The Joys of Mental Health First Aid

Don’t you love the smiles on these faces? The Sophie Fund does.

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The Class of April 16, 2018

This is a group of owners, managers, and workers from Ithaca’s restaurants, bars, and cafes taking a one-day course in Mental Health First Aid on April 16. They’re smiling because they had great fun, learned valuable skills, and became more confident in their abilities to support a family member, friend, colleague, or stranger experiencing a mental health crisis. Oh, and they also received official certification as Mental Health First Aiders.

The training was conducted by Melanie Little and David Bulkley of the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County. It was sponsored by a grant from The Sophie Fund to offer free training for the dedicated men and women of Ithaca’s vibrant culinary scene—where thin margins, long hours, erratic schedules, and high pressures can be the routine. The 15 trainees in the session are employed by Gimme! Coffee, Argos Inn, The Watershed, Temple of Zeus, Manndible Cafe, and other enterprises.

“With the stigma around mental illness, and given the hectic lives we lead today, it’s easy for somebody not to immediately seek the mental health support they need, or for people around them not to recognize signs that a crisis is brewing,” said Scott MacLeod, a founder of The Sophie Fund. “We aim to see Mental Health First Aid become the norm across the public and private sectors in Tompkins County. We would like to see every government agency, educational institution, and major business providing training opportunities—and in some cases, mandated training—for their managers and staff.”

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In training at the Tompkins County Public Library

Developed in Australia in 2000, the National Council for Behavioral Health brought Mental Health First Aid to the United States in 2008. Like traditional first aid, Mental Health First Aid is not about diagnosing or treating ailments, but rather giving immediate initial assistance until professional mental health support can be provided.

In the one-day Mental Health First Aid course, trainees learn the risk factors and warning signs for mental disorders and substance use concerns, strategies for assisting people in crisis and non-crisis situations, and how to get professional help.

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Practicing Mental Health First Aid skills

In the United States, the “movement” boasts a million Mental Health First Aiders—and millions more are needed. The country is going through an epidemic of mental health disorders. The national suicide rate increased 24 percent from 1999 to 2014. In 2016, 42,249 people died from opioid overdoses; 2.1 million Americans had an opioid use disorder. An estimated 43.6 million American adults are living with a psychiatric illness and another 16.3 million have an alcohol use disorder.

The 2016 annual report of the Center for Collegiate Mental Health said collected data from 139 college counseling centers showed that 33.2 percent of 150,483 college students seeking counseling in the 2015-16 academic year had “seriously considered attempting suicide.” That was a marked increase from 23.8 percent in the 2010-11 academic year. About 1,100 college students annually take their own lives.

“As someone who has battled both depression and anxiety personally, and has family members who battle alcoholism, this is a very important topic to me,” said Emily Guenther, one of the April 16 trainees. “It was nice to come to a class where I felt like people understood the difficulties and hardships that are faced daily when dealing with mental health issues. It was wonderful for me to finally get some tools that will be very useful for me moving forward!”

The sentiment was shared by many other trainees.

“The hospitality world often fosters an especially high-stress work environment and, as someone in a managerial position, I am very invested in the mental well-being of my crew, both day-to-day and long-term,” said Rob Hummel, the front desk manager of Argos Inn. “Certainly being concerned for others isn’t enough to be helpful, and the very specific identification and communication techniques presented at training gave me a proper, practical means of applying that concern when it’s needed. The attitude of care and compassion that Melanie and David encouraged as an integral part of mental health first aid is invaluable, both at work and in one’s own life.”

The Mental Health Association employs three certified trainers, and offers regular sessions open to the public and organizes private in-house trainings for companies and organizations.

“At the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County, we are passionate about Mental Health First Aid as part of the delivery of our agency’s mission to create a citizen’s movement in support of our community’s mental health,” said trainer Melanie Little. “The further this information spreads, the more our area will be filled with individuals who are ready to provide support, compassion, understanding, and resources to our fellow community members who are struggling.”

Little explained that the training teaches compassion, listening skills, the types of mental health help that are available, and combats the stigma surrounding mental health that prevents so many individuals from accessing the help they need and deserve. In an eight-hour course, she said, the training includes discussions about complex and difficult topics, and gives participants ample time to practice their skills by applying them to a wide range of scenarios.

