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.”

melanielittle

Melanie Little and the Kids First Summer Camp

Little empathizes with struggling teens. She’s been there herself. Originally from Rochester, she battled mental illness during her youth.

As Little, 27, recalls her own experiences growing up, her mental health issues were not taken seriously. Adults blamed her discontent on typical teen mood swings. She didn’t fit the stereotypes around mental illness; she earned good grades and had close connections in her life. However, this did not alleviate the pain she felt or obviate her need for help. It was not until Little attended Ithaca College in 2009 that she finally reached out to receive treatment.

Little has always been interested in social justice and in striving to make positive change in the community. She yearned to provide guidance for young people in a way that she felt had been lacking in her own upbringing. She heard about MHA’s Kids First Summer Camp, a program designed for children ages 5-18 experiencing a wide range of internal or external struggles, and quickly signed up to become a camp counselor. It was a summer job, but turned out to be the first stepping stone in a career path as a community mental health educator and advocate.

At Kids First, Little learned valuable lessons about mental health and the significance of working directly with children. “Sometimes it feels like you are getting nowhere,” said Little. “Mental health can’t be fixed overnight. But, people don’t need to be ‘fixed.’ They just need to harness their strengths, which takes time. You have to trust yourself and trust the process. You don’t always get to see the progress, but you’re planting seeds.”

Over time, Little watched as the children in the summer camp began to open up and grow closer to their peers and the adult supervisors. She learned how to discipline and set limits for the children while remaining compassionate and empathetic about the kids’ variety of personalities and needs.

“A common misconception is that all children who struggle come from broken homes or have a lower socioeconomic status,” said Little. “However, some of the children had families that were perfectly stable and loving. Mental illness can be genetic or come from other external environmental factors. Mental health doesn’t exist in a vacuum.” Little finds it rewarding to work with children who she recognizes are capable of change and growth.

As the director of Youth Services, Little is responsible for a wide variety of tasks pertaining to community outreach, education and individual peer support and advocacy. Part of her community outreach involves visiting health classes in high schools and middle schools in the Ithaca City School District as a guest speaker in its mental health unit. She provides Mental Health and Wellness 101 courses for students, faculty, and parents. She also attends Parent Teacher Association meetings to educate adults. Little supervises recreational programs for young people at the MHA-affiliated Saturday Group Respite at the YMCA. She also carries out the Youth Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) that helps to decrease and prevent intrusive or troubling behaviors, increase personal empowerment, improve quality of life and help a young person take steps to achieve their goals.

In addition, Little serves MHA as a Mental Health First Aid instructor. She works to combat the stigma around mental illness and educates adults about how to recognize signs of mental illness and actively support family members, friends, colleagues, and others in a way that is non-judgmental. She informs trainees that “no one size fits all,” meaning each individual is different and must be treated with patience and care. She teaches that recovery is possible for everyone. MHA offers regular Mental Health First Aid courses for the general public. The Sophie Fund has sponsored special MHA training sessions for members of Ithaca’s food service community.

Although there tends to be more openness, progression, and awareness pertaining to mental health advocacy, Little believes that there is still an abundance of work to be done; she says that “roughly one in three Tompkins County high school students reported feeling sad or depressed most days.” Little intends to continue providing support, guidance, and mental health education for adolescents and adults. She believes that teaching about mental health and mental illness should be a crucial part of health classes in schools to have children understand their own minds from a younger age, and to grow into empathetic and aware adults. She also wants to take her advocacy work to the next level by going with a group of youth advocates to Albany to speak to legislators about providing more funding for mental health organizations and health classes in schools.

—By Nicole Kramer

Nicole Kramer, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a Class of 2019 Writing major and Sociology minor at Ithaca College. She is a nonfiction editor for Stillwatera student-run literary magazine. She also enjoys creating mixed media image-text work and writing poetry. 

“You Have to Let Go”

Ashae Forsythe, a 21-year-old writing major at Ithaca College, strives to raise awareness about mental health through social media. On Facebook and Instagram, she promotes positivity by highlighting the little things that help you see everyday life through a happier lens. Forsythe’s friends and family tend to share her posts or message her directly via social media to show their appreciation of her kind and thoughtful words.

AshaeForsythe

Ashae Forsythe

Recently, Forsythe initiated another way to reach out to others: she facilitated a discussion on mental health aimed at fellow classmates from the Caribbean. She is originally from Portmore, Jamaica, and is an active member of the Caribbean Students Association on her campus. One of the things she wanted the participants to ponder is the relatively strong stigma around mental illness back home compared to the United States.

“I came to terms with my mental illness much more when I came to Ithaca,” said Forsythe. “College made me more open to talking about it because in Jamaica, mental illness wasn’t something people saw as normal. No one wanted to put other people in a discomforting position. In Jamaica, people had the mentality that ‘whatever you are struggling with, that’s life, you don’t have time to wallow in self-pity.’” She thinks one reason that Jamaicans put less focus on personal mental health is that they are generally consumed with more basic issues of survival in a country historically beset by low economic growth and high rates of poverty and crime.

Ithaca College provides mental health support through the Center for Counseling and Psychological Services and peer-to-peer organizations like Active Minds. Yet, Forsythe felt the need to organize an open discussion where students from the Caribbean could share their stories and work through personal issues in a space of mutual understanding and support. This discussion was geared toward Caribbean students and other students of color, but it was open to the public.

“I wanted to create a safe space where people of color could talk about their struggles and experiences of getting families to understand their mental state,” she explained. “I wanted to address cultural practices and habits that exacerbate trends that further diminish mental health.”

It was the first time that the Caribbean Students Association had focused a meeting on mental health, and the members proceeded to share intimate experiences about how their parents tended to ignore certain thoughts and feelings that needed to be worked through and cathartically released.

Some of the students addressed ways in which they wouldn’t want to be like their parents, or things they wished their parents would have done better in child rearing. Nonetheless, they expressed how they were accepting that their parents had their own sets of troubles and traumas, and that holding on to anger and regret was unproductive and unnecessary.

“Forgiving parents for the sake of self, without them having to say they’re sorry, is an eye-opening experience,” said Forsythe. “Holding negative emotions is toxic and exhausting and takes a toll on your mental health. You realize, you have to let go and advance forward.”

Forsythe hopes to collaborate with Ithaca College’s African Students Association to open the conversation to a larger group of people. Forsythe also wishes to open up a foundation in Portmore, to help provide resources, funding, and awareness for families and individuals whose lives are affected by mental illness.

—By Nicole Kramer

Nicole Kramer, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a Class of 2019 Writing major and Sociology minor at Ithaca College. She is a nonfiction editor for Stillwatera student-run literary magazine. She also enjoys creating mixed media image-text work and writing poetry. 

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).

bold (1)

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.

whycare-Instagram-46mil

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.

IMG_0079

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.”

IMG_2077-1

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

IMG_0057

IMG_0052

IMG_0077

IMG_2074-1

IMG_2076-1

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