deal with the pressures of performance on a daily basis, which can take a toll on the mind.

National surveys show that more than 30 percent of student-athletes have experienced overwhelming anxiety. And 30 percent of college students reported feeling so down at some point during the previous year that it was difficult to function. A lot of student-athletes feel the pressure to be perfect all of the time, and the false perception equating mental toughness to mental health creates a negative stigma and culture where student-athletes are less likely to seek help. Student-athletes also deal with injuries, which can lead to a recovery process that is extremely taxing mentally. While being an athlete is not our sole purpose in life, it is still a huge part of our identity. Injuries can take this away from athletes, being unable to train with your team or compete in the sport you have dedicated so much of your life toward.

One in four college students has a diagnosable mental illness. Student-athletes in particular have reported 2 percent higher rates of stress than non-student-athletes. Mental health is a key component of athletic performance. As student-athletes, it is important to understand that mental toughness and mental health are separate ideals. Seeking resources is an act of strength, not a sign of weakness. With everyone’s help, we can decrease stigma around mental health and bring resources to create a culture of acceptance.

This is the message we strive to send with our #DontBearItAlone campaign. We were inspired by mental health initiatives such as #damworthit and #powe6fulminds launched at schools and Division 1 conferences around the country. Our #DontBearItAlone campaign aims to raise awareness and continue the conversation around mental health support on Cornell’s campus, with an emphasis on the unique struggles and support needed for the athletic community. This fall, we started hosting mental health awareness games through #DontBearItAlone in which athletes wear green attire such as shoelaces or ribbons in support of mental health. These games also have tables to give out mental health information, and educate students and other audience members on where to find support on campus.

SAAC’s mental health effort is in conjunction with all of the work that Cornell Minds Matter (CMM) and other campus organizations have been doing for years. They work closely with administration, faculty, staff, and students to help decrease the stigma surrounding mental health, increase awareness of this important public health problem, and improve existing frameworks surrounding support systems. SAAC focuses on raising awareness within the athletic community in particular, but we work together with other student organizations on campus to make our voice and our efforts stronger. “Spike For Sophie” is co-sponsored by CMM, the Spikeball Club, Athlete Ally (LGBTQ+ inclusion in sports), and the Red Key Athlete Honors Society.

—By Morgan Chall and Jenna Phelps

Morgan Chall ’19, a varsity gymnast, is co-president of Cornell University’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) and the NCAA Ivy League SAAC Representative. She is a student in Global and Public Health Sciences. 

Jenna Phelps ’20, a volleyball middle blocker, is the SAAC public relations chair. She is a student in applied economics and management.

Follow Cornell SAAC on Twitter: @cornellsaac

Follow Cornell SAAC on Facebook: @bigredSAAC

Follow Cornell SAAC on Instagram: @cornell_saac

(Don’t) Call Me Crazy: Q&A With Kelly Jensen

(Don’t) Call Me Crazy: 33 Voices Start the Conversation About Mental Health is a new anthology that aims to get young people opening up about their inner struggles. Editor Kelly Jensen collected personal mental health stories from a range of writers, including Shaun David Hutchinson, Libba Bray, Adam Silvera, and Kristen Bell. “Jensen brought together sharp and vivid perspectives concerning mental-health challenges,” commented the Washington Post. “This book asks questions and provides real-life experiences and hope for the future.”

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Kelly Jensen speaking at Buffalo Street Books

Jensen, a writer and editor for Book Riot and a former teen librarian, was a featured speaker on November 4 in The Sophie Fund’s “Readings on Mental Health” series hosted by the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County at Buffalo Street Books. She spoke to The Sophie Fund’s Margaret McKinnis about her work.

THE SOPHIE FUND: How did you come to this project?

KELLY JENSEN: I started by wanting to do an anthology on feminism. I put that together and it came out in early 2017. I’ve always struggled with my own mental health, so this is something that’s always sort of been in the back of my head. There was an essay in the feminism book about mental health, and I realized as I was reading—“Oh, there’s a whole book here.”

I had studied writing and psychology in college, and it sort of blended the two. I realized there’s nothing out there that talks about mental health for younger readers in a way that’s conversational rather than statistical. Statistics and numbers are important, but I know what was helpful for me was reading people’s narratives and hearing these stories about what they’ve done and how they’ve experienced their mental challenges. I wanted to compile as much as I could from a wide range of voices to show there’s no “one way.” That was sort of the way it came together. I proposed it to my editor of the feminist one and they were like, “Yes! Let’s do this.”

THE SOPHIE FUND: What was the process of gathering all of these stories?

KELLY JENSEN: My day job is working as an editor for a book website, so I read a lot and have a lot of contacts for people who write. I reached out to some people who I knew had written about their mental health experiences in some capacity, rather than reaching out to any author and asking, “Do you want to talk about this super personal thing?” These people had talked about it before, so there was some level of understanding of what that would be like. It’s not easy and it’s not fun.

And then from there, I expanded to look outside the writing world because mental health impacts all kinds of people. I did some research to find some pieces that were out there already and went to see if I could reprint some of them. There’s a piece in there from Reid Ewing who’s on Modern Family. He had this brilliant piece about body dysmorphic disorder and being addicted to plastic surgery.

