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.

Saying “The S Word” at Cornell

The uncomfortable topic of suicide was the main theme of a four-day-long “Mental Health Weekend” organized by the student mental health advocacy group Cornell Minds Matter. As part of its effort to encourage open discussion about suicide and to destigmatize mental disorders, the group hosted a screening for the Ithaca community Sunday evening of The S Word, a new award-winning documentary by director Lisa Klein. The event was sponsored by The Sophie Fund.

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Reba McCutcheon, Cornell University associate dean of students; Garra Lloyd-Lester, director, New York State Suicide Prevention Community Initiatives; Lisa Klein, director of The S Word; Kelechi Ubozoh, mental health activist; and Cooper Walter, president of Cornell Minds Matter

The film follows the remarkable journey of suicide attempt survivor Dese’Rae L. Stage as she “documents the stories of courage, insight, and humor of fellow survivors.” Klein was on hand to personally present the film on the Cornell University campus, and, along with one of those survivors, Kelechi Ubozoh, took part in a panel discussion immediately following the screening. They were joined by Garra Lloyd-Lester, director of the New York State Suicide Prevention Community Initiatives.

Klein is a survivor of both her father’s and brother’s suicides. She has struggled with the “whys” for years, along with the guilt, shame, and confusion that lingers in suicide’s wake. She made The S Word to spur more open conversations about suicide.

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Watching The S Word at the Biotechnology Building conference room Sunday evening

“Tragically, 1,100 college students die each year by suicide, making suicide one of the leading causes of death among college students and young people generally,” said Cornell Minds Matter President Cooper Walter. “We hosted The S Word to increase the awareness and understanding of suicide. By expanding the conversation, we hope to contribute to the growing Zero Suicide initiative in Tompkins County.”

Other Mental Health Weekend events included a Speak Your Mind student panel in partnership with Active Minds at Ithaca College, where students could share their personal stories about suicide. On Saturday evening, the Suicide Prevention & Crisis Service of Ithaca hosted Dancing for Life, its 6th annual fundraiser for the local crisisline that provides 24/7 support for people in crisis.

The Sophie Fund is a nonprofit organization advocating for improved mental health policies and practices in Tompkins County. It was established by the family of Sophie Hack MacLeod, a Cornell senior who took her own life in Ithaca in March 2016 while on a health leave of absence.

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Sophie Jones, a Cornell University student and volunteer with The Sophie Fund, at The S Word screening

(Photography by Sarah Horbacewicz/The Sophie Fund)

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Click here to read the Cornell Daily Sun‘s story on the screening of The S Word

[If you or someone you know feels the need to speak with a mental health professional, you can contact the Crisisline (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) at 1-800-273-8255 or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.]

 

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

The Great Ithaca Cupcake Bake Off

Warm up your ovens! The 2nd Annual Ithaca Cupcake Baking Contest will be held in the Commons on Saturday October 14.

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Contestants of all ages are invited to enter their tasty masterpieces, which will be eligible for more than $500 in prizes. The contest is open to amateur bakers only.

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 2nd Annual Ithaca Cupcake Baking Contest is sponsored by the GreenStar Natural Foods Market, Alternatives Federal Credit Union, and La Tourelle Hotel, Bistro and Spa. It is also supported by Waffle Frolic, Active Minds of Ithaca College, and Alpha Phi Omega, Phi Sigma Pi and Cornell Minds Matter of Cornell University.

Sophie’s own longstanding passion for baking and cupcakes inspired the launch of the contest. 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, entrants are asked to bring their submissions to the Bernie Milton Pavilion in the Ithaca Commons from 10–11:30 a.m. on Saturday October 14. The winners will be announced and prizes awarded at a ceremony in the Pavilion later the same day at 3 p.m.

Last year, 57 contestants participated in the bake off, with Monica Lee Cotto taking home the top prize with a pumpkin cheesecake cupcake, set in a chocolate cage and topped with a confectionery yellow and coral rose and a butterfly crisp. The Best Youth Award went to 9-year-old Natalie McCaskill-Myers, who submitted a batch of lemon cherry cupcakes laced with lavender.

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.

In conjunction with the contest, The Sophie Fund is organizing a fundraising campaign, with monies donated to suicide prevention causes in Ithaca and Tompkins County.

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