World of a Campus Mental Health Advocate

Zoe Howland was a half hour into her day at the national headquarters of Active Minds when she got a call from the Washington Post. The reporter was seeking comment about a new study documenting the positive impact of the organization on student mental health on college campuses across the country. Howland, a summer intern, was the perfect spokesperson.

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Zoe Howland

Howland is a senior at Ithaca College and the co-president of IC’s Active Minds chapter. She signed up as a member of the student organization in her freshman year, and now helps lead its campaigns to fight the stigma around mental illness and its education programs about mental health for the campus community. The IC chapter has several dozen members; Mikaela Vojnik serves as co-president.

“I love being a voice in student mental health, and I feel like the position of president of Active Minds really does help me do that,” Howland, who is double majoring in Sociology and in Culture and Communication and minoring in Women’s and Gender Studies, said in a recent interview.

One of the projects that Howland is helping oversee is “Send Silence Packing,” a traveling installation of 1,100 backpacks representing the number of college students who die by suicide each year. The day-long exhibition will be held in the IC quad, with the aim of provoking discussion and raising awareness about mental health, promoting suicide prevention, and connecting students to mental health resources. The Sophie Fund is a sponsor of the event.

Howland said that Active Minds also plans to continue building on the Speak Your Mind (SYM) panels, which are designed to reduce stigma through storytelling. Students who have gone through Active Minds training visit classes, share their experiences about mental health and mental illness, and participate in question-answer sessions with the students. This year, Howland seeks to expand SYM’s reach to places like the Business and Music schools. “It would be nice to branch out a little bit and get panels in classes that don’t focus on that in their content,” she explained.

Howland’s summer internship at Active Minds headquarters in Washington, D.C. fostered an even closer relationship for IC’s Active Minds chapter. “I got to work with the chapter coordinator, so I did a lot of corresponding with new and developing chapters to try and get their chapter off the ground,” she said. “I got to talk to people who were really passionate about mental health and just wanted help bringing it to their campus, and I got to see the behind-the-scenes of such a cool nonprofit.”

Howland also serves on the national Active Minds Student Advisory Committee, comprised of students from chapters across the country who contribute local perspectives.

Over the course of Howland’s college career, she has widened her own perspective on mental health. Her courses in Sociology and Culture and Communication studies have offered new lenses for her thinking. Where Sociology has allowed her to consider societal views on mental health and treatment, Culture and Communication studies has encouraged her to investigate how the ways we choose to talk about mental health shape our perceptions and ultimately our attitudes toward stigmas.

Advocacy through Active Minds, education in the classroom, and her personal experience have all played a part in Howland’s comprehensive outlook on mental health. And though she’s dedicated plenty of thought to the topic, she goes on to say, “But of course I’m always learning. There’s always more information to find and more articles to read.”

Over time, Howland has come to discover at the heart of her mental health philosophy is talking, sharing stories, and diminishing stereotypes. “I think you gain a lot of really valuable knowledge,” she explained. “Just getting to know people and their stories gives you a broader base to base your assumptions and knowledge when you’re talking to someone else about it.”

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Active Minds national Student Advisory Committee

Howland has made no concrete plans for her future, but she is definitely interested in pursuing work in mental health after graduation next spring. She credits Active Minds for shaping so much of her college experience, both in and out of the classroom. “I think that it really ignited a passion in me that didn’t really exist before which has definitely shaped what I want to do with my life,” she said.

For now, Howland will focus her energy on writing her senior thesis on the topic of—you guessed it—mental health. “My thesis will be about how people talk about mental health on a day-to-day basis, how people trivialize mental health while also stigmatizing it,” she explained. Clearly, Zoe Howland has much to teach us, for a long time to come.

—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.

It’s Cool to “Cool Down”

Family & Children’s Service of Ithaca has provided our community with accessible mental health care and social services for the past 50 years. Recently, F&CS added an additional focus to its work: education. This year, it launched a children’s reading project, distributing books related to mental health free of charge for use by young readers and caregivers alike.

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One of the books is Cool Down and Work Through Anger, by Cheri J. Meiners. It provides a simple story about productively expressing emotions, and includes resources for educators and social workers to guide children through difficult situations. David Shapiro, F&CS president and CEO, says that Cool Down is an example of how to “make mental health approachable,” one of the goals of F&CS’s reading project.

Shapiro believes that mental health education is especially critical in the age of school violence. When children, especially young boys, experience hurt, they “often respond with anger, and anger leads to violence,” he explains. Stories like Cool Down, he says, provide a vocabulary for dealing with hurt and pain in new, constructive ways. “It is our responsibility, as a community, to keep our schools safe,” he adds.

Another offering in the reading project is I Am Peace: A Book of Mindfulness, about the practice of mindfulness, by Susan Verde. Every page, full of reassuring phrases and beautiful illustrations by Peter H. Reynolds, allows the reader to find connection with nature, and with themselves. Shapiro notes that parents in high stress situations might find value in the book themselves as they read I Am Peace to their children. Education initiatives like the children’s reading project, he adds, can create a more proactive, involved, and mental health-conscious community.

