Special Feature – Safe Space: A Place for Healing through Empathy, Community, Connection

By Kate Hanzalik

The winter in London, 1962, was the coldest it had been in a century, and the poet Sylvia Plath felt it like the depression in her bones. It had returned, caused by the pains of motherhood, the role she played as a wife. It was caused by feelings of guilt, unworthiness, and the trauma of her “suffering the atrocity of sunsets,” she said. At night, she was an insomniac, “inhabited by a cry.” During the day, she wrote poetry with a “a dark thing that sleeps in [her].” This, following multiple suicide attempts and rounds of electroconvulsive shock therapy. This, as she wrote a collection of poems that would win the Pulitzer Prize after her suicide.

Plath’s readers felt for her and empathized with her – her tormented soul became the salve to their own suffering. In much the same way, Safe Space is a sanctuary where those who went through periods of their life where they were struggling with their mental health offer support to those who need it the most.

Founded by Tracy Mergler in 2020, Safe Space offers services, classes, and support groups for many things, ranging from eating disorders, post-traumatic stress, postpartum experiences, men’s mental wellness, and more. Currently, the organization is partnering with local providers and offering these services until Safe Space’s physical space is completed, at which point everything can be offered under one roof.

Mergler, who grappled for decades with an eating disorder and depression, conceptualized the organization after she returned from an in-patient facility for the sixth time. “I said, ‘What do I need, what is missing that I need in this community?’ And honestly that night, being the special ed teacher that I am, I laid out a piece of paper and markers and I drew Safe Space. So it is built off of my own recovery, what I found worked for me, and what we were lacking in the community.”

During her in-patient treatment, Mergler was forced to join a group for patients with eating disorders. “I was surrounded by individuals that had gone through something I had gone through . . . In treatment, it was that feeling of being understood [that] validated everything,” she said. “It was a game changer, and I was like, we have to normalize this in community. We just kept coming back to that. How do we create community? But do it in a way that is safe. And so, ‘Safe Space.’”

Safe Space has grown over the years. Now, the organization offers six peer-to-peer support groups, with more in development. Safe Space has a partnership with Right Mind Syracuse and is doing a four-part series with them partnering mental wellness and art. “We also are doing community pop ups through the Westcott Community Center, Southwest and Northeast to bring Safe Space services TO the community and find out what they want to see more of,” Mergler said.

Classes in yoga, meditation, breathwork and drumming will all be offered in the next month on the second floor of the Gere Block building that has been gracious enough to allow Safe Space to use that space until theirs is completed. All of this is because of the high demand and the desire of those who want to help because they can relate.

“We need the medical model with the holistic model,” said Mergler. “We are encouraging individuals to build their own toolbox of supplies because what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for the other. So what peer-to-peer support does is it puts us on the same playing field. [Group facilitators] can say, ‘I’ve sat where you’ve sat and I’ve gotten to the other side.”

Rina Brule is one such person. She leads one of the postpartum support groups. After the birth of their first daughter, both she and her husband suffered from some postpartum depression/anxiety.

“I felt completely unprepared for being a parent, despite all the books we had read and classes we had taken. I felt really scared and alone. And I couldn’t believe that no one had given me an honest heads-up about how difficult the postpartum period can be,” Brule said. But the more I talked to other people in the same position, the better, less alone, and stronger she felt.

“In my opinion, support groups are magical – meeting people at their most vulnerable, experiencing the same struggles and joys as you–there’s just something that binds you together and strengthens the entire group,” she said.

Participants in The Men’s Group know the magic of meeting like-minded people; it is one of the largest groups in Safe Space. The facilitator, Sean MacMaster, is a single, divorced father whose friendship with a man who has a shared experience led MacMaster to understand why community dialogue is so valuable.

“There is a huge need for men to have a space to discuss issues they are facing today. So many men suffer in silence because we are taught to ‘suck it up’ or ‘be a man’ or any other phrase that doesn’t allow us to be able to be authentic,” MacMaster said, noting that nearly 80 percent of adult suicides in America are men. “Seeking help is seen as a sign of weakness. The goal of the group is to change that narrative.”

All groups are well attended and helpful to many, and Mergler wants to make sure it stays that way. She does outreach to local providers, therapists, and dieticians to collaborate. She’s raising funds to finish the space. She works with her board for executive decisions and networks with other women entrepreneurs in Syracuse.

“There is an unlimited amount of people that need this support,” Mergler said. “So because [Safe Space] is built to fit Syracuse, I see it only continuing to grow.”

If you are interested in learning more about Safe Space, check out www.safespace.com or find them on social media. If you would like to donate to help fund the completion of the space, go to givebutter.com/BgKTH7 or email Tracy Mergler at [email protected].