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.

Take a Mental Health Test

May is Mental Health Month! Why not do a self-check to see how your mental health is doing right now? Mental Health America (MHA) provides a quick-and-easy-to-use online screening tool to test whether you are experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition. MHA says that 3 million Americans have taken a test during the Covid-19 pandemic in the past 12 months.

Click here to take MHA’s mental health tests

You can screen for anxiety, depression, postpartum depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Eating Disorder, psychosis, and addiction. Parents can also take a test to understand whether their children may be experiencing emotional, attentional, or behavioral difficulties. There is also a similar test with youth-themed questions that young people can take to check on themselves.

Following screening, you will be provided with information, resources and tools to help you understand and improve your mental health.

MHA notes that online screening tools are meant to be a quick snapshot of your mental health. “If your results indicate you may be experiencing symptoms of a mental illness, consider sharing your results with someone,” MHA advises. “A mental health provider (such as a doctor or a therapist) can give you a full assessment and talk to you about options for how to feel better. Mental health conditions are real, common and treatable, and recovery is possible.”

“We at Mental Health America have witnessed an unprecedented increase in the numbers of people experiencing mental health problems,” said Paul Gionfriddo, MHA president and CEO. “In November 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 44 percent of us were dealing with either depression or anxiety. While historically data shows us that 1 in 5 adults will experience a mental health problem, these days it certainly feels like it’s 5 in 5.”

For Mental Health Month, MHA is providing a package of materials that can be used by healthcare providers, community organizations, schools, and social media users to encourage greater awareness and treatment for mental health conditions.

DOWNLOAD: MHA’s “Tools 2 Thrive” toolkit

The toolkit highlights six topcis:

Adapting After Trauma and Stress

Processing Big Changes

Getting Out of Thinking Traps

Radical Acceptance

Taking Time for Yourself

Dealing with Anger and Frustration

During Mental Health Month, follow and share The Sophie Fund’s education campaign on Instagram and Facebook to learn about screening tools, treatment methods, suicide safety plans, crisis hotlines, and mental health statistics.

The infographics relay expert information from sources such as Mental Health America, National Alliance on Mental Illness, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and Suicide Prevention Resource Center. The campaign was created by Margaret Kent, an Ithaca College student and intern at The Sophie Fund.

Connect with Sexual Assault Awareness Month!

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, dedicated to raising awareness about the impacts of all forms of sexual violence on survivors and the community while also highlighting the work being done to promote healthy development and practices that work towards preventing these forms of violence from occurring. The Advocacy Center of Tompkins County is offering a variety of events in April to promote sexual assault awareness.

Roll Red Roll Film Screening Thursday April 15

Tompkins County teens are encouraged to join the Advocacy Center for a Netflix Watch Party and post-screening discussion of the film Roll Red Roll. Hosted by its student activism group, ACTion, the event will explore how social media and sports culture can influence sexual violence, as well as how students can challenge toxic social norms that perpetuate rape culture. To register for the screening, please fill out the following form: https://bit.ly/2OAGpJV

Wen-Do Women’s Self Defense Online Workshop April 19 & 20

The Advocacy Center invites college-enrolled women to participate in this four-hour self-defense program offered by the longest running women’s self-defense organization in Canada. This program will run over two sessions and includes frank discussions about violence against women and children along with verbal and physical resistance strategies. This program recognizes and celebrates our diversity, feminist principles, the empowerment of women and children while expressly rejecting victim blaming so often present in society. Follow the Advocacy Center on social media for more details and registration information.

Mighty Yoga Donation Class April 24

Join Mighty Yoga for a smoothly paced vinyasa flow experience. Donations raised through this yoga session will support survivors of sexual assault, as well as preventative education efforts led by the Advocacy Center. To sign up, please visit https://www.mightyyoga.com/livestream-schedule and select April 24 on the calendar. Then click on the “Sign Up” button next to the 1 p.m. donation class. *If you do not have an existing Mighty Yoga account, you will need to create one in order to register for the session.

Denim Day April 28

Wear jeans to raise awareness about the misconceptions that surround sexual assault! Started after an Italian Supreme Court ruling in which a rape conviction was overturned because the victim had been wearing tight jeans: the justices ruled that she must have helped her rapist remove them, thereby implying consent. For denim day materials visit www.denimdayinfo.org and follow the Advocacy Center on Facebook and Instagram for info and updates. Use #ACdenimday2021 so the Advocacy Center can follow your posts!

