Story House Ithaca: Sharing Stories, Building Community 

Story House Ithaca is built on a simple idea: Communities are healthier and more interesting when people get to know each other better. We think sharing stories can help make that happen.

Story House Ithaca co-directors Lesley Greene and Jonathan Miller with Nia Nunn of the Southside Community Center (L) and Christa Nuñez of The Learning Farm (R)

And not just “once upon a time” types of stories. There are many different ways to communicate experience and ideas—in fiction and nonfiction, poetry and song, journalism and documentary, theater and dance, oral history and spoken word, photography and film, puppetry and mime, graphics and animation, social media, multimedia, and media yet to be invented. We’d love for Story House to be a home for any and all of those forms of storytelling. 

We sometimes talk about Story House as if it’s an actual house. It isn’t, at least not yet. Our main inspirations are physical spaces where people come to gather—notably a wonderful building in the Netherlands called Story House Belvédère. But we don’t have the funds for our own place now, and we think there are advantages to popping up in public or online or in other people’s spaces. Who needs a building when you have the world? 

So what does Story House actually do? Since our first foray into programming in late 2019, we’ve organized an exhibition and event series on migration, a series of readings on exile and the search for home, and a panel on press freedom around the world. We produced a community-sourced video imagining life after the pandemic and a video celebrating the women and girls of a local community organization. We’ve sponsored workshops on cartooning, comedy, and songwriting, and promoted storytelling performances and a comedy show. On several occasions, we’ve collected video for other organizations eager to tell their own stories. Recently, we launched a speaker series we call “Placemakers,” featuring people and groups using art and culture to build community. 

Our most ambitious project to date is “Breaking Our Silence: Storytelling for Mental Health.” This is a series of events beginning April 23 that includes a film screening and Q&A, movement workshops on dealing with anxiety and grief, an open mic story night, storytelling performances at local churches, a panel on writing about mental illness, an advocacy workshop, and a community celebration at Ithaca High School that includes choral music, theater, dance, storytelling, and more. 

READ MORE “Breaking Our Silence”

One advantage to having such a loose definition of “story” is that we have no problem coming up with programming ideas. Lurking on our Google Drive is a spreadsheet with an ever-growing list. Several are for ongoing series, like the open mic Story Night that launches May 3, or a monthly Bar Choir, where friends and strangers can come together to learn and perform a song in three-part harmony, or a Listening Room for group deep dives into great audio, or a regular meet-up for swapping stories through song.

We’re also keen on annual or seasonal events, like a Black film festival that we hope becomes an Ithaca tradition, or events around Mother’s Day, Veteran’s Day, Indigenous People’s Day, or Mental Health Awareness Month. And we’re always game for one-off events (one of our favorites is a wide-open show-and-tell called This Thing I Did).

And we’re not just about events! With or without our own facility, we’d love to become a maker space for storytellers in any medium, where folks can work on projects together, or teach and learn and develop new skills. 

Which leads to another big idea behind Story House. It’s not about us. The Ithaca area is full of amazing groups and talented people. We’re happy to create and present original programming, but we see our greatest value as a catalyst and connector. Everyone has stories to tell, and we’d like to help them tell them. That may mean organizing a workshop or course, or helping with fundraising or planning or publicizing an event. Or it may just mean providing a soapbox and microphone and stepping out of the way. 

Story House Ithaca is a project of the nonprofit Center for Transformative Action. In all our programs and activities, we are committed to creating inclusive spaces that welcome diversity. We strive to foster interactions between people of different cultures, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds, with the goal of working toward shared understanding and a more equitable, anti-racist society.

If you’d like to be involved, or if you have an idea for a program, don’t be a stranger!

By Jonathan Miller and Lesley Greene

Jonathan Miller and Lesley Greene are the co-directors of Story House Ithaca. Miller is a journalist and documentary producer, and a board member of Ithaca City of Asylum. Greene is a playwright and theater producer, and the co-founder and co-organizer of Porchfest.

