The Healing Power of Storytelling

“The Path to Recovery: One Story at a Time” is the theme of this year’s Annual Depression Conference being held at the Tompkins County Public Library from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday, November 28. Open to the public, the conference includes a keynote talk, a panel discussion on mental health recovery, workshops focused on children/adolescents, adults, and older adults, and a book discussion.

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The keynote speaker is Regi Carpenter, an advocate for “narrative medicine,” a medical approach that utilizes patients’ personal stories as part of their healing. She is the author of Snap!, the story of her own severe mental illness as a teenager and her path to recovery, and a memoir, Where There’s Smoke, There’s Dinner: Stories of a Seared Childhood.

Carpenter was 16 years old when she first experienced severe mental illness and was committed to a New York State mental institution. According to the conference organizers:

“After being released she never spoke of it for over thirty years. As a professional storyteller, author and workshop leader, Regi knows the importance of telling one’s story to overcome trauma, ease anxiety, depression and shame. It wasn’t until she told her story of teenage trauma that Regi knew the healing power of stories to restore and heal the battered psyche. In this keynote you’ll hear stories of Regi’s experience as well as how stories can be used as a therapeutic tool to help clients become more resilient and resourceful.”

From Carpenter’s website bio:

“For over 20 years Regi Carpenter has been bringing songs and stories to audiences of all ages throughout the world in school, theaters, libraries, at festivals, conferences and in people’s back yards. An award winning performer, Regi has toured her solo shows and workshops in theaters, festivals and schools, nationally and internationally.

“Regi is the youngest daughter in a family that pulsates with contradictions: religious and raucous, tender but terrible, unfortunate yet irrepressible. These tales celebrate the glorious and gut-wrenching lives of four generations of Carpenter s raised on the Saint Lawrence River in Clayton, New York. Tales of underwater tea parties, drowning lessons and drives to the dump give voice to multi-generations of family life in a small river town with an undercurrent.”

Ithaca’s 24th Annual Depression Conference is sponsored by: the Alcohol and Drug Council of Tompkins County; Cayuga Addiction Recovery Services; Family and Children’s Service of Ithaca; Finger Lakes Independence Center; Ithaca College Gerontology Institute; The Mental Health Association in Tompkins County; Multicultural Resource Center; Suicide Prevention & Crisis Service; Tompkins County Mental Health Department; Tompkins County Office for the Aging; and the Tompkins County Public Library.

Photo Caption: Regi Carpenter

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This Close to Happy

Daphne Merkin, author of This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression, will be the featured guest speaker at a “Readings on Mental Health” event on Sunday, November 19 sponsored by the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County and hosted by Buffalo Street Books.

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Writing in the Wall Street Journal, John Kaag called Merkin’s 2017 memoir “one of the most accurate, and therefore most harrowing, accounts of depression to be written in the last century… Ms. Merkin speaks candidly and beautifully about aspects of the human condition that usually remain pointedly silent.”

Andrew Solomon, reviewing This Close to Happy for the New York Times, wrote: “It is standard fare to say that books on depression are brave, but this one actually is. For all its highly personal focus, it is an important addition to the literature of mental illness.”

Merkin is also the author of Enchantment, Dreaming of Hitler and The Fame Lunches: On Wounded Icons, Money, Sex, the Brontës, and the Importance of Handbags. A former staff writer at the New Yorker, she has also written for the New York Times, Elle, Bookforum, Departures, Travel + Leisure, W, Vogue, Tablet Magazine, and other publications. She has taught writing at the 92nd Street Y, Marymount College, and Hunter College.

Merkin’s appearance is part of “Readings on Mental Health,” a series featuring authors of books on mental health topics made possible by a grant from The Sophie Fund.

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Community Profile: Jacob Parker Carver

Jacob Parker Carver is the Community Educator at the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County. A typical week puts him at the Tompkins County Public Library where he gives trainings in Mental Health First Aid, or on the Cornell University campus where he recently gave a talk at a mental health awareness event. Parker Carver’s job also takes him to a place that most of us would prefer to avoid: the Tompkins County Jail.

