Stephanie Nevels, a Licensed Master Social Worker, joined the clinical team of Ithaca College’s Center for Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) last January.
After stints in outpatient community mental health in Philadelphia and Miami, Nevels moved to Ithaca in 2003, initially to work with Racker (formerly called Franziska Racker Centers), a community organization supporting people with disabilities. She served as a facilitator with caseworkers and foster children. The job involved collaborations with many local agencies, including the Tompkins County Department for Social Services and the Ithaca City School District. She made time to moderate community discussions on race and racism, at Ithaca’s Multicultural Resource Center as well as at Ithaca College, where, she says, “I found out that Ithaca College students are awesome.”
Currently, Nevels is CAPS’s only counselor of color. She specializes in diversity and inclusion and seeks ways to support more students of all backgrounds. One of the questions she asks herself: “How do you interface with white counselors so that they’re better prepared to serve students of color?”
Nevels earned a BA in Psychology from Duke University and a Master’s in Social Work from Boston College. Many therapists of color like Nevels receive training to serve specifically black and brown people, to provide comfort and a greater sense of understanding of the experiences of people of color. For example, Nevels explained, with her experience she can identify when a child is misdiagnosed with ADHD when they’re actually suffering from trauma.
Accessibility is a major issue in mental health for people of color. Affordable resources are often not available in neighborhoods inhabited by people of color. Even if such residents possess health insurance, their access to therapists may be hampered by a need to travel long distances. Such obstacles prevent many black and brown people from learning to prioritize their mental health; and when they enroll in schools like Ithaca College, they may fail to appreciate the resources available on campus.
There are other reasons and circumstances that explain why people of color do not focus on mental health. It is difficult to find a counselor of color. Nevels notes that 90 percent of therapists in the United States are white. Black and brown people are taught to push through life because daily struggles are expected and normalized. Then there is the stigma that portrays mental illness as shameful or useless.
It can be challenging for some white therapists to serve people of color, especially when conversations of race are brought up. “You don’t want to go to somebody who’s supposed to be there to help you and still protecting whiteness,” said Nevels. “There’s always that ‘feeling out’ that you have to do.”
As well as serving clients on a daily schedule, Nevels focuses on how communities of color interact with mental health by working with various students and groups at Ithaca College. She is the coordinator of BEING: Processing Group for ALANA Students, a campus counseling group designed to create a safe space for students who identify as African American, Latinx, Asian, Native American, or any combination of these, to process and express thoughts on experiences of being a person of color at a predominantly white institution.
Providing mental health counseling to college students is a stressful experience iself. How does Nevels handle it?
“In my free time I most enjoy singing along to Broadway or Disney soundtracks, and making my own ice creams—often simultaneously,” she writes on her Ithaca College webpage. “Never underestimate the importance of work/life balance!”
—By Chanelle Ferguson
Chanelle Ferguson, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a sophomore at Ithaca College 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.
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 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.”
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 Stillwater, a student-run literary magazine. She also enjoys creating mixed media image-text work and writing poetry.
The Sophie Fund this week handed over a $1,367.50 check from its 2018 “Cupcake Button Fundraising Campaign” to the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County. Cornell University students collected the monies in conjunction with the 3rd Annual Ithaca Cupcake Baking Contest organized by The Sophie Fund.
“We are so grateful to the Sophie Fund for their generous support of our mission,” said Mental Health Association Executive Director Josephine Gibson. “We are invigorated to see the interest from Cornell students and our community in mental health education. Education is essential to combat the stigma surrounding mental health that creates a barrier to treatment and prevents people from seeking help before they reach a crisis.”
Scott MacLeod, a co-founder of The Sophie Fund, credited student organizations from Cornell University for the success of the 2018 campaign. “We are grateful for the chance to collaborate with Cornell students to raise awareness about mental health and also to raise funds for mental health programs,” MacLeod said. “Cornell student organizations poured their heart and soul into this cause. The Sophie Fund sincerely thanks them for their efforts. The Sophie Fund is proud to contribute the funds raised in our 2018 campaign to the Mental Health Association, which plays such a vital role in mental health training and education in our community.”
Student groups participating in the cupcake button campaign were Alpha Phi Omega Gamma Chapter, Phi Sigma Pi honor fraternity, Cornell Minds Matter, PATCH (Pre-Professional Association Towards Careers in Health), and the Mortar Board Der Hexenkreis senior honor society.
“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,” said Winnie Ho, outgoing president of Alpha Phi Omega. “Beyond the impressive totals, the conversations that were fostered continue to be the most valuable experience of each year’s fundraising.”
The Sophie Fund organizes the annual fundraising campaign to support a local mental health nonprofit organization. The Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service was the recipient of monies in the 2017 campaign. Donors receive colorful buttons bearing the image of a cupcake. A highlight of the 2018 campaign: “Cupcake a Cornellian,” 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.
Josephine Gibson, executive director of the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County; Matthew Jirsa, former president of Cornell Minds Matter; and Winnie Ho, former president of Alpha Phi Omega Gamma Chapter
Here are the top winners in the 3rd Annual Ithaca Cupcake Baking Contest organized by The Sophie Fund in the Ithaca Commons on October 13. (More winners will be posted soon!)
Zoe Dubrow (right) won the Grand Prize
Zoe Dubrow’s “Strawberry Surprise Cupcakes” contained a cored whole strawberry filled with salted butterscotch. The concoctions were topped by a brown sugar cream cheese frosting, decorated with a chocolate fan, sliced strawberry, mint leaves, and a mini chocolate strawberry macaron.
$250 gift certificate for GreenStar Natural Foods Market
Jennifer Dobmeier’s “Key Lime Pie Cupcake” is the Second Prize winner in the 3rd Annual Ithaca Cupcake Baking Contest! The Key lime-scented vanilla cake with a lime curd filling was topped with a Key lime buttercream frosting.
La Tourelle Hotel, Bistro, and Spa gift certificate (one night stay, Bistro breakfast, August Moon Spa)
Erin Morris won the Third Prize in the 3rd Annual Ithaca Cupcake Baking Contest with German chocolate cupcakes topped by a swirl of pink icing made from homemade jam using local farmer’s market strawberries.
$50 gift certificate for GreenStar Natural Foods Market
Kyra O’Toole won the Youth Award for 18s & Under. She overcame tough competition with a set of chocolate cheesecake cupcakes, with an Oreo crust, chocolate cream filling, chocolate cream frosting.
$100 gift certificate from the Downtown Ithaca Alliance (redeemable at more than 100 local businesses)
Snapshot of all the Winners
1st Place (Grand Prize)
Alexandra and Taylor Beauvais
Hannah and Cheryl Stephenson
Patti Meyers and Hudson
Sally and Rebecca Brenner
Isabella Jones and Navia Marshall
Cristin McLaughlin and Searra Lindhurst
Sonia and Ella Carr
Matt Jirsa for Cornell Minds Matter