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.

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. 

Anthony Bourdain: “The Sheer Weirdness of the Kitchen Life”

Anthony Bourdain was a character much loved by chefs, servers, and bartenders everywhere. This was no less the case in Ithaca, a small town with a large appetite for life—and life’s culinary pleasures. Thus, Bourdain’s death by suicide is very hard to comprehend and absorb. To The Sophie Fund’s dear friends in the kitchens and dining rooms of Ithaca: please take the time to care for yourself and show extra kindness to friends and colleagues.

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The Sophie Fund is proud to sponsor training in Mental Health First Aid, which gives us tools for supporting ourselves and others when we may be experiencing a mental health crisis. If you or your establishment would like to participate in a training, please contact us at thesophiefund2016@gmail.com.

Anthony Bourdain put it well, in a poignant reminder of why we need to look after each other in the food and drink business:

“I love the sheer weirdness of the kitchen life: the dreamers, the crackpots, the refugees, and the sociopaths with whom I continue to work; the ever-present smells of roasting bones, searing fish, and simmering liquids; the noise and clatter, the hiss and spray, the flames, the smoke, and the steam. Admittedly, it’s a life that grinds you down. Most of us who live and operate in the culinary underworld are in some fundamental way dysfunctional. We’ve all chosen to turn our backs on the nine-to-five, on ever having a Friday or Saturday night off, on ever having a normal relationship with a non-cook.” (The New Yorker)

A wonderful talk with Bourdain about his life in the kitchen, on NPR’s Fresh Air in 2016:

 

Photo Credit: Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown (Facebook)

The Joys of Mental Health First Aid

Don’t you love the smiles on these faces? The Sophie Fund does.

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The Class of April 16, 2018

This is a group of owners, managers, and workers from Ithaca’s restaurants, bars, and cafes taking a one-day course in Mental Health First Aid on April 16. They’re smiling because they had great fun, learned valuable skills, and became more confident in their abilities to support a family member, friend, colleague, or stranger experiencing a mental health crisis. Oh, and they also received official certification as Mental Health First Aiders.

The training was conducted by Melanie Little and David Bulkley of the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County. It was sponsored by a grant from The Sophie Fund to offer free training for the dedicated men and women of Ithaca’s vibrant culinary scene—where thin margins, long hours, erratic schedules, and high pressures can be the routine. The 15 trainees in the session are employed by Gimme! Coffee, Argos Inn, The Watershed, Temple of Zeus, Manndible Cafe, and other enterprises.

“With the stigma around mental illness, and given the hectic lives we lead today, it’s easy for somebody not to immediately seek the mental health support they need, or for people around them not to recognize signs that a crisis is brewing,” said Scott MacLeod, a founder of The Sophie Fund. “We aim to see Mental Health First Aid become the norm across the public and private sectors in Tompkins County. We would like to see every government agency, educational institution, and major business providing training opportunities—and in some cases, mandated training—for their managers and staff.”

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In training at the Tompkins County Public Library

Developed in Australia in 2000, the National Council for Behavioral Health brought Mental Health First Aid to the United States in 2008. Like traditional first aid, Mental Health First Aid is not about diagnosing or treating ailments, but rather giving immediate initial assistance until professional mental health support can be provided.

In the one-day Mental Health First Aid course, trainees learn the risk factors and warning signs for mental disorders and substance use concerns, strategies for assisting people in crisis and non-crisis situations, and how to get professional help.

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Practicing Mental Health First Aid skills

In the United States, the “movement” boasts a million Mental Health First Aiders—and millions more are needed. The country is going through an epidemic of mental health disorders. The national suicide rate increased 24 percent from 1999 to 2014. In 2016, 42,249 people died from opioid overdoses; 2.1 million Americans had an opioid use disorder. An estimated 43.6 million American adults are living with a psychiatric illness and another 16.3 million have an alcohol use disorder.

The 2016 annual report of the Center for Collegiate Mental Health said collected data from 139 college counseling centers showed that 33.2 percent of 150,483 college students seeking counseling in the 2015-16 academic year had “seriously considered attempting suicide.” That was a marked increase from 23.8 percent in the 2010-11 academic year. About 1,100 college students annually take their own lives.