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Melanie Little and David Bulkley of the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County

Mental Health First Aid not only serves humanity, it serves the bottom line, too. According to Mental Health First Aid USA, 40 percent of employees with a mental illness take up to 10 days off work a year because of it. Yet 35 percent of managers feel they have no formal support or resources to help their employees.

And, it’s kind of cool, or at least Lady Gaga thinks so: her Born This Way Foundation has helped train 150,000 people in Mental Health First Aid.

For more information or to schedule a training in Tompkins County, contact:

Melanie Little, Mental Health Association in Tompkins County

mlittle@mhaedu.org

For information about applying for a Mental Health First Aid training grant from The Sophie Fund, contact:

The Sophie Fund

thesophiefund2016@gmail.org

To support The Sophie Fund’s grants for Mental Health First Aid training, click here to go to the Donate page.

 

Photos courtesy Yuko Jingu

Saying “The S Word” at Cornell

The uncomfortable topic of suicide was the main theme of a four-day-long “Mental Health Weekend” organized by the student mental health advocacy group Cornell Minds Matter. As part of its effort to encourage open discussion about suicide and to destigmatize mental disorders, the group hosted a screening for the Ithaca community Sunday evening of The S Word, a new award-winning documentary by director Lisa Klein. The event was sponsored by The Sophie Fund.

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Reba McCutcheon, Cornell University associate dean of students; Garra Lloyd-Lester, director, New York State Suicide Prevention Community Initiatives; Lisa Klein, director of The S Word; Kelechi Ubozoh, mental health activist; and Cooper Walter, president of Cornell Minds Matter

The film follows the remarkable journey of suicide attempt survivor Dese’Rae L. Stage as she “documents the stories of courage, insight, and humor of fellow survivors.” Klein was on hand to personally present the film on the Cornell University campus, and, along with one of those survivors, Kelechi Ubozoh, took part in a panel discussion immediately following the screening. They were joined by Garra Lloyd-Lester, director of the New York State Suicide Prevention Community Initiatives.

Klein is a survivor of both her father’s and brother’s suicides. She has struggled with the “whys” for years, along with the guilt, shame, and confusion that lingers in suicide’s wake. She made The S Word to spur more open conversations about suicide.

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Watching The S Word at the Biotechnology Building conference room Sunday evening

“Tragically, 1,100 college students die each year by suicide, making suicide one of the leading causes of death among college students and young people generally,” said Cornell Minds Matter President Cooper Walter. “We hosted The S Word to increase the awareness and understanding of suicide. By expanding the conversation, we hope to contribute to the growing Zero Suicide initiative in Tompkins County.”

Other Mental Health Weekend events included a Speak Your Mind student panel in partnership with Active Minds at Ithaca College, where students could share their personal stories about suicide. On Saturday evening, the Suicide Prevention & Crisis Service of Ithaca hosted Dancing for Life, its 6th annual fundraiser for the local crisisline that provides 24/7 support for people in crisis.

The Sophie Fund is a nonprofit organization advocating for improved mental health policies and practices in Tompkins County. It was established by the family of Sophie Hack MacLeod, a Cornell senior who took her own life in Ithaca in March 2016 while on a health leave of absence.

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Sophie Jones, a Cornell University student and volunteer with The Sophie Fund, at The S Word screening

(Photography by Sarah Horbacewicz/The Sophie Fund)

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Click here to read the Cornell Daily Sun‘s story on the screening of The S Word

[If you or someone you know feels the need to speak with a mental health professional, you can contact the Crisisline (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) at 1-800-273-8255 or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.]

 

Why Cornell Minds Matter

Mental Health Weekend is my last hurrah.

I joined Cornell Minds Matter, a student organization that promotes mental health at Cornell University, during the spring semester of my freshman year. My first year of college was rough. Academically, I managed fine. Mentally, I struggled to stay afloat.

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Cornell Minds Matter President Cooper Walter

The normal homesickness, imposter syndrome, and fish-out-of-water sensation that many teenagers experience when saying goodbye to their families and going away to college were hard enough. On top of this, my anxiety symptoms were worsening. The social anxiety disorder that I had been diagnosed with a few years before had been improving with cognitive behavioral therapy. But traveling across the country, from a small high school on a strip mall to a campus of almost twenty thousand, was almost too much.

I felt isolated. I didn’t go to the dining halls because sitting alone in a crowded room was unbearable. I tried supplementing my calorically insufficient diet with packages of Oreos that I would eat in one sitting, but I kept losing weight. Losing hope, I got an email about Club Fest, the big gathering of hundreds of campus clubs in Cornell’s field house. That’s where I discovered Cornell Minds Matter.

