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q&a with mental health activist stefanie kaufman

By the time Stefanie Kaufman ‘17 graduated from high school, she was already founder and CEO of Project LETS, a non-profit organization supporting students and young adults with mental illness all over the world. Post- sat down with Stefanie to talk about her work as a mental health leader and the current state of mental health support at Brown.

MC: What first drew you to the work that you do for mental health?

SK: In high school, I lost a friend to suicide, which largely initiated my activist role in this community. Her death was handled very poorly in our school district, and I became more vocal about policy reform, curricular changes, and giving these difficult conversations a starting point. I was also living silently with my own progressing mental illness and was being failed by the system. Once my family was able to cajole my insurance company into paying for a not-so-decent therapist, I saw an approach that was wrong, harmful, and ineffective. In terms of the community approach, I saw a concentration and heavy focus on awareness, which is still happening today. Raising awareness about mental illnesses without also addressing health disparities, cultural differences, inadequacy of mental health care treatments, insurance issues, and professional and clinical stigma is not enough. We must actively work to create accessible resources, reform existing oppressive policies, and understand that clinical and professional help do not work for everybody.

MC: You’ve interacted with mental health professionals and advocates from universities and organizations all across the country. What do you think about the work that is currently being done in your field?

SK: I’m really excited for the growing support and evidence-based field coming out of peer support and peer counseling. I also think the connection between mental health, marginalized communities, and the prison pipeline is becoming more visible, which is something that has been lacking publicity for a long time. However, we have a long way to go in terms of actual mental health care, whether it’s legal reforms, insurance policies, clinical stigma, funding, etc. I’m excited about individuals recognizing that there is more to this battle than raising awareness—there are deeply rooted oppressions, stigma, and inequalities surrounding mental health and mental health care, and I think more of these issues are being brought to light.

MC: In your view, what is Brown’s mental health infrastructure lacking? What steps need to be taken?

SK: Mental health on this campus is not given enough attention, quality interest, or financial interest. With CAPS, it is absolutely unacceptable to offer only seven sessions to students who attend this University. In addition, there are many issues with appointments and availability, leaving students who are struggling without an appointment for up to two weeks in non-crisis situations. The seven-session limit results in many students being referred off-campus, where insurance and travel can become difficult factors. There are issues with medical leave policies and how they are handled. Communication with students on medical leave is less than stellar, and psychological leave guidelines vary in poignant ways from personal leave requirements. Many students have frustration and difficulty with gaining accommodations and working with their professors to make sure their accommodations are fulfilled correctly.

Project LETS at Brown is working to fill some of these voids. We have successfully implemented QPR [Question, Persuade, Refer] suicide prevention training at Brown and currently provide many educational panels and workshops on various mental-health-related topics. We have launched the Peer Mental Health Advocate program, which is a Peer Counseling program for all Brown students struggling with their mental health or living with a mental illness. In addition, all Peer Mental Health Advocates will staff Wellness Spaces throughout the week, where students can visit Open Hours and talk to students with lived experience. In addition, we are working to launch a Mental Health Crisis Line, where students can speak to a Peer Counselor and fellow Brown student at the touch of the button, whether it be for a general question about CAPS or a crisis situation.

MC: What advice would you give an undergraduate student struggling with mental health?

SK: To any undergraduate student at Brown struggling with your mental health: First and foremost, you are not the only person. Not by any means. Since we are all experiencing the stress and anxiety of being Ivy League students, it can be difficult to understand when something typical isn’t so typical anymore. However, something essential and worth mentioning: There is a critical difference between average stress and anxiety and a mental illness. It’s easy to tell ourselves, “Everyone is stressed, everyone is working hard and not sleeping, or not eating, etc.,” but you do not need to wait until a crisis hits to get help. If you are struggling, in any way, with or without a diagnosis, there is a space for you.

To any undergraduate student at Brown who has tried to get help—If your attempt failed, or it took up too much of your time, or you were referred out, or you were stigmatized, or judged, or you can’t seek help because your parents don’t understand or you cannot afford it: Please do not think there are no options or supports for you. You can speak with a Peer Counselor for free. You can attend our panels and workshops, our LETS Spaces, our Wellness Spaces, our Office Hours. You can request an advocate if you feel you have been treated unfairly or discriminated against. There are students on your side, living a battle quite similar to your own, who really, truly understand. There is no shame when working peer-to-peer.

MC: What are the next steps for you and for LETS? What are you currently working on?

SK: We are working on building our partners—local, national, international, and corporate (money is, literally, everything). We are incredibly excited to expand our Peer Mental Health Advocate program to clinics, hospitals, prisons, schools, universities, etc., and allow this essential form of support to thrive in all kinds of communities. We have some podcasts, new programs, campaigns, and amazing team members joining us, so I’m incredibly excited to see where LETS goes in the next few years!