—By Sophie Jones

Sophie Jones, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a junior at Cornell University majoring in psychology and minoring in visual studies. She skates on the Synchronized Skating Team and volunteers with the Alpha Phi Omega service fraternity.

Join the Open House at Family and Children’s Service on Sunday, September 16 from 2–5 p.m. Clinical and direct service staff will introduce guests to therapy techniques and the values behind F&CS’s work. Festivities include a live performance by the Fall Creek Brass Band, catering by Gola Osteria, and a live raffle drawing for five fabulous Finger Lakes Experiences.

Click here to purchase tickets—$25 per person, children 12 and under admitted without charge.

Introducing the ACTion Faction!

ACTion is a group of like-minded teens from all over Tompkins County that will work together to fight sexual and relationship violence. They will collaborate to educate and enlighten their peers and the rest of the community so that they can help to keep themselves and others safe.

ACTion announcement

The ultimate goal of ACTion is to make the world a safer and more aware place. If teens are aware of the signs of relationship violence, then they will be able to recognize those signs to help themselves and hopefully others. ACTion will strive to make the teenage community in Tompkins County increasingly conscious about sexual and relationship violence and what they can do to help combat it.

Additionally, ACTion will have ambassadors to help spread the word all across Tompkins County: in their schools, on sports teams, in clubs they are involved in, etc. Members of ACTion will help with events that the Advocacy Center plans, and have the opportunity to plan, or collaborate to plan, events of their own. They will be offered the chance to work with others on projects they come up with on their own, as well as work independently on projects.

ACTion will bring teens together to work toward what they believe in. It will not only be an opportunity to inspire change in the community, but a chance to meet like-minded people and find your safe place. ACTion will give teens a place to be heard, and an opportunity to have their voices amplified. ACTion will make Tompkins County a safer, more aware place.

Our first meeting is taking place on Wednesday, September 12 from 6-7:30 p.m. at the Just Be Cause Center (1013 West State Street, Ithaca). To learn more and sign up, fill out this form.

—By Dani Copeland

Dani Copeland is a sophomore at Ithaca High School. She volunteered at the Advocacy Center during the summer of 2018 to help turn the vision of ACTion into a reality. 

This article is republished from The Advocacy Center by kind permission.

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.

The Mental Health Summit: BOSSy Womxn at Work

Do you believe mentorship is important? Do you have a passion for community service? Do you think mental health is a crucial topic? Well, if you answered yes to any of these questions you might be interested to learn more about a Cornell University-affiliated organization called Building Ourselves Through Sisterhood and Service (B.O.S.S.).

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B.O.S.S. is a student-run peer mentorship program designed for womxn of color by womxn of color. Every year we pair underclassmen with upperclassmen womxn of color and facilitate these relationships through service events and fun activities. This program was bred out of a desire to help womxn of color become more socially mobile. Additionally, this program aims to equip underclassmen with a mentor who has already been where they are and can provide helpful insights and advice.

Attending a predominantly white institution (PWI) presents many stressors for womxn of color. Taking this context into account, particularly at Cornell, it is especially important to carve out spaces for womxn of color to not only exist, but also thrive. The hardships womxn of color face are distinct from our male counterparts. We operate under the societal stressors of gender, race, and often class (just to name three). Taking all these factors into account, B.O.S.S. is fostering coalition building between womxn of color to strengthen our social, academic, and professional prospects.

B.O.S.S. once existed as a subset program within the Black Women’s Support Network (B.W.S.N.). The decision to branch out was led by Stephanie Carter and Sarah Edwards; two chartering members of the B.O.S.S. executive board. Their vision to make B.O.S.S. a program inclusive of all womxn of color as a means to coalition build revolutionized our mission, goals, and approach. Evelyn Ambriz, our former advisor, also played a crucial role in changing the face of B.O.S.S. To this day we operate in the vein of coalition building between womxn of color.

The name B.O.S.S. was chosen to acknowledge the nuances of the oppression womxn of color face in professional settings. Womxn in positions of power are generally deemed to be bossy, overbearing, rude, and shrill. Men will often be praised as assertive, commanding, respectable, and strong for the same approaches to leadership. In naming this organization B.O.S.S., we’re reclaiming bossy as something positive and empowering. Womxn should be bossy! Especially in spaces where we are often in the minority and have to work twice as hard to achieve half as much as our more privileged counterparts.

In November for the fourth consecutive year we are hosting the Mental Health Summit, our marquee event. The intent of the summit is to have conversations about mental health that are catered toward womxn of color. We recognize that mental health is a stigmatized topic of conversation. By facilitating open and honest dialogue about our struggles, we hope to chip away at that stigma. By collaborating with different faculty, departments, resource centers, and groups both on and off campus, we’re able to craft workshops that provide probing and interactive dialogue around mental health.

This year our theme for the summit is: “The ‘I’ of the Storm: Finding Calm Amongst the Chaos.” We’re placing an explicit focus on the ways womxn of color often exert themselves for their communities. In this summit we propose tools to prioritize the self even in the midst of police brutality, injustice, and continual general inequality.

We have curated an exciting group of workshops that address many provocative, taboo questions and topics that we often don’t discuss in communities of color.

