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. 

Art Therapy

Alex sits across from her therapist, tapping her foot anxiously on the floor, not speaking. Her therapist looks empathetically at her, and asks if she could possibly describe her feelings at the moment. Alex keeps her eyes on the floor, and shifts her position uncomfortably. The therapist wonders if she can recount her experience reconnecting with home friends with whom she shared a traumatic middle school experience. Finally, Alex looks up and begins to tell her story.

cast

Cast of alex getting better

Alex is the main character of alex getting better, a play written by 21-year-old Audrey Lang, a junior theater studies major at Ithaca College. The play was performed last fall in The Dillingham Center, home of Ithaca College’s theater program. Throughout the play, Alex, a college student, begins to work through and come to terms with being a young woman who was a victim of sexual assault in middle school. She had not thought about this traumatic episode in her life for a long while. She chose to bury the memory of a boy she had once been friends with and who had touched her and her friends in a way that was unwanted and inappropriate.

Lang portrays the diverse approaches that victims of sexual assault can take toward healing. Some of Alex’s friends had repressed the memories and remained friends with the assailant; others had forgiven, and moved on. Throughout the play, the feelings of shame, discomfort, and paranoia are visceral and perturbing as we watch Alex striving to work through her fears, accept the trauma, and learn to let go.

In the Fall 2018 semester, Lang wrote a 10-minute play for a theater class, which served as the backbone for alex getting better. She based the story loosely on trauma she had experienced in her own life, while asserting creative control in the play when necessary. Lang found the content to be relevant, informative, and universal, as she has known many women and girls who have dealt with similar forms of assault.

Because the play dealt with intimate, triggering, and vulnerable content, Lang made sure that she and the cast and crew members felt safe to voice their own personal stories during the time they were delving into Alex’s journey of recovery. “I chose to work with all females,” said Lang. “There was an all-female cast as well as an all-female rehearsal room. These events are so deeply related to things women and girls are dealing with. But, I wanted the play to be seen by people of all ages and genders.”

This performance not only gave Lang a platform to voice a traumatic event that happened to her depicted through her play, but it also gave the cast members a chance to empathize and vocalize similar occurrences that happened in their lives. This presents significant benefits of theater; the community and support that the participants in the play receive, as well as the chance for the playwright themselves to share and perform experiences for an audience to empathize with.

Lang has been a writer for as long as she can remember. In 2016, prior to alex getting better, Lang wrote another play about issues young women face, Dear Anna, which was performed with MCC Youth Company’s FreshPlay Festival and with the Ithaca Theater Collective. “I always loved writing,” said Lang, “but I was always mostly interested in dialogue and human interactions. Theater can bring life to stories in a way that feels more real because you are actually seeing the bodies.”

Rather than solely working through her struggles and experiences on her own, Lang and many other playwrights who create plays about mental illness or sexual assault work through their pain with a medium that enables others to be fully present with them when they are most afraid and vulnerable. This advocacy work is personal and intimate but the themes and issues addressed are universal. Lang chooses to write her plays about marginalized groups to give these people a platform to share their stories. “Typically, my plays are about women,” she said. “Especially queer women. I try to show them in places of strength and complication.”

lang

Audrey Lang

In theater, the audience can become engrossed with the story in a way that can indulge most of their senses, while also having a space where one is allowed to become emotional and vulnerable. “Theater should be educational and entertaining,” said Carin Etsy, an Ithaca College senior who directed alex getting better and is also a playwright who has written autobiographical pieces about sexual assault. “It forces you to be more engaged because, unlike watching a movie or reading a book, you can’t just leave. Theater is a continuous act; you have to sit there and be faced with another’s experiences and emotions.”

—By Nicole Kramer

Nicole Kramer, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a senior 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. 

Meet Our Interns

Hello, Friends of The Sophie Fund! We’ve been fortunate to work with three interns from Ithaca College’s Department of Writing during the Spring semester. Look for their articles on local mental health heroes and other topics in the coming weeks.

AmberChanelleNicole

Amber Raiken, Chanelle Ferguson, and Nicole Kramer

Amber Raiken is a junior majoring in Writing, with a Creative Writing Concentration, and minoring in Education Studies. She is a writer and the social media director for IC Distinct Magazine, a student-run culture and fashion publication.

Chanelle Ferguson is a sophomore 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.

Nicole Kramer is a senior Writing major and Sociology minor. She is a nonfiction editor for Stillwater, a student-run literary magazine. She also enjoys creating mixed media image-text work and writing poetry.