Clothesline Project Display DeWitt Park April 30 12-1pm

The Advocacy Center is excited to offer a socially distanced opportunity to see this powerful display in person. The project provides a space for domestic and sexual violence survivors to create and unapologetically display the “dirty laundry” that is abuse. The t-shirts, which contain powerful stories, images, and artwork, are hung on a clothesline to show that the people who experience domestic, sexual, or emotional violence aren’t just statistics but people in our communities and neighborhoods. *Social distancing and masks required

Take Back The Night! April 30

March. Rally. Speak Out. Vigil. Keep an eye out for social media posts and website updates as the Advocacy Center plans the 2021 virtual event! Participants are encouraged to join any way that feels comfortable. Marchers are encouraged to make signs, banners or wear clothes that highlight groups and organizations standing in solidarity with survivors or with messages of protest against domestic and sexual violence.

Sexual Assault Awareness Month

The Advocacy Center of Tompkins County, IC Strike, and The Sophie Fund on Wednesday launched an education campaign on social media to mark Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

Download Poster: April Is Sexual Assault Awareness Month

Each day throughout April, the local organizations are posting infographics on their social media platforms about safety plans, reporting procedures, hotline help, medical and mental health support, and tools to fight sexual assault.

Citing data from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), the campaign highlights that sexual violence affects hundreds of thousands of Americans each year. RAINN says that one out of every six American women, and one out of every 33 American men, has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape.

College women are at three times greater risk of assault, according to RAINN; 13 percent of all graduate and undergraduate students experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control says that sexual violence impacts health in many ways and can lead to short and long-term physical and mental health problems.

The Advocacy Center is the premier community organization providing support services for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, rape, and child sexual abuse. Besides the social media campaign, the Advocacy Center is organizing a host of activities throughout the month. They include a screening of the film Roll Red Roll, a Wen-Do Women’s Self Defense online workshop, a yoga class fundraiser, a Clothesline Project Display in DeWitt Park, and a “Take Back the Night!” march, rally, speak out, and vigil.

“The Advocacy Center is dedicated to raising awareness about the impacts of all forms of sexual violence on survivors and the community, while also highlighting the work being done to promote healthy development and practices that work towards preventing these forms of violence from occurring,” said Advocacy Center Executive Director Heather Campbell.

IC Strike, a student organization at Ithaca College dedicated to education, action, and allyship surrounding sexual assault, is collaborating in the social media campaign because it believes in the power of education and communication.

“Our society struggles to have conversations about sex, trauma, and sexual violence,” said IC Strike Co-President Julia Siegel. “The social gag rule on sexual assault fosters ignorance and perpetuates harmful behavior and values. By equipping students with the facts and the vocabulary to discuss these issues, productive conversations can be had and stigmas can be broken.”

The social media campaign was designed by Lorelei Horrell and Margaret Kent, Ithaca College students and interns at The Sophie Fund.

“I have enjoyed getting to work with other individuals who are passionate about sexual assault awareness,” said Kent. “As a female college student, the issue of sexual assault is a common worry. I hope that our campaign can help raise awareness about this issue and at the same time, make survivors feel seen.”

Horrell agreed on the importance of supporting survivors of sexual assault.

“There’s a lot of stigma around discussing sexual assault that makes it more difficult for survivors to find information and resources,” said Horrell. “As a young woman and as a college student, fear of sexual assault is constant. Working on this campaign both validated that fear and transformed it into something more. We can be angry, and we can be afraid, but we can also learn how to protect ourselves, practice being able to support our friends, and educate ourselves on all the resources available if something does happen.”

Click any of the links to check out the campaign’s social media posts and share:

https://www.facebook.com/thesophiefund/

https://www.instagram.com/thesophiefund/

The Sophie Fund’s Sexual Assault page: National, state, and local resources to learn about sexual assault and how to deal with it.

A Mother’s Movement Against Bullying

Jane Clementi is the founder of the Tyler Clementi Foundation, which works to end online and offline bullying in schools, workplaces, and faith communities. She started the advocacy organization in 2011 to honor her son, Tyler. He died by suicide at age 18 in the first month of his freshman year at Rutgers University. Among the foundation’s programs is the Million Upstander Movement, in which enlistees pledge to stand up to bullying and treat others with kindness, respect, and compassion. The Sophie Fund’s Anna Moura spoke to Jane Clementi via Zoom on October 28, 2020.