Cornell Minds Matter (CMM) is a student group that strives to promote the wellbeing of our campus, reduce the stigma of mental illness, and connect students to the many resources available. Headquartered in a room in the Dean of Students Office, Cornell Minds Matter hosts discussion series on mental health topics (such as Dining with Diverse Minds), de-stressing events (such as gratitude card writing and bamboo planting), free physical exercise activities (including yoga and Zumba), and dozens of other events.

When I approached Cornell Minds Matter’s table, the CMM members struck me with their generosity, passion, and compassion. I was immediately interested. Being pre-med, I wanted someday to help people with their health. In CMM, I could serve others and maybe, just maybe, even raise myself out of the morass I was in.

Over three years, starting out as a regular member, then becoming a program chair, then a vice president, and now, in my senior year, president of this amazing organization, I’ve tried my best to make Cornell a better place for all minds. I can’t thank Cornell Minds Matter enough for supporting me all these years as I’ve struggled—and, I’m grateful to say, largely overcome—my own mental illness.

I’m not alone in my battle. Twenty-five percent of college students experience a mental health disorder during their time at university. Yet, less than one-third seek help. Tragically, 1,100 college students die each year by suicide, making suicide one of the leading causes of death among college students and young people generally.

So, along with my incredible fellow CMM members, I’ve been organizing Cornell Minds Matter’s Mental Health Weekend to take place April 13–16. The Weekend’s main theme is suicide.

On Saturday, April 14, we’re hosting a Speak Your Mind student panel in partnership with Active Minds at Ithaca College, where students will share their personal stories about suicide.

On Saturday evening at Hotel Ithaca, the Suicide Prevention & Crisis Service of Ithaca is hosting Dancing for Life, its 6th annual fundraiser for the local crisisline that provides 24/7 support for people in crisis.

On Sunday, April 15, through the support of The Sophie Fund, we are hosting a screening of the new documentary on suicide, The S Word. The film will be immediately followed by a Q&A panel discussion with director Lisa Klein, mental health activist Kelechi Ubozoh, and leader in the New York suicide prevention scene Garra Lloyd-Lester. Among the half dozen other events is a Mental Health Gala at the Johnson Museum on April 13.

We’ve put our hearts as well as our minds into Mental Health Weekend. As a graduating senior, it will be one of the last Cornell Minds Matter events I’ll help with. I hope you can make it.

—By Cooper Walter

Cooper Walter is the president of Cornell Minds Matter. A member of the Class of 2018, he studies human biology, health, and society in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University.

 

Why I Made a Documentary about Suicide

As I tour the country with our documentary, The S Word, it’s been interesting to gauge reactions from waiters to Lyft drivers to random people I encounter. When I tell them I’m screening my documentary, they inevitably ask “Oh, what’s it about?”

Lisa Klein Director Behind CameraLisa Klein, director of The S Word

Depending on the day, I usually pause, take a breath, do a short preamble about not jumping to conclusions, then I tell them it’s about suicide. The responses range from “Oh, that sounds like fun” to a very long, uncomfortable silence. A concerned look. Clearing of the throat. Then I launch into my spiel:

“It’s not a dirge—at all. It’s even funny—well, not funny in that suicide is funny, but funny and human in its portrayal of people living and surviving and telling their stories so other people won’t have to endure what they have…”

Not an easy pitch, to say the least. And, oftentimes the follow-up goes something like this—“Ya know what, my uncle killed himself —nobody in the family talked about it.” Or, “One of my best friends in high school killed herself, and we were all shocked.” What I am learning is that everybody knows somebody who has been touched by suicide in some way.

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Attend an Ithaca screening of The S Word with director Lisa Klein, April 15, 6:30 p.m., G-10 Biotechnology Building, Cornell University. Open to the Ithaca community. Free admission.

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As a survivor of both my father’s and brother’s suicides, I have wrestled with the guilt, shame, and confusion for years. I will never know why my dad ended his life. Nobody talked about my brother Keith. My mother could never bring herself to say the words, “my son killed himself,” words that no mother should have to say. Ever.

That was my impetus for making the film—I wanted to tell the stories of people who have lost loved ones to suicide because it’s crucial to both stay connected and to be able to talk about suicide without shame or judgment.