For more information, go to Story House Ithaca’s website. Send program ideas through the website’s “Pitch Us” form, or email info@storyhouseithaca.org. Follow Story House Ithaca on Facebook and Instagram

Celebrate Mental Health!

More than a dozen Tompkins County nonprofits participated in the Mental Health and Wellness Fair on May 7 at the Bernie Milton Pavilion in the Ithaca Commons. Thanks to the kind and compassionate souls who are working so hard to support mental health in our community! Gratitude to Josephine Gibson and the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County for hosting this opportunity to celebrate Mental Health Awareness Month 2022.

Mental Health Association in Tompkins County

Racker

Racker’s message board

Suicide Prevention & Crisis Service

Family & Children’s Service of Ithaca

Planned Parenthood of Greater New York

Tompkins Families

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Ithaca & Tompkins County

Village at Ithaca

Lakeview Health Services

The Sophie Fund

Southern Tier AIDS Program

2022 “Make Kindness Go Viral!” Contest

Attention all students in Tompkins County! Do you take kindness for granted? What does kindness mean to you? What does kindness look like?

Help make the world a better place—and go for a prize—by entering the “Make Kindness Go Viral!” contest in January! You can create original artwork, or you can write a short essay, that expresses your own ideas or experiences regarding kindness.

According to the competition guidelines, participants in the artwork competition are invited to submit an original poster or social media graphic, created in any art medium, illustrating kindness.

For the essay competition, participants must submit an original essay of 500 words or less about their “next act of kindness.”

The contest is open to all students. Awards will be presented in separate elementary school, middle school, and high school categories.

The deadline for submissions is January 17, and the awards will be announced at the virtual 2022 United in Kindness Symposium on January 27.

Go to The Sophie Fund to download the Registration Form today!

The contest is sponsored by the Tompkins County Bullying Prevention Task Force.

A Cornell Mental Health Resources Guide

When I started my first year at Cornell University, I experienced imposter syndrome and overwhelming feelings of depression and anxiety. I questioned whether I belonged at an Ivy League school and had doubts about whether I could be successful on my own. I began having a negative view about myself and my capabilities, started self-isolating, and worked to attain a level of perfection that isn’t possible in my classes.

Memorial Room, Willard Straight Hall, Cornell University

While I was going through all this, I realized I never heard or had any information about the groups and initiatives on campus that were directed toward addressing student mental health. I believe that I could have benefited from them when I felt so alone.

It is essential that incoming students have this indispensable information if they ever need support or a community to turn to if they are struggling. Turning to someone who understands or even talking to someone while you’re dealing with a hardship makes a big difference. Getting out of your own head gives you perspective about what you’re going through and how you perceive the situation. You are never alone. Your struggles and vulnerabilities do not make you weak. Sharing makes you stronger and more connected with others.

One in an occasional series of articles about student mental health. For more information, go to The Sophie Fund’s Student Mental Health Page

My experience, and then learning about the deaths of Cornell students earlier this year, motivated me to create the Cornell Mental Health Resources Guide to empower incoming and current students to find and ask for emotional support when they need it—whether they’re going through a crisis or need someone to talk to. The transition to college is very difficult. It’s important more than ever, given the Covid-19 pandemic, that new students know that they are supported and that there are communities of students that are here to support them and have their own experiences related to dealing with mental health and negative body image.

Through this guide, I hope to inform students about where they can find support and the kinds of resources and communities that exist on campus to address their personal, mental health, academic, and/or spiritual needs. I want to further the idea that asking for help is a strength and challenge the societal belief that emotions should be pushed aside.

DOWNLOAD: Cornell Mental Health Resources Guide 2021-22

Mental health should be a number one priority. Many students buy into a hustle culture in college that encourages you to struggle and put yourself last, but your wellbeing should reside in the center of everything you do. Taking care of yourself allows you to feel better about yourself, put struggles into perspective and see challenges objectively, be less tired and stressed, focus and perform better in your academics, be a better friend, be present, etc. Only by taking care of yourself can you show up as who you truly are. Investing time in relationships is also important as human connection makes us happier.