Tyler and Jane Clementi [Courtesy Jane Clementi]

THE SOPHIE FUND: What drove you to create the Tyler Clementi Foundation?

JANE CLEMENTI: It was in the wake of my son’s death. He died by suicide in the fall of 2010 after he had been just started his freshman year. His roommate live-streamed him in a sexual encounter with another man. And then, as he read the comments and quotes on social media, his reality became twisted and distorted, and he made that permanent decision to a very temporary situation, and he died by suicide. It was to honor his legacy.

There were several high-profile deaths in the fall of 2010, but Tyler’s seemed to rise even up to the top of those and his story held national headlines for several weeks after that. Several noted celebrities continued to talk about Tyler over the course of time. As my fog lifted from the extreme distress that I was in after Tyler’s death, I realized that there was a lot of good positive conversation that was happening, and that those conversations were helping to create change, to make life better for other LGBTQ youth as well as just other marginalized youth that were being targeted.

I wanted to make sure that the world knew more about Tyler and the kind, caring, resourceful young man that he actually was. I also have come in years since to realize how distressed he truly was as well. I recently moved, within the last six months, and I came across more writings that Tyler had documented some of his pain and sadness and anger. It was someone I didn’t even recognize. I had no idea. So not everyone exhibits symptoms of their pain.

THE SOPHIE FUND: How do you define the problem of bullying?

JANE CLEMENTI: I think it’s a complex issue with a complex array of solutions. I think it’s helpful for us to share our stories so that people are aware of the great consequences and harm that can be caused from bullying behavior. I like to make sure people know that not all bullying situations end in the same devastating way that Tyler’s story ended. But with that said, all bullying hurts when it is happening, and it often leaves lifelong scars, whether physical or emotional, psychological scars.

I also think it is an issue that needs our constant attention and immediate attention. I don’t think it’s “kids just being kids.” I don’t think it magically disappears when someone turns 18. It’s behavior that goes on uncorrected and unchallenged. We have to identify that behavior early—the earlier, the better—to make change. Legislation is important, but I think it’s just a small component of creating change. I think most legislation sets the boundaries, which I think is key and important, but after that once the boundaries are crossed, it is very punitive. It mostly deals with punishment or suspension. I don’t think that that changes the behavior. I think we need to implement more behavior modification, and maybe reward positive behavior and call out positive behavior as part of the solution.

We are working preventing bullying online and off, as well as in schools, workplaces, and faith communities. Because I think it happens not only to youth, and not only in schools, but also through legislative inequalities as well as religious dogma that targets especially those in the LGBTQ community. We can go further down to the root of the cause and that will help prevent it for other people.

THE SOPHIE FUND: What can we really do to make an impact on bullying behavior?

JANE CLEMENTI: We have a few initiatives ourselves with the Tyler Clementi Foundation that we think will impact that behavior. First of all, we think it’s important to realize that there’s more than just the target and the aggressor in a bullying situation. But there are bystanders. Almost all situations have bystanders, people who see what’s happening. And those are bystanders because they’re passive and remain silent. That is like condoning and supporting the aggressive behavior. So, we want to empower those bystanders, and we call them “upstanders” once they become empowered. We think that there are many ways to do that.

You can intervene and interrupt a situation if you feel comfortable and if you know the people involved. Because we never ever want anyone else to come into harm’s way. Sometimes it’s as easy as, if you know the people and maybe think they are using racial slurs or homophobic slurs as jest or some type of humor—which they are not—and calling it out and saying that this isn’t funny.

It might even be as simple as coming beside the person being targeted and calling them away and pulling them physically out of the situation, saying, “Come with me, I want to show you something I saw outside, or down the hall,” or whatever.

If you don’t feel comfortable in that situation, or if the behavior doesn’t get changed, it’s about reporting it to a trusted adult or a youth. Or reporting it to the proper people if it’s happening in the workplace, up your ladder, your chain of command, your human resources department, something to that effect.