“As someone who has battled both depression and anxiety personally, and has family members who battle alcoholism, this is a very important topic to me,” said Emily Guenther, one of the April 16 trainees. “It was nice to come to a class where I felt like people understood the difficulties and hardships that are faced daily when dealing with mental health issues. It was wonderful for me to finally get some tools that will be very useful for me moving forward!”

The sentiment was shared by many other trainees.

“The hospitality world often fosters an especially high-stress work environment and, as someone in a managerial position, I am very invested in the mental well-being of my crew, both day-to-day and long-term,” said Rob Hummel, the front desk manager of Argos Inn. “Certainly being concerned for others isn’t enough to be helpful, and the very specific identification and communication techniques presented at training gave me a proper, practical means of applying that concern when it’s needed. The attitude of care and compassion that Melanie and David encouraged as an integral part of mental health first aid is invaluable, both at work and in one’s own life.”

The Mental Health Association employs three certified trainers, and offers regular sessions open to the public and organizes private in-house trainings for companies and organizations.

“At the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County, we are passionate about Mental Health First Aid as part of the delivery of our agency’s mission to create a citizen’s movement in support of our community’s mental health,” said trainer Melanie Little. “The further this information spreads, the more our area will be filled with individuals who are ready to provide support, compassion, understanding, and resources to our fellow community members who are struggling.”

Little explained that the training teaches compassion, listening skills, the types of mental health help that are available, and combats the stigma surrounding mental health that prevents so many individuals from accessing the help they need and deserve. In an eight-hour course, she said, the training includes discussions about complex and difficult topics, and gives participants ample time to practice their skills by applying them to a wide range of scenarios.

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Melanie Little and David Bulkley of the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County

Mental Health First Aid not only serves humanity, it serves the bottom line, too. According to Mental Health First Aid USA, 40 percent of employees with a mental illness take up to 10 days off work a year because of it. Yet 35 percent of managers feel they have no formal support or resources to help their employees.

And, it’s kind of cool, or at least Lady Gaga thinks so: her Born This Way Foundation has helped train 150,000 people in Mental Health First Aid.

For more information or to schedule a training in Tompkins County, contact:

Melanie Little, Mental Health Association in Tompkins County

mlittle@mhaedu.org

For information about applying for a Mental Health First Aid training grant from The Sophie Fund, contact:

The Sophie Fund

thesophiefund2016@gmail.org

To support The Sophie Fund’s grants for Mental Health First Aid training, click here to go to the Donate page.

 

Photos courtesy Yuko Jingu

Thrive, New York!

Thrive NYC is an $850 million initiative launched by New York City First Lady Chirlane McCray that is a model for the way all communities across America can better address our growing mental health crisis. The core of the effort includes training 250,000 New Yorkers in Mental Health First Aid, which teaches people how to help friends, family members, and co-workers who may be suffering. A public awareness campaign called “Today I Thrive,” consisting of TV, newspaper, and subway ads and social media outreach in 11 languages is another part of the effort that aims to convince New Yorkers that seeking help is a sign of strength not weakness.

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McCray, wife of Mayor Bill de Blasio, discussed Thrive NYC in a Q&A with Shefali Luthra in Kaiser Health News published this week. McCray’s experience with mental illness is very personal: her parents as well as her daughter have struggled with depression.

Here’s an extract from the interview:

 

Kaiser Health News: What role can cities play in bolstering access to mental health care? Are there unique advantages they have?

 

McCray: Cities can lead because mayors are uniquely positioned in terms of being really close to the people. I attended the U.S. Conference of Mayors. And unlike governors, and unlike members of Congress, mayors are right there, dealing with the everyday struggles of people. They are more sensitive in terms of what people need, on a day-to-day level. Cities can actually mobilize different types of resources: community-based organizations and churches and synagogues and mosques. All of these different first responder type organizations are much more available. Mayors are much more plugged in.

 

Kaiser Health News: How do New York’s needs and plans compare with that of other cities?

 

McCray: In New York, we have everybody. We have a large LGBT community, we have the largest Jewish community. We are the United Nations of cities. Whatever we do in New York, if it can be done here, dealing with all of those questions of culture, religion, ethnicity—all of those things—then it can be done anywhere.

