Albany Honors The Sophie Fund with Mental Health Advocacy Award

The New York State Office of Mental Health on Thursday presented The Sophie Fund with an Excellence in Suicide Prevention award for its mental health advocacy work in Tompkins County at the state’s 2018 Suicide Prevention Conference held in Albany.

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The Sophie Fund and its founders, Scott MacLeod and Susan Hack, received the state’s Journey of Healing Award for “exemplary advocacy by a Suicide Attempt or Suicide Loss Survivor.”

MacLeod and Hack established The Sophie Fund to support mental health initiatives aiding young people after the 2016 death by suicide of their 23-year-old daughter, Sophie Hack MacLeod, a Cornell University student.

“The Sophie Fund is a beautiful example of how a tragic loss can transform a community,” said New York State Office of Mental Health Commissioner Dr. Ann Marie T. Sullivan.

“Scott and Susan took their painful loss and channeled it into a passion to save lives in Tompkins County. We thank Scott, Susan and everyone involved in The Sophie Fund for their hard work and commitment to suicide prevention.”

Said Lee-Ellen Marvin, executive director of Ithaca’s Suicide Prevention & Crisis Service (SPCS): “Scott and Susan have transformed their grief in just two years into a powerful force of influence for suicide prevention in Tompkins County.”

SPCS, the Tompkins County Mental Health Department, and Tompkins County Legislator Shawna Black nominated The Sophie Fund for a 2018 Excellence in Suicide Prevention award. State officials cited The Sophie Fund’s “tenacity” in securing the adoption of The Watershed Declaration in 2017, which called for intensified suicide prevention efforts in the county, and in advocating for the Zero Suicide Model to be adopted by local healthcare providers.

The Sophie Fund also has sponsored student mental health programming at Cornell University and Ithaca College; mental health first aid training; a series of bookstore readings by authors of books on mental health; and artists who address mental health and suicide themes. It is working on an initiative to support college students taking a health leave of absence. The Sophie Fund also sponsors the annual Ithaca Cupcake Baking Contest to raise mental health awareness and raise monies for local mental health nonprofits.

MacLeod and Hack thanked the Office of Mental Health and the Tompkins County nominators for Thursday’s recognition.

“In the loss of our precious Sophie in 2016, we witnessed the profound depths of mental illness and the immense tragedy of suicide,” they said in a statement released by the Office of Mental Health. “In establishing The Sophie Fund in her memory, we resolved to do everything possible to support young people battling mental disorders. Suicide is preventable, and we also resolved to do everything we could so that we do not lose one more person, young or old, to suicide in Sophie’s adopted Ithaca–Tompkins County community.”

MacLeod and Hack also paid thanks to “the countless people who have made The Sophie Fund’s work a reality”—supporters and partners in Tompkins County, friends, family, and others in the greater Ithaca area and beyond, and the New York Suicide Prevention Office.

Sophie was born in Johannesburg and spent her childhood living in South Africa, then France, and eventually Egypt. But she adopted Ithaca as her hometown, spending five summers in the violin program of the Suzuki Institutes at Ithaca College and then enrolling at Cornell in 2010. At the time of her death, she was on a health leave of absence from Cornell and working in Ithaca’s vibrant culinary scene.

Photo caption: Sigrid Pechenik, associate director, New York State Suicide Prevention Office; Susan Hack, co-founder, The Sophie Fund; Jay Carruthers, director, New York State Suicide Prevention Office; and Garra Lloyd-Lester, director, New York State Suicide Prevention Community Initiatives

We’re Back! Ithaca’s 3rd Annual Cupcake Contest

Love to bake? Get out the mixer, put on your oven mitts, and make a batch of your favorite cupcakes for the 3rd Annual Ithaca Cupcake Baking Contest in the Commons on Saturday October 13.

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Contestants of all ages are invited to enter this year’s competition, who will be eligible for dozens of prizes including a Grand Prize valued at $250. The contest is open to amateur bakers only.

Attention Teens and Pre-Teens: A $100 gift certificate redeemable at dozens of downtown Ithaca shops will be presented with this year’s Special Youth Award!

The contest is organized by The Sophie Fund, which was established in 2016 in memory of Cornell University art student Sophie Hack MacLeod to support mental health initiatives aiding young people.

The 3rd Annual Ithaca Cupcake Baking Contest is sponsored by the GreenStar Natural Foods Market, Alternatives Federal Credit Union, and La Tourelle Hotel, Bistro and Spa.