If you have someone’s best interest at heart, it is not tattling, or telling on someone. It’s about finding them the right support, which takes us to the third easiest way. That is to reach out to the target. I think that that is important. I think if someone had reached out to Tyler, it would have made all the difference for him. Making sure they know where their resources are. Tyler had resources at Rutgers, and he had resources at home. But no one made sure he knew how to reach out. And when you’re in a really dark place, and I learned personally, you don’t often see your resources. You just see the pain and the bleakness. So reaching out to the target, making sure, sometimes it’s just about making sure they know you’re there, you’re a friend. I think those are key elements of being an upstander.

We also believe that its more than just a one-on-one but about creating safe communities as well. We believe that someone, if they say on a first day of a group meeting together, whether it’s a sports team, or a club, or a classroom, or an entire school, having a person of authority set the boundaries, and say that we value everyone here, we will not accept anybody being targeted or humiliated for any reason. And then calling out and enumerating the reasons. Such as body shape and size, or abilities, or what language they speak at home, or their sexual orientation, or their gender identity, or whatever else makes somebody special and precious.

We do think people are targeted because of their differences, and we need to enumerate those differences so people understand that, and then get an acknowledgement back from the group that, yes, they understand. It is not a magic wand. The aggressor needs to hear where the boundaries are sometimes. It is also a huge message for someone who is marginalized to hear, to know that they are welcome and included in this space regardless of whatever makes them special.

THE SOPHIE FUND: Tell us about the “Upstander Pledge”?

JANE CLEMENTI: We started it several years ago. We wanted to reach a million people with our upstander pledge by October of 2020, and I’m pleased to say that we did just reach a million people. We’re really thrilled about that announcement, but we also know that a million people sounds like a lot, but it still needs to reach more. So we are going to continue our message.  It is also a message that needs to be heard over and over again.

Every time you are faced with a situation, it’s not like, “Oh, I signed the pledge, I’m good.” You have to really think about it. One of the things I’ve learned is that there is something called the bystander phenomenon. The more people that see an incident happening the less likely that somebody is to stand up to that incident. That’s why we need to have it fresh on our mind: “Wait a minute, nobody is saying anything. That’s me. I need to be that person that stands in the gap. I need to be the person to be empowered enough, and to have the courage enough, to stand up here.” And then hopefully you’ll be the leader to create a wave of people that will stand up to that.

THE SOPHIE FUND: How does the foundation’s work specifically impact LGBTQ youth?

JANE CLEMENTI: Our mission is broad in that it speaks to anyone’s difference. With that said, I think that allows us to speak specifically where we go and where we are invited in to talk. We are not quite as problematic for some schools or for some businesses that might not be able to or want to invite, say, GLSEN, or GLAAD, or HRC. And yet, for us, that is a huge focus of our work because that is part of Tyler’s story. Tyler was a gay youth, so we can speak to that. We have a gentle way of bringing that conversation to the organization that we are speaking in.

THE SOPHIE FUND: How do you view the problem of cyberbullying?

JANE CLEMENTI: With Covid we are spending so much more of our time in the digital cyber world, so the incidences of cyber-attack or bullying are so much greater. We have to be sure and think about the words that we’re using, and say the words that are building other people up and not attacking their character. I think it’s important that we see the humanity behind something and being willing to back up whatever we say by saying it to someone’s face, not saying it just through words on a screen.

THE SOPHIE FUND: Can you talk about the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act?

JANE CLEMENTI: A little history. It was created and introduced into the Senate initially by the New Jersey’s senator at the time, which was Senator Frank Lautenberg. He realized a truth which I still see today, that there is no federal anti-bullying legislation at all. Since Tyler was a college student, he initiated the bill to speak to colleges and universities, higher education institutions, to create policies and programs to protect all their students.

In 2010, in the fall, there were very few state laws for anti-bullying. I think New Jersey instituted one of the first. New Jersey’s law is called HIB—Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying. That passed shortly after Tyler’s death. At this point, all 50 states have some form of anti-bullying legislation. Which also means each state has a different definition of what bullying is. There are 50 different definitions out there. And so I do think we do need a federal law.

There are several that are out there. The two that are most known are the Safe Schools Act, which would be K-12, and that is supported by the Human Rights Campaign, and several other organizations. And then there’s theTyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act. That is also supported by HRC and a few less organizations than the Safe Schools Act. But it does not seem to get passed legislatively. Maybe with the new Congress we can get that moving forward.