Then there were a couple pieces that were fresh. One of the other contributors had a contact with someone in the music industry, so MILCK (who wrote the anthem for the Women’s March) wrote this brilliant piece that was a letter to her 14-year-old self about confidence but also about her struggles with anxiety and eating disorders. It was essentially a beautiful love letter to get through it. And then there’s a piece in there, too, from Nancy Kerrigan. She wrote this piece on believing in yourself and the ways she has found confidence in herself. And I was like, “Oh this is perfect,” especially thinking about 13- and 14-year-olds who are still figuring it out. I was just grateful she could put something like that in.

The biggest challenge was putting the pieces in an order that made any sort of sense. With the feminism book, there were some clear themes that emerged throughout, but with mental health there was not a great theme that worked, and trying to create a theme didn’t feel right. I want everyone to go into the book and get what they get out of it and not have me as an editor tell them what they should be getting. The big theme I found going through was finding this spot of being okay. Maybe not great. Maybe not bad. But right in that middle of being okay. When I found that as sort of the way of piecing it together, I also found a way of grouping the essays together.

THE SOPHIE FUND: I know the book is a little multimedia with some art pieces. Was that your intention from the beginning or did it come after the fact?

KELLY JENSEN: I knew I wanted to do it a like a scrapbook style, so I knew I would end up using art. There are so many ways to tell a story, and with such a range of experiences, art just feels like a natural way of getting there.

I wanted it to be a book people would want to look at rather than a textbook. I mean there’s heavy stuff in there, but I don’t want to people to feel like they’re going to be miserable reading it. And yeah it’s challenging to read at times, but I think the comics and the design my publishers put behind it really makes it a more enjoyable reading experience.

THE SOPHIE FUND: The invitational aspect of the book seems to mirror this idea of normalizing the conversation around mental health, and I’m wondering as the book has become a part of the world, how it has become a part of that conversation?

KELLY JENSEN: The book came out a little over a month ago, and I’ve been going nonstop since. It’s been really interesting because it’s forced me to think about my own experiences in a way I never thought I would.

I have done a bunch of high school events with hundreds of hundreds of kids, which has been awesome. A lot of them ask me things like, “How do I determine if it’s stress versus an actual problem?” It’s nice to sit down with somebody and say okay the fact that you’re even asking this is step one and that’s when you can talk to someone you trust and say, “Okay here’s what I am experiencing—what do you think?”

I’ve gotten a lot of questions about what I think society-wise is causing this. In part mental illness stems from culture, but it’s also biological and just happens. There’s not any set reason. Often someone asks that because they have a theory, and sometimes you just have to say that could be part of it, but there’s no one cause, just like there’s no one treatment or course to fix anybody.

It changes community by community, too. I did an event at the beginning of October in a fairly conservative community in Wisconsin, but they have a whole commission that is focused on mental health and so the conversation in their community it not new or fresh. They’ve been having it. It’s interesting to go and talk to those kids and hear their questions and then go to a school where that’s not the case, and they have very different questions like, “How do we break the stigma? How do we talk about this?” It’s fascinating.

If the conversation is normalized, if it’s a conversation that’s happening, it’s easier to then talk about versus if it’s not talked about at all you don’t even have the language to start.

THE SOPHIE FUND: It seems like access to language is a theme that comes out of these conversations. It seems so necessary for us to be able to differentiate between these different experiences.

KELLY JENSEN: I have a really complicated relationship with the word crazy because sometimes well-meaning people can say they’re not going to use that word because of what it can stand for. But they stop there. They don’t take it further and have a conversation about mental health or do something that could further their sense of mental health care. I get annoyed because that doesn’t solve the problem, it just removes the word from your language, and ultimately from you having to think about it or stop and consider the bigger implications of the word. There’s not one way to talk about your approach to mental health, but you have to talk about it to even to get to that point where you can even discuss these nuances.

THE SOPHIE FUND: I know it’s only been out for a month, but what was your vision for the impact?

KELLY JENSEN: The school district that I talked about earlier who brought me in had community reads. They bought hundreds of copies of the book that they could distribute to students and adults in the community. They ran a number of book clubs throughout the month. They did all kinds of events centered around mental health, and they used this book because the pieces were short and persona. If more communities were able to create this culture of communication and openness, and have it come from the community itself, it trickles down. Then kids know they have permission.

I would love to see more people using it as tool to start talking, even it’s only one or two pieces and that’s all that resonates or all they use, that still gets the conversation starting.

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THE SOPHIE FUND: I think there’s something to be said for having something that mediates the conversation and gives context so you aren’t starting from square one.

KELLY JENSEN: It’s a vulnerable conversation to have, too.

I was so excited when The Sophie Fund ask me to come here because what a cool opportunity to have stories take the center. I think if you start with other people’s narratives it does get easier to break into a conversation around it.

THE SOPHIE FUND: Do you have a mental health philosophy?

KELLY JENSEN: I don’t know if I have a mental health philosophy. I think I have a fascination with it. I think there’s value in being fascinated by what your mind does and what your experiences are, and the metanarrative about what you think about what you’re thinking, which is hard to think about it.

THE SOPHIE FUND: Do you have any other things that you’d like to talk about with the book or even just about your views on mental health in general?

KELLY JENSEN: Mental health is trial and error. There were a number of people who said to me it might take you forever to find a medication that works for you or might work for you for a little bit and then stop working. My experience was the first medication was perfect. Your personal experience might not mirror other’s advice.

The hard part of it all is if you try to hold this idea that every experience is valid and has the nuances that it does, it can just get overwhelming. Culturally we have defined what “normal” generally looks like, but most people don’t fall in that.

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.