Over the summer, I distributed my work to more than 800 organizations, professors, and departments on campus. It was sponsored by student organizations working to address mental health on campus including Cornell Minds Matter, EARS, Reflect at Cornell, and Body Positive Cornell. It was shared with freshmen through Cornell’s new student orientation, the Tatkon Center, Cornell residential housing, Cornell athletics sports teams, and students coming back from health leaves of absence. It has also been shared by some professors in their course syllabi.

In receiving a lot of positive responses from the Cornell community, I’ve been able to see that there are many people who care about student wellbeing at Cornell and want the best experience for every student. Together, we can work to make Cornell an even better campus and environment for students to grow and thrive.

—By Katie Gorton

Katie Gorton is a sophomore at Cornell University hoping to study Communications.

DOWNLOAD: Cornell Mental Health Resources Guide 2021-22

For Mental Health, Ithaca’s MindWell Offers Evidence-Based Care

Mental health services in Tompkins County have been stretched to the limit for years. Demand for crisis support at local mental health clinics, as well as calls to Ithaca’s crisis hotline, spiked after the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted normal life in 2020. The number of people seeking non-crisis counseling in the county has also increased steadily since then.

MindWell Center Co-Founders Sarah Markowitz and Aaron Rakow

Into this breach last October stepped a new service provider promising cutting-edge approaches to mental health care: Mindwell Center LLP, located in the South Hill Business Campus.

MindWell is the brainchild of Aaron Rakow, a clinical psychiatry professor at Georgetown University who returned to his native Ithaca with a mission to upgrade the availability of services and standard of care in rural upstate New York. In short order, Rakow and co-founder Sarah Markowitz have hired 25 therapists and are adding another one-to-two a month; they plan to open a second clinic with 10 clinicians in September in Albany. MindWell is currently supporting 350 patients and counting.

“Across our society, we have more demand for mental health services than we have providers able to support that demand,” Rakow said. “In particular, within a category of the mental health field that we refer to as evidence-based care, or psychological intervention that is based on science, to be as effective as possible in treating a host of mental health challenges amongst individuals, there are even fewer practitioners that practice in that space. My hope is that through opening MindWell Center we will be able to address some of those needs.”

The Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce honored MindWell at its 2021 Annual Meeting and Celebration on May 20 with its Distinguished Business of the Year Award. Announcing the award, the Chamber said: “In response to a specific and substantial community need—access to effective, quality mental health care, and removing stigma regarding mental health concerns—MindWell founders Aaron Rakow and Sarah Markowitz have introduced a new model of treatment to our community and expanded their staff and services considerably in a short period of time.”

MindWell strives to provide the highest quality evidence-based mental health care to children, families, and adults for a spectrum of mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, sleep disorders, substance use disorders, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Besides supporting individual patients, MindWell is ramping up population-level initiatives—for example, it offers contracted services for companies where clinicians implement programs fostering healthy workplaces through leadership training, wellness seminars, stress reduction classes, support groups, and individualized care for employees. MindWell is offering similar services to schools in the region, both K-12 and colleges. Rakow believes that the Ithaca community is aware of the need to address the “mental health pandemic” many experts believe accompanied the Covid crisis.

Rakow said that another key part of MindWell’s mission is to support the training and retention of high-quality evidence-based clinicians in upstate New York. To that end, MindWell has formed partnerships with the University at Albany and Binghamton University to provide training through externships for graduate programs in clinical psychology.

WATCH: Promotional video about the MindWell Center

Evidence-Based Care (EBC) is an evolving standard of care involving a variety of treatments endorsed by leading mental health associations. According to experts, it emphasizes integrating the best available research with clinical expertise in the context of a patient’s culture, individual characteristics, and personal preferences. Nonetheless, as a 2013 New York Times article pointed out, “surprisingly few patients actually get these kinds of evidence-based treatments” despite numerous trials demonstrating their effectiveness.