THE SOPHIE FUND: What do you think is needed specifically in higher education?

JANE CLEMENTI: One of the things with LGBTQ support is that many colleges and higher education institutions do not have a resource person or an LGBTQ center on their college campuses. Out of 6,000 institutions, only less than 10 percent had a resource person, one FTE employee who was in charge of the resource center. So, I think that there needs to be more resource availability available through a center through a place where people can gather together and receive the support that they need.

Most institutions also need policies in place to protect all students and calling out and enumerating classes including LGBTQI+ students as well. With those policies they should have trainings for staff as well as for students. Those are components of Tyler’s bill also. Having not only policies in place but trainings for staff and students.

THE SOPHIE FUND: Can you talk a little bit about the Tyler Clementi Center at Rutgers University?

JANE CLEMENTI: We have a Memorandum of Understanding with Rutgers that created the Tyler Clementi Center at Rutgers. It falls under the inclusion and diversity chancellor. They are working towards having research and symposiums. For all marginalized students, but the last two symposiums have been specific to LGBTQ, creating safe LGBTQ spaces on the college campus. They just did a web conference, the topic was “Out of The Closet.” It was discussing the safety aspect of being in the closet against the harm of being in the closet, which usually outweighs the safety. It was about not forcing people to come out before they were ready to come out. But how to rather encourage people to see the positive aspect of being out, and the better emotional mental health of it.

The Clementi Family at Tyler’s high school graduation 2010 [Courtesy Jane Clementi]

THE SOPHIE FUND: How do you view bullying in the context of today’s divisive political scene?

JANE CLEMENTI: We never will agree with everyone completely on solutions. But I do think it is key that we learn how to have those conversations respectfully and to talk about the issues and solutions to the problems without attacking someone’s character or the person. I think that’s one of the things that we haven’t achieved very well in our political system right now. As a nonprofit, we don’t endorse any candidate at all, but we certainly need leaders that will exemplify and model good behavior for us and not call out and target and attack a person’s character but have those respectful conversations.

 Until we do, I think it definitely affects youth today. You might dismiss it, but there was a research project out of the University of Virginia that talked about the last political campaign for the last election. It showed that bullying behavior increased among youth after certain political leaders exhibited it on the television screen or their news media screen, and visualizing someone calling out news reporters for their disabilities, or calling out other people and attacking their personality.

THE SOPHIE FUND: Why did the foundation reach out to the 2020 presidential candidates to take the upstander pledge?

JANE CLEMENTI: They were going to occupy so much of our time through news, we thought it was important that the candidates, all of the candidates, would take our pledge and to live out our pledge in their campaign. We reached out in a bipartisan way to everyone running at the time, and we posted them on our website.

It is multi-faceted the answer as to why some people did not take the pledge. Obviously, it was interesting to me that all the candidates were from the Democratic Party that did sign our pledge. But even within that Democratic Party, there were some that did not take it. Some responded that they don’t sign pledges, and they don’t put their name to things that they don’t have control over. And I accept that. But we got most of the top contenders who were running which I think speaks volumes. If someone actually engages in bullying behavior, I would imagine that they wouldn’t want to sign the pledge.

THE SOPHIE FUND: How do you assess the “Be Best” initiative of First Lady Melania Trump? People have accused President Trump of engaging in bullying and not setting a “Be Best” example.

JANE CLEMENTI: I concur. I don’t think he would be the best example. I don’t think her initiative is as robust as it should be either. I see very little about it. Maybe I’m just missing it in my news area. I do know that she had one conference and I know some people who attended the conference. I didn’t even know that it was happening until after the fact. I think it was shallow at best, and I think she could have had a larger and stronger voice in this area. Although it’s very difficult when you are trying to reap change for good and one of the people involved on the other side and is occupying so much media attention is actually being the aggressor in many situations. and being the aggressor without knowing that he even is the aggressor. I have to have a good view of everyone. I can’t imagine someone wants to be an aggressor or wants to inflict cruel pain on someone else. I think sometimes it is just not even in their consciousness that they are being that type of an aggressor.

—By Anna Moura

Anna Moura, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a Class of 2021 Writing major and Psychology minor at Ithaca College

[To learn more, check out local, state, and national resources on bullying at https://thesophiefund.org/bullying]