I didn’t come easily to this realization. The word suicide was not spoken in our house. It was the confused and traumatized ghost that lingered in the walls. It’s taken me years to figure out that speaking the word itself is not the problem. The silence that so often surrounds it is.

As difficult as it would have been for my mother to say “my son died by suicide,” I now believe that it would have freed her to grieve and find a community where she could relate and talk and listen. I think my 19-year-old self would have begged Keith to stay—and told him all the reasons why he should. But, I probably would not have asked him if he was thinking about suicide or if he had a plan. I wouldn’t have told him that it was okay to not be okay. I would have just wanted to fix the problem because that’s all I knew. What I’m left with now is retrospect and the thought that “if I knew then what I know now, my brother would be alive.”  Maybe—I can’t ever know that.

I ventured into creating The S Word barely understanding my experience with suicide, but what I have found is an incredibly rich community of people who I believe are the voices we need to hear to lead us toward the ultimate goal of suicide prevention. Who better to learn from than the people who have been there—those with lived experience who are willing to share their stories.

To spread the message of The S Word, we have been working with schools, nonprofits, local governments and law enforcement—groups whose needs vary from state to state, city to city and neighborhood to neighborhood. We welcome those vital opportunities—opportunities that could make a difference.

Until very recently, first person narratives of people who have been suicidal were largely missing from this conversation. The S Word gives voice to those who have not only survived, but have courageously transformed their personal struggles into strength and action.

The film provides a window into the lives of people who have attempted suicide and survived—their day-to-day lives, their struggles, their humanity. The S Word also offers the perspective of a family who has lost their son/brother to suicide. We feel their grief as they try to make sense of an unfathomable tragedy.

So, when somebody asks me, “Why suicide? Isn’t that topic depressing?,” my answer is very clear: “There is nothing depressing about working to prevent suicide and the kind of suffering that so many families have endured. The most depressing thing would have been to remain silent.” And not to have made this movie.

—By Lisa Klein

 

Lisa Klein is the director of The S Word, released in December 2017. She co-directed the 2012 documentary Of Two Minds about bipolar disorder. She and her husband Doug Blush own MadPix, Inc., an independent production company in Los Angeles. Klein will present a screening of The S Word and lead a panel discussion in Ithaca on April 15 at 6:30 p.m. G-10 Biotechnology Building, Cornell University. The event is sponsored by Cornell Minds Matter and The Sophie Fund.

“Thank You for Your Work”

New York state officials singled out The Sophie Fund as well as the Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service this week for their leadership and commitment in promoting improved suicide prevention practices in Tompkins County.

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Tompkins County proclamation of suicide prevention month (September 2017): Lee-Ellen Marvin, executive director, Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service; Scott MacLeod, The Sophie Fund; Anna Kelles, Tompkins County legislator

In a March 26 letter addressed to the two Ithaca organizations, Jay Carruthers, director of the state Suicide Prevention Office, and Sigrid Pechenik, director of the state Suicide Prevention Center, also applauded the suicide prevention efforts of city and county officials and local mental health stakeholders.

“We thank you and applaud the efforts that have taken place in Tompkins County over the past year,” wrote Carruthers and Pechenik. “Under your leadership and commitment to make Tompkins County a suicide safer community, you introduced and pushed forward the state’s vision.”

The state officials said they particularly acknowledged “The Sophie Fund’s efforts to bring Zero Suicide into healthcare systems in Tompkins County.” They noted that The Sophie Fund organized a summit to introduce the Zero Suicide Model to county outpatient, inpatient, and college campus leadership; created a website page devoted to Zero Suicide resources; and asked the Tompkins County Suicide Prevention Coalition to form a committee to focus on Zero Suicide Model implementation.

Remarking on the “extraordinary progress” achieved over the past year, Carruthers and Pechenik added: “We consider Tompkins County and its newly formed Suicide Prevention Coalition an exemplary testament to vision, dedication and mobilization of community stakeholders.”

The letter highlighted The Watershed Declaration, a community pledge to intensify suicide prevention efforts; Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick’s proclamation recognizing suicide as a public health concern; and the Tompkins County legislature’s designation of September as suicide prevention month.

“As the New York State Prevention Plan states, ‘suicide prevention cannot succeed without community involvement and leadership.’ Thank you for your work,” Carruthers and Pechenik concluded.

Read the Full letter

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Download “1,700 Too Many: New York State’s Suicide Prevention Plan 2016–17”