 

Kaiser Health News: One of the big problems regarding the mental health care system is its shortage of providers. In your plan for New York, you talk about how to build that supply and make it more diverse. 

 

McCray: We are not going to grow the workforce we need overnight. That is clear. But we can look at alternative methods, which have evidence-based proven ways to address the situation. We are doing that by training a quarter of a million New Yorkers in mental health first aid. We are working to raise the level of awareness, educate people, and sort of demystify mental illness and substance abuse so people can help their family members and friends. We are making sure that we actually are reaching into high-need communities, communities that don’t have professionals that look like them. I heard this over and over again, everywhere I went. “I want to talk to somebody who looks like me, who speaks my language, who understands my religion. And it doesn’t exist.” There are a lot of ideas that are burbling about, but this is one of our priorities.

 

Kaiser Health News: It sounds like one idea you are thinking of is more ‘midlevel’-type providers—someone who is not a psychiatrist but is more knowledgeable than my next-door neighbor.

 

McCray: When you think about our teachers, members of our clergy—they do this work, even though they may not be trained to. Some of them actually are somewhat trained — some of them have been social workers or doctors—but you don’t necessarily need that. You don’t need a psychiatrist to treat depression, which is the number one cause of disability now in our nation. You don’t need a psychiatrist to help someone with anxiety disorder, necessarily. All these diseases have a range from mild to severe. We are also thinking about training a new class of worker: a community mental health worker, who works with members of the community—whether it be through involvement in a community-based organization or at a church, et cetera—to screen for mental health needs and refer to help as needed. And there are models in other countries of people who do this work and are able to help folks who suffer from things like depression and anxiety.

 

Kaiser Health News: Might that address some of the diversity concerns you described?

 

McCray: Absolutely. Because they will come from the neighborhood and be trusted and understand how to talk to people in a way that is sensitive and understands the history and culture of the place.

 

Kaiser Health News: You have been able to line up nearly $1 billion to fund your initiative. Is that something other cities will need to do, too, in order to meet their mental health care needs?

 

McCray: Every city will not have that [level] of resources. But then again, every city is not as big as New York City, so they may not need that kind of money. And everything we are doing doesn’t require funding. Something like screening pregnant women and mothers for maternal depression is something that requires a new approach by doctors and pediatricians and OB/GYNs. It just requires them asking a series of questions. But we had to actually gather people together and say, “Look, we can have a huge impact on something that could have lifelong consequences for a child and a family, by just doing work a little differently.” It’s not a change in the funding. It’s just a change in the way they approach the conversation. We’re training our police officers in crisis intervention training. We’ve already saved lives. We’re making naloxone [which treats opioid overdose] available without a prescription. We’ve saved so many lives already with that. It really depends on the needs of the city.

 

Kaiser Health News: What do you hope to see moving forward?

McCray: The most important thing is changing the culture. We’ve already been taking great strides. It is change in the culture and ability to know there’s always someplace that a New Yorker can go to get help. No matter who you are as a New Yorker, it’s OK. Mental illness and substance abuse disorders are treatable. And, there’s somewhere to go. That’s what success looks like to me. Of course I want to do even more but if we do those things, I think that will be a huge sea change.

 

Thrive NYC says its initiative is guided by six key principles:

Change the Culture: Make mental health everybody’s business. It’s time for New Yorkers to have an open conversation about mental health.

Act Early: Give New Yorkers more tools to weather challenges and invest in prevention and early intervention.

Close Treatment Gaps: Provide New Yorkers in every neighborhood—including those at greatest risk—with equal access to care that works for them and their communities, when and where they need it.

Partner with Communities: Embrace the wisdom and strengths of local communities by collaborating with them to create effective and culturally competent solutions.

Use Data Better: Work with all stakeholders to address gaps, improve programs, and create a truly equitable and responsive mental health system by collecting, sharing, and using information and data better.

Strengthen Government’s Ability to Lead: Affirm City government’s responsibility to coordinate an unprecedented effort to support the mental health of all New Yorkers.

Read “Thrive NYC: A Roadmap for Mental Health for All,” and a progress report on the initiative, “Thrive NYC 150-Day Update.”