We are absolutely thrilled to announce that the summit’s keynote speaker this year is a latina woman named Dior Vargas, an exceptional mental health activist who has been recognized in the Guardian, Forbes, Newsweek, and NBC New Latino for her contributions to mental health awareness. She regularly tours the country to host workshops, sit on panels, and give keynote addresses. Her presence and contributions will undoubtedly communicate profound messages to our attendees that they won’t forget anytime soon.

This year we are expanding the traditionally one-day summit into a three-day event from November 9-11. We’re collaborating with other colleges in the Finger Lakes region to extend the dialogue beyond the bounds of Cornell. For folks coming from different cities, we will be providing free housing accomodations in collaboration with CU Image. Registration will go live on our website in early October: https://bebossycornell.wixsite.com/boss. Food will be provided throughout the weekend. Additionally, the summit will be open to the Ithaca community. And most importantly, it’s free for all attendees!

If you have any questions or inquiries, please feel free to direct them to bebossy.cornell@gmail.com. Additionally, if you want to learn more about us and the team please visit our website at https://bebossycornell.wixsite.com/boss.

A special thank you to The Sophie Fund for all their incredible support. We’re proud to be working with an organization that values mental health just as much as we do!

—By Raven Schwam-Curtis

Raven Schwam-Curtis is a junior in Cornell University’s College of Arts and Sciences double majoring in Asian Studies and Feminist, Gender & Sexuality Studies. She is the co-chair of Building Ourselves Through Sisterhood and Service (B.O.S.S.), and has served on its executive board since her freshman year.

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Please Consider Making a Donation

In order to make this free event a reality, we need your help to raise money! Our crowdfunding campaign ends September 14th at 12:00AM EST. We have just a few days left in our crowdfunding campaign to reach our goal of $7,000. If you have even just have a few dollars to spare, we would greatly appreciate any donation. Please visit our crowdfunding page at https://crowdfunding.cornell.edu/project/10131/wall to make a gift today. Let’s make this event as spectacular as possible!

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 Mental Health Summit Program

Friday, November 9

6­–7 p.m.: Check in and Registration

7–7:30 p.m.: Family Groups and Icebreakers

8–9 pm: Dinner (pizza with vegetarian and vegan options)

9–10:30 p.m.: Midnight Yoga hosted by the Cornell Fitness Center

Saturday, November 10

9–10 a.m.: Registration & Breakfast (served until 10 a.m.)

10–10:15 a.m.: Executive board address

10:15–10:45 a.m.: Superwomxn takes a seat

  • How would you define the superwomxn complex?
  • Why does it exist?
  • How can we feel like we are good enough without having to do it all?
  • Anxiety and societal pressures around the superwomxn complex

11–11:45 a.m.: Workshops (occuring simultaneously)

1) Transitioning into College

  • Culture shock, new independence, large class sizes, social adjustment, navigating new spaces, finding a role on campus, academic adjustment (competitive nature of Cornell), manifesting your confidence, balancing self-praise and humbleness
  • Tools to address these concerns

2) Student Activism and Mental Health

  • Exhausting pressure to attend ALL activist gatherings linked to social identities
  • What does it mean to be an activist? And understanding your version of activism
  • Campus climate – dealing with administration and politics as womxn of color (being loud versus being heard)
  • Tools to address these concerns

3) Imposter Syndrome

  • Being at a PWI, manifesting in your own lane, what’s for you is for you, comparisons, the competitive nature of college, worthiness in collegiate settings, everyone isn’t on a level playing field, the pressure to achieve from yourself and from family, failing doesn’t mean you’re a failure, toot your own horn
  • Tools to address these concerns

12–12:45 p.m.: Lunch

1–2 p.m.: Workshops (occurring simultaneously)

  • Talking with family/professionals about mental health
  • How do you address mental health with families that don’t acknowledge it? How do you overcome that fear of talking to family/professionals?

2) Flirtatitionships/Relationships in college and sexual assault

  • Being mindful of how spending excess time with a partner can impact you
  • Mental abuse in relationships//power dynamics
  • Determining when enough is ENOUGH
  • Trying to keep your private life private in small, often close knit communities of color

3) Body Image

  • Expectations for our bodies and subsequent eating disorders that may arise. How do we recognize and address it in ourselves and friends?
  • Self perception and colorism
  • Roots of body image perceptions

2–3 p.m.: Keynote Address by Dior Vargas

3–3:15 p.m.: Snack break

3:15–4 p.m.: Workshops (occurring simultaneously)

1) How do I help a friend with…

  • Struggles with health, abusive relationships, resources with limited money, etc…

2) Depression in college

  • Navigating mental health services as a womxn of color
  • How to talk to your professors about mental health concerns without oversharing

3) Living intentionally

  • Learning about yourself, finding yourself in college and taking risks despite community, familial, and more pressures
  • Being your own best friends – being gentle with yourself

4–6 p.m.: Dinner

6–7 p.m.: Snacks and Study with BOSS/Reflective Time

7–9 p.m.: Late Night Vision Boards

9 p.m.–2 a.m.: Free time or optional movie night

Sunday, November 11

10–12:30 p.m.: Brunch