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Parker Carver along with other colleagues runs two regular mental health programs at the 82-inmate institution, the Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP), and a less formal program he just calls Talk. As Parker Carver sees it, mental health support is critical to giving prisoners a better chance in life once they are released. The county jail’s WRAP program began in April 2016 after Tompkins County Corrections Division Supervisor Captain Raymond Bunce recognized that prisoners needed more mental health services and the Mental Health Association reached out with help.

The idea behind WRAP, Parker Carver explained in an interview with The Sophie Fund, is self-help training—“teaching people how to identify the things that give them strength, that make them healthy, that keep them healthy.” It sounds straightforward enough, yet Parker Carver found it tough going at first. Much like the challenges that mental health providers face with the regular population, getting inmates to overcome the stigma around mental illness and treatment is no easy matter.

“We realized that we were not getting access to everybody in the jail who could use the service, partially because of the stigma around mental health,” Parker Carver recalls. “Especially within the jail, if you identify as having a mental health issue, that makes you a target. Behind those bars you’re easier to take advantage of if you have a mental health problem. So people don’t necessarily want to sign up for that. When someone is in that seat in front of me, they really want to be a part of that group.”

To get around the stigma and create a different environment for inmates turned off by a formal wellness and recovery program, the Mental Health Association began offering Talk, a less structured group session. In an ideal world all the inmates would take advantage of this support, but Parker Carver has found that often times it’s the same group of people. Giving prisoners the space to express themselves, Parker Carver says, is not as easy as it sounds. While they are very appreciative to have someone who cares about how they feel, it is hard for them to escape the norms imposed by the criminal justice system.

“They’ve talked to correctional officers or probation officers, or some of them have drug and alcohol counselors,” Parker Carver explains. “They’re part of the system and that means they’re used to having to tell something from a script, having to jump through hoops, having to say the right thing to make sure that their kids don’t get taken away from them or that they don’t have to get sent to rehab or this that or the other thing. So they’re very used to having to figure out what people want to hear and then saying that back to them.”

Parker Carver’s methods enable some inmates to open up with surprising candor. “Someone who would tell their drug counselor that they want to get clean might tell me ‘As soon as I get out of this cell and get to go home I just need to go find crack because I can’t think of anything else that’s going to make being alive okay,’” he says. “That’s a hard thing to hear. But you’re not really able to help anyone unless you’re hearing the truth of what they’re going through.”

As Parker Carver explains it, WRAP and Talk also help inmates cope with the immense stresses of their incarceration. “Not everyone in jail is happy and holding hands and ready to get along,” he says. “You’ve got two people who are locked up and there’s no reason for them to hate each other. If anything, because they’re in the same difficult situation they should be supporting each other. But they’re both stressed, anxious, afraid, and on high alert—always in that ‘fight or flight’ situation. They can’t focus their anger in any place productive so they take it out on each other. That’s definitely sad to see.”

In jail cells, traditional coping mechanisms don’t apply. “When you’re in jail I can’t tell you to listen to music,” Parker Carver says. “I can’t tell you to take a yoga class. You’re stuck in this place so you’re limited to coping mechanisms that you can use in a small space, with very limited resources.”

That’s where the Mental Health Association comes in. WRAP trains inmates to understand the little things people can do in each day to try to take control of their mental health and communicate to other people about their needs. Parker Carver says it also teaches inmates how to be mindful of triggers—“the things that set us off, the things that are going to make it harder for us to stay in control.”

Parker Carver, 30, is a 2008 graduate of Ithaca College, where he studied cinema production. He spent four years teaching English in Shanghai before returning to Ithaca. He joined the Mental Health Association initially as its Youth Services Coordinator, before taking up his current position in 2015. He is mindful that after listening to the stories of pain and suffering in the county jail he needs to take care of his own mental health. Explains Parker Carver: “I spend a lot of time building little things into my day, into my life, that give me that energy, hope, and strength.”

—By S. Makai Andrews

S. Makai Andrews is co-president of Active Minds at Ithaca College, and a contributor to The Mighty

Alternatives and Us

The Sophie Fund is proud to announce that Alternatives Federal Credit Union is a sponsor of the 2nd Annual Ithaca Cupcake Baking Contest held this Saturday October 14.

