October 19, 2021

SUNY grad student to walk 384 miles for mental health fundraiser

Making every step count

Colin Spencer/staff reporter

Jacob Smith, a SUNY Cortland graduate student, walks down Forrest Avenue on Tuesday in Cortland. Smith plans to walk 384 miles next week on a treadmill to raise money for mental health awareness.

When Jacob Smith, a graduate student at SUNY Cortland, walks 55 miles each day on a treadmill next week for almost seven days, he won’t be doing it for fitness, but to raise awareness and support for mental health.

“Continuing to improve awareness of mental health seems like such an important goal for me,” he said.

Starting Monday, Smith will walk about 384 miles, the distance from the state’s northernmost point to its southernmost point. Each step will raise money to support mental health awareness.

As of Tuesday, $235 had been donated to Smith’s GoFundMe fundraiser, according to the page.

Mental health struggles have affected him as his girlfriend, Gabrielle DeFranco, has obsessive-compulsive disorder, which can make activities take longer for her than other people because she has to fight her mind to get things done, he said.

Smith said he came up with the idea for the fundraiser about a month ago because he was looking for a way to help support her and other friends who have struggled.

He told her, “If it meant I could get rid of your OCD, I would walk across the country,” he said.

Looking online, he saw videos and posts about similar challenges of people walking the lengths of states to raise money. Traveling across the entire state would require too much planning and preparation.

Instead, using a treadmill at a fitness center would provide easier access and could be done sooner. It will also provide a symbolic meaning.

People with mental health issues can feel like they are stuck in place, Smith said, but talking about it can be a step on the path to healing. The same logic can be applied to walking on a treadmill for fitness.

“On a treadmill, you are stuck in place but every step does count,” Smith said.

It will also be a test of endurance for Smith, who has competed in Spartan races, which feature multiple obstacles racers must complete before crossing the finish line.

“We’re grateful to see the support for mental health in our community,” said Aaron Baier, the executive director of Access to Independence of Cortland County Inc.During the pandemic, anxiety and depression rose as people became isolated.

While components like the distribution of the COVID vaccine and the reopening of some areas may help reduce that isolation, Baier said a new wave of anxiety has come as people are concerned with the speed of reopening and that reopening too fast could create more surges of infections.

Addressing these concerns and dealing with depression and anxiety will depend on providing people the options they may need for support, however that may be, Baier said.

“Now is a time for new ideas to support people and not limit ourselves to the way things used to be,” he said.

Smith said he wasn’t sure which organization he would donate the money raised to, but said he would likely know by the end of the week.

Awareness of mental health issues and needs has increased over the past few years, Smith said, and the stigma around talking about mental health issues has decreased as well.

But furthering the conversation and the awareness around mental health is important for Smith.

“Any sort of positive awareness, positive research, hopefully can do some good,” he said.