Sophie’s passion for baking cupcakes inspired the launch of the contest in 2016. At the time of her death by suicide at age 23, while on a medical leave of absence from Cornell, Sophie was active in Ithaca’s vibrant culinary scene. According to her family, she hoped to open her own bakery after completing her Cornell degree.

To enter the cupcake contest, contestants are asked to bring their submissions to the Bernie Milton Pavilion in the Ithaca Commons from 10–11:30 a.m. on Saturday October 13. The winners will be announced and prizes awarded at a ceremony in the Pavilion later the same day at 3 p.m.

In conjunction with the contest, The Sophie Fund is again organizing a “Cupcake Button” fundraising campaign, with monies donated this year to the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County.

Click here for all the information on contest procedures and rules, and to download a registration form.

Time for a Mental Health Task Force at Cornell

We have written a letter to President Martha E. Pollack stating that the recent review of Cornell University’s mental health practices by The Jed Foundation is “plainly insufficient” and calling on her to appoint an external-led task force to perform an “independent, transparent, and robust review.”

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Statue of Andrew Dickson White, Cornell’s first president, in the Arts Quad

Our daughter, Sophie Hack MacLeod ’14, died by suicide at age 23 in Ithaca while on a Health Leave of Absence from Cornell, where she was enrolled in the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning. In setting up The Sophie Fund in her memory to advocate for mental health initiatives aiding young people in the greater Ithaca community, we became very concerned about the mental health policies, programs, and practices for supporting Cornell students.

We initially wrote to President Pollack on April 19, 2017, just after she assumed office as Cornell’s 14th president, detailing our concerns about “systemic failure” in Cornell’s institutional handling of mental health matters, and called on her to establish an independent task force to report on Cornell’s mental health policies, practices, and programs and to make recommendations on needed improvements.

In a January 11, 2018 email to us, President Pollack declined our request. She cited an “external assessment” conducted by The JED Foundation, JED’s on-site visit to the Cornell campus in the summer of 2017, and Cornell’s “ongoing engagement with the foundation to ensure we are providing holistic support.” She also cited the JED review in subsequent remarks to Cornell’s Graduate and Professional Student Assembly (GPSA) and the Cornell Daily Sun.

In a letter last month, dated August 23, we informed President Pollack that we have examined what Cornell has made public about JED’s “external assessment” and concluded that it is plainly insufficient. It is not the independent, transparent, and robust review that we sought and that we believe Cornell’s students deserve. And it does not adequately address many of the concerns we raised in our original 2017 letter—about practical issues such as campus and off-campus mental health services and the high incidence of sexual assault and hazing misconduct, as well as policy concerns such as a defensive mindset that appears to prioritize Cornell’s public image over the welfare of students struggling with mental disorders.

We pointed out that, despite her promise to release the JED report, to date Cornell has chosen to publish—on the Cornell Health website—only two documents related to the review.

A glaring and troubling omission in the two posted documents is any reference in findings or recommendations regarding the capacity of the Counseling and Psychological Services staff to meet the demands of students for services. Another omission is any reference to the capacity of community mental health providers to address the needs of Cornell students referred to those off-campus services by CAPS. The documents report no findings and make no recommendations in areas such as academic workloads and faculty and academic staff handling of students in distress.

We explained to President Pollack that it does not appear that the JED review included a comprehensive assessment of Cornell’s suicide prevention policies and practices. However, we commended Cornell Health Executive Director Kent Bullis for recently announcing provisional support for the Zero Suicide Model initiative within the framework of the Tompkins County Suicide Prevention Coalition.

As we wrote in our letter to President Pollack, we do not believe that the JED review can be considered an independent external assessment because institutions of higher education pay The JED Foundation a $22,000 fee to become what JED calls “partners” in the JED Campus program. Furthermore, the director of Cornell’s Counseling and Psychological Services has a longstanding professional relationship with JED and is a member of its Advisory Board. The JED External Contributor who conducted JED’s on-site visit to the Cornell campus is a professional colleague of the CAPS director.

Neither of the two posted documents contain any JED findings; rather, in the first document JED merely makes brief comments on Cornell’s self-reported survey responses, and in the second document JED makes recommendations without reference to any findings they are presumably based on.