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Besides helping underwrite the costs of the contest with a financial donation, the fantastic Alternatives team has been working with us behind the scenes to make the event even better than last year. Among the additional features: a coloring contest for the kids (up to age 8). Participants won’t be disappointed!

We’re glad to share in the uniqueness that Alternatives brings to Ithaca. Cornell University (’73) social psychology grad Bill Myers founded Alternatives in 1979 with a mission of serving low and moderate-income people and communities. It prides itself in providing access to safe financial services and education for underserved people.

As a Community Development Credit Union, Alternatives is member-owned, locally controlled, and self-supporting. According to its statement of purpose:

“We believe that by controlling the flow of funds within a small community, the community can build itself to suit its own needs and be more self-reliant. Our social mission is integrated into our economic mission, so for whatever reason, joining Alternatives is making a choice towards a more economically just community.”

Alternatives has been recognized for its social mission and standard of excellence. In 2014, the National Credit Union Association ranked Alternatives as the No. 1 Community Development Financial Institution in the United States.

In 2011, the Wells Fargo Next Awards presented Alternatives with its Advocacy Award for its policy and advocacy leadership on a living wage that began as a local effort and grew into a national movement.

The Sophie Fund is honored to work with Alternatives in our efforts to support mental health initiatives aiding young people in our community.

Cornell Fraternity Serves the Ithaca Community

“Service” is a word bursting with meaning for the Alpha Phi Omega–Gamma Chapter Service Team, as we have learned first-hand here at The Sophie Fund.

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A little more than a year ago, we decided to organize a cupcake baking contest in the Ithaca Commons. Our idea was to raise some money for mental health initiatives, bring some cupcake joy to Ithaca, and fight the stigma around mental health and treatment. Sophie (’14) was an avid baker and loved baking cupcakes from an early age.

An APO brother came across some publicity for the contest and quickly contacted us. She said she would encourage APO Gamma brothers to bake some cupcakes, but she also wanted to know “if there was any way our brothers could help out.”

Our answer was “Yes!” The truth was that we had thrown the contest together at the last minute, and we desperately needed help with logistics on event day. APO Gamma dispatched a dozen or so brothers to the Bernie Milton Pavilion who helped with everything from registering scores of contestants, inventorying the cupcakes for panels of judges, preparing awards certificates for the winners, and mopping up the site afterwards. The flood of contestants was much more than we anticipated. The 1st Annual Cupcake Baking Contest was a big success.

APO Gamma, we couldn’t have done it without you!

In January, APO Gamma was ready to start talking about how they could support the 2nd Annual Ithaca Cupcake Baking Contest 10 months away. In numerous meetings at Starbucks downtown and at Willard Straight Hall on campus (not to mention countless emails), APO Gamma helped us design a sequel that included a fun fundraising element—collecting donations for mental health initiatives and giving donors “cupcake buttons” in return.

Starting in late September, APO Gamma squads fanned out to Ho Plaza, GreenStar Natural Foods Market, and the Apple Harvest Festival to advocate for mental health, take donations for this year’s cause—suicide prevention—and promote the cupcake contest to be held in the Commons on October 14. APO Gamma raised more than $500, well above our expectations.

More important, the brothers’ presence on campus and in the community generated further awareness and prompted conversations that make a difference and could save a life. We know from Sophie’s experience with depression and anxiety, which led her to take a health leave of absence only six months away from graduation, how important it is to know that there is help, that people care.

At The Sophie Fund, we are overwhelmed not only by APO Gamma’s aid with fundraising and contest logistics, but by the heart that the brothers put into their service to the community. We know that APO Gamma is involved around the clock in so many other projects supporting mental health. It is truly something to admire.

We’re expecting a larger turnout for the 2017 cupcake contest. Once again, it wouldn’t happen without APO Gamma.

(Editor’s Note: This blog post written by The Sophie Fund originally appeared October 10, 2017 on the Service Blog of Alpha Phi Omega—Gamma Chapter)

Photo Caption: APO Gamma brothers volunteering for the 2016 Ithaca Cupcake Baking Contest