A Film by Carlos Hernandez Rivera

Carlos Hernandez Rivera looks into the camera with all the beautiful innocence of a young man who loves science and Boy Scouts. But then his words describe two deaths—and his own determination to prevent such tragedies in the future. “I’m Carlos, and I was affected by suicide,” he says. “Two people that were close to me died within a short span of time.”

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Screenshot from The Damaging and the Uniting

So begins The Damaging and the Uniting, a short film produced, written, and directed by Hernandez Rivera, 14, to be screened at Cinemopolis June 6, about his experience of losing two friends to suicide during the current school year—Elliott Green, 16, a close buddy since Lansing Middle School, and Ryan Sibley, 14, a ninth-grade classmate this year at P-Tech Academy.

“This movie is personal,” Hernandez Rivera said before a private screening last week at P-Tech, a magnet high school/early college program in computer science and advanced manufacturing at TST BOCES. “I wanted to help, I wanted to help as many people as I can. I am motivated to help other people so they don’t go through tough times and so that suicide is not a problem anymore.”

The idea for the film came as Hernandez Rivera was developing a freshman-year capstone project. After Elliott’s death in March, Hernandez consulted with his teacher, Sunshine Miller, and decided to create a video that could raise awareness about mental health and promote suicide prevention. Then in April, as Hernandez Rivera was story boarding the film, came the terrible news that Ryan, his P-Tech science lab partner, had taken his own life.

Hernandez Rivera dedicates the film to Elliott and Ryan. He and Elliott had been pals for years. One of Hernandez’s fondest memories is of the two-day, 100-mile biking trip the duo made with another friend around Cayuga Lake last summer. They shared a passion for Boy Scouts—Elliott’s father is a scoutmaster—but were not above messing around, like the time they tried to sink each other’s canoes in a water-gun fight.

Hernandez Rivera remembers Ryan as an easy-going guy who was fun to hang around with. In the film, Hernandez Rivera includes a still image of a smiling Ryan at school wearing a “Family Guy” T-shirt. Their tight-knit class of 19 students had just taken a field trip to the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University. “He seemed happy on that trip,” Hernandez recalled. Ryan was an accomplished wrestler, who had recently become a Seaman recruit in the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps.

Hernandez Rivera interviews two women to further show the human face of suicide and loss—Beth Dryer, who lost a younger brother, Brian, 25; and Melissa Addy, whose son Max died by suicide at 22. “It refocused my priorities in life, time was short,” recalled Dryer, adding, after an emotional pause, “This is tough, so clearly it still has a major impact on my life.” When Hernandez Rivera asked Addy about “the one thing” she misses about her son, she touchingly replied, “I miss everything.”

Hernandez Rivera described the blow he felt after his mother told him that Elliott had passed away. “I was in a good rhythm, and then Elliott dies,” he said. “I started falling back in school, I wasn’t doing as well. Sometimes I would get lost. I would walk into a room and say, ‘Whoa, how did I get here?’ I would blank out sometimes.”

“Then I’d be like, ‘I’m here. I’m here. I got this,’” he added. “Self-motivation has got me through it. I changed when Elliot passed away. I felt like I had to do more things, I had to talk to people. To communicate with people, it is a good skill to have.”

Hernandez Rivera explained that making the film has helped in his own struggle with grief. “It has given me faith in myself, that even though there are obstacles that are huge, that we will face traumatic things in our lives, we can get back up, and keep pushing on,” he said.

Suicide is an extremely delicate and even taboo topic for schools, but Miller threw her full support behind the project. “Carlos has given me courage,” she explained. “It would have been easy to just say, ‘No, we’re not doing this.’ Adults make all the decisions, which are good in lot of ways, but we’re too quick to say, ‘Lets not talk about this.’ This has changed me. I hope Carlos’s courage can light the way for real change in our schools surrounding how we deal with suicide.”

“This is why I went into education,” said Barry Derfel, TST BOCES assistant superintendent, speaking to Hernandez Rivera at the private screening at P-Tech last week. “I am really proud of the work that you have done. This is what school should be. At P-Tech, we collaborate with families, business, and community, to create fully accessible, meaningful, and relevant curricula. I don’t think here is anything more meaningful and relevant than this, that’s culturally responsive and sustaining.”