We understand that the review entailed only one on-site campus visit by a JED External Contributor, and the visit lasted merely three hours. We also understand that the External Contributor’s visit did not include meetings with any of the community providers who receive many CAPS referrals.

According to the JED Campus program, its partnerships with participating colleges’ mental health programs include the following five elements, which Cornell has not released: a Strategic Plan “complete with detailed objectives and action steps for implementation”; a Fourth-Year Post-Assessment “evaluating systems change”; a Healthy Minds Study, which JED describes as “an in-depth assessment of students’ attitudes, behaviors and awareness of mental health issues”; a Feedback Report on the JED Campus and Healthy Minds Study findings; and a Summary Report containing data analysis for the JED Campus assessment and the Healthy Minds Study. JED declined to release its Cornell report to us, citing a confidentiality agreement with Cornell.

We believe that the JED review is clearly inadequate for a comprehensive assessment of the serious mental health challenges faced by a large university campus today, especially one located in a small upstate community. As we reminded President Pollack, the 2017 Cornell PULSE Survey of 5,001 undergraduates reported that 71.6 percent of respondents often or very often felt “overwhelmed,” and 42.9 percent said that they had been unable to function academically for at least a week on one or more occasions due to depression, stress, or anxiety. Nearly 10 percent of respondents reported being unable to function during a week-long period on five or more occasions. Nine percent of the respondents—about 450 students—reported “having seriously considered suicide at least once during the last year,” and about 85 students reported having actually attempted suicide at least once in the last year.

We have often heard the view that Cornell’s mental health policies are better than those of many universities, and that Cornell’s mental health statistics are no worse. We find such a complacent view to be surprising and disappointing, especially coming from a world-renowned research institution. In fact, these escalating mental health challenges require a relentless approach in response from everyone in a position to act. We truly hope that President Pollack—and Cornell—will lead the way.

—By Scott MacLeod and Susan Hack

Scott MacLeod and Susan Hack are the co-founders of The Sophie Fund, a nonprofit organization advocating mental health initiatives aiding young people in the greater Ithaca community. The organization is named in memory of their daughter Sophie Hack MacLeod, a Cornell fine arts student who took her own life in Ithaca in 2016.

UPDATE 9/7/18:

Lee Swain, director of JED Campus, sent the following comment to The Sophie Fund:

I do see one inaccuracy I’d like to correct related to this paragraph:

“According to the JED Campus program, its partnerships with participating colleges’ mental health programs include the following five elements, which Cornell has not released: a Strategic Plan “complete with detailed objectives and action steps for implementation”; a Fourth-Year Post-Assessment “evaluating systems change”; a Healthy Minds Study, which JED describes as “an in-depth assessment of students’ attitudes, behaviors and awareness of mental health issues”; a Feedback Report on the JED Campus and Healthy Minds Study findings; and a Summary Report containing data analysis for the JED Campus assessment and the Healthy Minds Study. JED declined to release its Cornell report to us, citing a confidentiality agreement with Cornell.”

The elements you describe are part of our current program. I believe Erica explained to you how the program has changed. When Cornell joined, the program was designed slightly differently than is currently described on our website. For instance, we did not have a partnership with or include the Healthy Minds Study at that time. So, Cornell did not participate in that data collection. Also, Cornell is not completely through the four year program yet, which is why they have not posted or shared the “fourth year post assessment” as it has not yet been completed. It should also be noted that because Cornell joined an earlier version of the program than what is described on the website, they also only paid $1,950, the cost of the program at that time, not the $22,000 that schools currently pay which includes the Healthy Minds Study, a day long visit (sometimes a bit more) and policy and protocol review (both at the beginning of the program and throughout as policies are changed/adapted). We also collect more data on counseling center utilization, crisis incidents, and staffing patterns in the current version of the program than in the original version.

Donate to The Sophie Fund: Our 2018 Appeal

Please consider making a donation today to support The Sophie Fund’s work on mental health initiatives aiding young people. Sophie would have turned 26 this week, and we are marking the anniversary to launch our 2018 fundraising campaign.

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Special goals for the coming year include publishing a Guidebook to College Student Mental Health, written by and for students; supporting mental health initiatives for secondary school students; fighting sexual violence; and expanding our website and social media content.