MindWell clinicians are trained to provide Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Measurement-Based Care (MBC) to carry out its evidence-based approach. According to the American Psychological Association, CBT encourages patients to recognize distortions in their thinking that are creating problems, and learn problem-solving skills to cope with difficult situations.

Any good therapist will utilize treatment elements such as reflective listening, validation, and empathy. As Rakow describes it, evidence-based treatment adds a roadmap for the client and the therapist to most efficiently decrease the symptoms of disorders through specific strategies and techniques that have been proven through science. In treating a patient with depression, Rakow explained, the therapist will assess the factors behind the patient’s negative thinking patterns. Then the treatment will focus on teaching coping skills that can change the patient’s cognitive narrative.

“The client gets a workbook to help their guidance and help their process at home,” said Rakow. “The clinician has a workbook to help guide the sessions. That is an evidence-based intervention in practice.”

Furthermore, MBC bases clinical care on data collected from patients throughout their treatment; experts say that MBC provides insight into treatment progress, highlights ongoing treatment targets, reduces symptom deterioration, and improves client outcomes.

“We are looking at every single session for the individual on how they are improving, if they are improving,” Rakow explained. “And if they are not, what can we be doing differently on an interventional level?”

To use an example, Rakow said that a clinician treating anxiety will have patients fill out screen tests during every therapy session to measure increases or decreases in symptoms. “So they can say, ‘It looks like you’ve had a difficult week. We’re seeing your anxiety go up. Let’s see how we can calibrate the treatment effectively to bring that level back down. Because we know you have that potential.’ If we are not practicing measurement-based care, we’re not practicing evidence-based care. Those two things must always go together,” Rakow said.

Some team members at MindWell are equipped to prescribe medications. That said, Rakow points out that many of the most evidence-based strategies involve the combination of psychotherapy and medication management, as opposed to a treatment regimen that involves medication management alone. Thus, MindWell’s team of multidisciplinary providers collaborate closely on cases to ensure that the treatments are optimally calibrated to each patient’s individual needs.

Population-level initiatives provide easier access to mental health treatment, Rakow explained. “There are far too many barriers to accessing high quality mental health care in our country,” Rakow said. “We will partner with hospitals, with school systems, with institutions of higher education, with businesses big and large, to provide integrated mental health solutions for their employees, for their pupils, for their staff, for their patients, to make the process of accessing mental health care that much easier.”

Rakow said that businesses are receptive to upstream mental health support for their employees, especially amid the Covid-19 pandemic, in part because they realize that decreased wellness can impact productivity and profits. He said that MindWell services for K-12 schools can focus on administrators, teachers, and staff as well as students and their parents.

School-integrated support helps parents avoid what can be a difficult challenge in navigating mental health services for their children on their own, Rakow said. “If you are a mom or dad, and your child needs mental health care, you have to locate a provider, wait for that provider to have an opening, take time off to drive across town and take that child to that appointment, wait while the child is seen, and follow up with the clinician,” Rakow said. “That could take weeks or months to treat, in the best-case circumstances.”

MindWell’s model for higher education similarly supports faculty and staff members while seeking to relieve the increasing burden on student counseling services.

“College student mental health is right now an extremely high need for our field,” said Rakow. “The institutions of higher ed in our region are taking this issue extremely seriously and have put an incredible amount of thought and commitment and resources towards it. But our need in our society from a mental health perspective continues to grow and the demand for it continues to increase. We need to really think innovatively about how we can provide support and access points for undergraduate and graduate populations of learners in our community to be able to effectively meet that demand.”

UPDATE: MindWell is working with regional insurance carriers to become in-network as soon as possible to increase access to its care model. In the meantime, MindWell offers a generous sliding scale for clients in need. MindWell also offers what it calls courtesy billing whereby the MindWell team submits the claim on the behalf of the client so they can focus on their care rather than dealing with paperwork.