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Carlos Hernandez Rivera

Hernandez Rivera consulted Lee-Ellen Marvin of Ithaca’s Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service about conducting the interviews used in the film. He also had the help of Ithaca filmmaker Redouane Elghazi in the filming and editing. He won the support of the P-Tech administration not only to tackle suicide in a class project—and one involving the school itself—but to go forward with a public screening at Cinemopolis, Ithaca’s first-run movie theater specializing in independent, foreign, and locally produced films.

Hernandez Rivera’s dreams “are all over the place”— he thinks about becoming a global-warming scientist, working for NASA, or Space X, and even Tesla. For now, though, he is hoping that his film will help spread awareness about mental health.

“My goal is so that this doesn’t become an issue anymore, that suicide is a thing of the past,” he said. “We should realize that not everyone is as happy as they seem. Some people do need talking to, even if they look happy. If we’re having a bad day and we are mean to other people, just be nice.”

—By Scott MacLeod

Scott MacLeod is a co-founder of The Sophie Fund

The Damaging and the Uniting will be screened for the public June 6 from 5-6 p.m. and 6-7 p.m. @Cinempolis, 120 East Green Street, Ithaca, NY. 14850. Admission is free of charge.

The Damaging and The Uniting

 

 

Coping After a Suicide Death

A 2018 study found that on average 135 people are exposed to and may be affected by a person’s suicide death. This means that 5.5 million Americans are hit by a suicide loss every year. These findings highlight the importance of broader “postvention”— support for people who may be seriously impacted by grief, guilt, shame, isolation, depression, suicidal thoughts, or other responses to a suicide death.

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Volunteers from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention provides an online library of resources for coping with suicide loss.

A few examples:

Children, Teens, and Suicide Loss

After a Suicide: A Toolkit for Schools

Postvention: A Guide for Response to Suicide on College Campuses

Personal Support for Survivors of Suicide Loss

Taking Care of Yourself

In addition, Ithaca’s Suicide Prevention & Crisis Service offers postvention services—click here for more information.

From SPCS’s website:

Trauma is an emotional response to challenging and unexpected events that can cause a great deal of stress, upset everyday routine, and interfere with your ability to function.

After-Trauma Services can help you cope with the stress of these sudden life events.

If you are a resident of Tompkins County in New York State, learn more about services here, or just call at 607-272-1505 to schedule.

Up to 8 free counseling sessions. Client and therapist create an intention for maximizing time together. Included are basic tools for ‘getting grounded’; education on what trauma is and it’s impact on human beings; development of healing plans; support and assistance in referral process.

Support Group for people coping with the loss of a loved one who died by suicide. Meetings are the first and third Tuesday of every month at 6:30pm. Please call 607-272-1505 to express interest in joining this group.

First Monday Group. On the first Monday of each month, at noon, colleagues in the field of mental health meet in the library of SPCS to learn from each other. Readings in between meetings inform the discussion.

Family sessions to process, collectively, traumas that have impacted everyone.

Facilitated workplace group discussions following a tragedy.

For more information or schedule an appointment with Sheila McCue, the director of After-Trauma Services here at SPCS, please email postvention@ithacacrisis.org or call 607-272-1505

To learn more about how Tompkins County is working to prevent suicide, click here.

Thank You, Cornell Student Mental Health Champions

The Sophie Fund organizes an annual “Cupcake Button Campaign” each fall to support local mental health organizations. College students fan out across campus and the wider community soliciting donations and awarding generous souls with buttons depicting a colorful cupcake. The campaign is a run-up to the annual Ithaca Cupcake Baking Contest, held in the Commons in mid-October.

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“Cupcake a Cornellian”

Students from Cornell University outdid themselves this year: they collected some 300 donations totaling $1,367.50, smashing last year’s record of $829.50 that went to the Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service.

The 2018 goal was to raise monies for the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County, a nonprofit advocacy and service organization that runs critical training and education programs as well as community social events. The Sophie Fund will present the Cupcake Button Campaign donations to the Mental Health Association at a ceremony in January.

The student groups behind this year’s fundraising included Cornell Minds Matter (CMM), Alpha Phi Omega Gamma Chapter (APO), Phi Sigma Pi honor fraternity, PATCH (Pre-Professional Association Towards Careers in Health), and the Mortar Board Der Hexenkreis Senior Honor Society.

A highlight of the campaign: “Cupcake a Cornellian,” an event held in Cornell’s Arts Quad on October 12 in which students made donations in exchange for the opportunity to mash a gooey cupcake (or just a heaping plate of whipped cream) into the face of a student leader.