We are proud to report significant progress in our projects over the past year to benefit mental health in the Ithaca community and on the Cornell University and Ithaca College campuses. A few examples:

  • Zero Suicide Model: Less than a year after The Sophie Fund launched its Zero Suicide initiative, the Tompkins County Suicide Prevention Coalition and the Tompkins County Legislature adopted the Zero Suicide Model for local healthcare. Seven leading healthcare providers also stepped up to become Zero Suicide Champions, including Tompkins County Mental Health Services, Cayuga Medical Center, Family & Children’s Service of Ithaca, and Cornell Health. New York State officials commended The Sophie Fund’s “leadership and commitment” in suicide prevention efforts.
  • Mental Health First Aid: We sponsored training conducted by the Mental Health Association for managers, chefs, servers, bartenders, baristas, and others in Ithaca’s high-stress hospitality sector. One of the trainees emailed us afterwards: “Thank you from the bottom of my heart for helping me to walk out of the training today with a tool belt filled with the ability to help recognize and provide aid to mental health issues of all sorts!”
  • Mental Health Weekend” at Cornell University: We collaborated with the student advocacy organization Cornell Minds Matter to fight stigma around mental health, and sponsored a screening of The S Word, a documentary film about suicide, for the local and campus communities. “We are deeply grateful and humbled by your support,” wrote CMM President Cooper Walter.
  • College Student Leave of Absence: The Sophie Fund teamed up with Family & Children’s Service to explore a project to support local college students considering or taking a leave of absence due to mental health struggles.

To Make a Donation:

Click Here for The Sophie Fund Donation Page

For more information on The Sophie Fund’s work, please visit:

http://www.thesophiefund.org

Thank You!

Grasping the Profound Pain of Suicide

Describing depression to those who haven’t experienced it can be clumsy. The analogy I’ve found that best embodies my experience is “cloudy days.” The sun is still there but I’m unable to access that light. Instead, I’m cold and muted. Sometimes it’s cloudy for so long it’s hard to remember what the sun looks like. Sometimes it’s hard to believe the sun is there at all.

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A sculpture from “Schism” representing Sophie Hack MacLeod

As someone who has battled depression for years and intimately understands the pain surrounding suicide and mental illness, I want my art to make a statement about this epidemic. Art is visceral and can describe an effect or experience in deeply powerful ways. This, and my drive to grow as an artist, pushed me to complete a minor in fine arts as an undergraduate at Cornell University.

My installation, “Schism,” is featured in Still I Rise, an exhibition curated by Laura Rowley with the work of 12 artists on view at the Tompkins County Public Library from July through September. “Schism” deals with the pain of losing loved ones to suicide, commenting on the profound hole the deaths leave behind. With rising mental health concerns among my generation, the ability to outwardly mourn for people who die by suicide is incredibly important along the path to healing.

Yes, suicide is a sensitive topic. No, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it. Treating suicide as a taboo topic not only stunts the healing process for suicide loss survivors, but teaches those plagued with suicidal thoughts that it’s something to be ashamed of, a weakness, which can deter them from seeking support. Open and empathetic conversation is critical to combat such tragedy.

“Schism” contains three sculptures. Each is a life-size, wooden silhouette of a suicide victim that is painted black with the best runner up to Vantablack commercially available, Black 2.0. It’s a special paint that is meant to absorb a higher percentage of light, creating the visual effect of “a schism in space.” This is meant to convey the loss felt when someone is a victim to suicide, to reveal the hole that remains in their physical shape in space they inhabited in life.

This installation is designed to represent loss of the individual, as each sculpture is a personalized and unique silhouette. Further, it is intrinsically connected to Ithaca as the individuals represented were all affiliated with the area: Sophie Hack MacLeod, 23, a Cornell fine arts major; Jason J. Seymour, 40, a Cornell systems analyst; and Alexander Joseph Reposh, 25, an Ithaca filmmaker and musician.

When someone is having suicidal thoughts, it’s far too easy to think, “I don’t matter, no one will even miss me, what’s the point? It’s suffocating.” I hope that “Schism” can be a reminder to those experiencing suicidal thoughts that your life is not trivial but is something to be cherished. “Schism” is also a symbol for those mourning a loved one and the horrific loss they must cope with.

—By Brianna Evans

briannaBrianna Evans is a 2018 graduate of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University. “Schism” was created as an independent study project supervised by Professor Roberto Bertoia of the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning. She wishes to thank The Sophie Fund, and the families of Sophie Hack MacLeod, Jason J. Seymour, and Alexander Joseph Reposh, for their support.