APO President Winnie Ho praised the Cornell organizations and spoke about how the campaign raised awareness as well as money:

“Every penny of our fundraising total this year was due to the hard work of volunteers who engaged students and community members at Ho Plaza, the Arts Quad, and at the Collegetown GreenStar Natural Foods location. Beyond the impressive totals, the conversations that were fostered continue to be the most valuable experience of each year’s fundraising.

“Donors leave more than a monetary contribution—oftentimes, they leave us with their thoughts, experiences, and hopes for what mental health will look like in our society. Everyone from fellow students who ask how to get involved, to former and current practitioners who share both grim and hopeful stories in the workplace, have stopped and allowed for genuine interactions that are crucial in our fight to de-stigmatize conversations around mental health. While there are many battles left to have around mental health, there are so many people committed to this fight.”

One of the tactics in the fight, noted Chelsea Kiely, CMM vice president for events and co-chair of Cornell’s 2018 Mental Health Awareness Week, is getting mental health out in the open.

“The turnout for ‘Cupcake a Cornellian’ was incredible, and was so much fun all around,” she said, adding: “I especially enjoyed cupcaking Matt Jirsa, the co-president of Cornell Minds Matter.”

This Thanksgiving, The Sophie Fund thanks our community’s student mental health champions.

 

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Winnie Ho, cupcaked

 

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Matt Jirsa, after a colorful cupcaking

 

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Winnie Ho and Matt Jirsa, survivors of “Cupcake a Cornellian”

 

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Photos courtesy of Winnie Ho and Matt Jirsa

Send Silence Packing @ Ithaca College

Backpacks were scattered all over Ithaca College’s Emerson Suites on Monday. No, this high-traffic space wasn’t a convenient dumping ground for students taking mid-terms or heading to the cafeteria for a meal. The backpacks were a powerful exhibition called “Send Silence Packing,” a suicide prevention initiative traveling to American college campuses. The 1,100 backpacks represent the average number of college students who die by suicide every year.

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“Send Silence Packing” is a project of Active Minds, a national organization promoting student mental health through branch chapters at colleges around the county. Ithaca College’s chapter, led by co-presidents Zoe Howland and Mikaela Vojnik, hosted Monday’s exhibition in Emerson Suites.

The display is immersive and thought provoking. Each backpack includes a personal story or a quote from someone who has lost a loved to suicide. “I feel like the visual display really invokes a certain feeling that just talking about it doesn’t necessarily do,” Howland said.

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“There were a lot of people who came through on the way to their classes and were really intrigued with all the stories that were on the backpacks,” said Active Minds member Kristin Butler. She said that the event was an opportunity for “continuing the conversation on campus, which is great.”

Junior anthropology major Paige Twinning commented: “Powerful and important. The visual representation and personal profiles of individuals really made an impact.”

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“Send Silence Packing,” which has visited almost 200 campuses and reached nearly a million people, is intended to generate discussions about suicide and provide information about suicide prevention resources.

Ithaca College’s day-long event, sponsored in part by The Sophie Fund, began at 7:30 a.m. and included an evening Speak Your Mind panel discussion on suicide prevention moderated by Active Minds member Kelly Madden. Participating in the panel were representatives from key local mental health organizations, including the Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service, Mental Health Association in Tompkins County, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Finger Lakes, and the Advocacy Center. Said Kaylee McGillicuddy, a sophomore psychology major: “It’s just nice to know there are people who care.”

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Based on surveys, the Active Minds national organization reports that most people attending the “Send Silence Packing” installation are left wanting to know more about mental health, and 95 percent of attendees rate the experience as powerful.

Active Minds has chapters or other operations on more than 600 college campuses across the country. In June, a study of Active Minds published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry reported that student peer organizations’ activities can improve college student mental health attitudes and perceived knowledge and significantly increase helping behaviors.

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The Fall 2015 National College Health Assessment, in a survey of 19,861 students at more than 40 American schools, reported that 35.3 percent “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function.”

According to the 2017 annual report of the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, data collected from 147 college counseling centers showed that 34.2 percent of 161,014 college students seeking counseling in the 2016–17 academic year had “seriously considered attempting suicide.” The rate increased for the seventh year in a row, up from 24 percent in the 2010-11 academic year. The data also showed that 10 percent of the students seeking counseling had actually made a suicide attempt.

—By Margaret McKinnis

Margaret McKinnis, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a junior at Ithaca College majoring in Writing and minoring in English and Honors. She is a nonfiction editor at Stillwater, a student literary magazine, and an assistant director of the New Voices Literary Festival.

[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.]

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