As executive director of Project LETS, a national grassroots nonprofit devoted to providing a peer-led community support network for mentally ill college students, Stefanie Lyn Kaufman knows personally what it is like to struggle to find adequate mental-health services in college. “A lot of my time at Brown [University] was really spent fighting to get the accommodations that I was legally entitled to, that were saving my ass and my education,” she told me. “It was a full-time job.” Project LETS aims to ease this difficulty. By training peers—students who have experienced mental illness themselves—to help students access resources, Project LETS is creating student networks of support and advocacy, rather than relying on already unreliable campus services or expensive and inaccessible off-campus aid.
With 10 college chapters across the country, Project LETS aims to make it easier for students with mental-health issues to get the help they need. I spoke to Kaufman about Project LETS and the state of mental-health care on college campuses.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Gabriela Thorne:Why did you create Project LETS?
Stefanie Lyn Kaufman: I founded it while I was in high school, following the suicide of my friend Brittany during my freshman year. There was an incredible number of students who were grieving this loss, and the school district really did not want to address it in any way. It kind of shook the entire community. Essentially, any kind of conversation about it seemed to be glamorizing suicide and could potentially trigger other students, so it was just completely swept under the rug. Students had advocated for suicide-prevention experts to come in and speak to the school, and that was rejected.
I remember one of my friends telling me that the school told them they couldn’t wear T-shirts with Brittany’s face on them. A few years later, her mother wanted to have her in the graduating yearbook, and she was [refused]. It was my first real introduction to being like, “Wow, the educational system doesn’t know how to handle this or address this.” I remember a memorial event was organized for her [outside of school]. And just getting together with other people who were grieving this loss in a collective space and sharing stories and just being present was what we really needed to heal and process. And that’s exactly what our schools were trying to prevent.
Beyond just advocating for this because I was grieving the loss of my friend, what I really started doing was advocating for policy change on the state level: for seventh- to 12-grade educators to be trained in basic mental-health education and suicide-prevention training. I worked with health teachers to revamp their curriculum to ensure they were providing inclusive and culturally responsive education for mental health and mental illness and started doing workshops with Girl Scouts troops and YMCAs—basically anyone who would listen to me.
As an organization, we prioritize a concept and core value of disability justice: looking at and recognizing the intersecting histories of supremacy, colonialism, capitalism, gender oppression, and ableism, and really understanding how people’s bodies and minds are labeled unproductive or disposable. A lot of my time at Brown was really spent fighting to get the accommodations that I was legally entitled to, that were saving my ass and my education. It was a full-time job. A lot [of experiences] at Brown shaped the way we built our core programs. [In] our Peer Mental Health Advocate program, we pair students with lived experiences with students who are struggling. They are doing one-on-one emotional-support work, peer counseling, but also advocacy work. [A Peer Mental Health Advocate] will show up to a meeting on your behalf, will talk to the administrator, will make phone calls for you, will call your insurance company, do background research. We do a lot of the nitty-gritty advocacy, logistical work, that is so hard for people who are struggling. We work with folks to remind them about their appointments or help them figure out the logistics of medical leave. There is no one from the university who is holding your hand during that process.
It was never like, “Oh, I want to run this business and run a nonprofit.” I really needed this service, and this help, and this program, and it wasn’t available to me. I’m trying to survive. And this is what helps folks in my community.
GT: What impact has Project LETS had?
SLK: We worked to have QPR suicide-prevention training implemented on [Brown’s] campus. We worked to have mandatory meetings removed after students are hospitalized. We worked to ameliorate the seven-session limit that existed on campus, that restricted students to seven sessions with a [campus] therapist a year. We worked to improve medical-leave policies, because there were a lot of discriminatory and, frankly, illegal things that were occurring: Students would be informed that they were being placed on forced medical leave without being informed why or given an opportunity to present an argument. The university [was] not first presenting the student with a set of accommodations that could potentially keep them on campus. These are all various protections that exist in law that give equal access to mentally ill students on campus that we found [weren’t being] followed. We found a lot of differences in the requirements for students who are physically ill or taking a personal leave versus students who are taking a psychiatric leave, as well as for deadlines and time restrictions. We worked with [campus] counseling and psychological services to provide very specific feedback about wait times and issues that were consistently happening with certain counselors or crisis protocol on campus. For example, our advocacy led to a crisis counselor being hired by Brown who is available for walk-in appointments on campus.
There have been a lot of awesome wins by students who are Peer Mental Health Advocates just within their own departments. For example, the computer-science department on campus had three Peer Mental Health Advocates who advocated for a wellness room to be built on campus in one of the new engineering buildings, as well as having departments nominate trained student advocates as point people within the department.
A couple of our PMHA mental-health advocates were taking abnormal psychology and felt that there [was] some ableist language within the course. So they’re working this semester on having a panel of students with lived experience in the classroom answering questions, talking about what it’s really like to live with these experiences. And then generally speaking, our students on campus have provided…an “out” network and community for students who are mentally ill, which is something that has really not happened before. We have on our website student faces, their photos and their bios, showing what the different faces of mental illness look like.
I think a lot of the conversation with mental health tends to center around experts. I think people are often scared of having mentally ill people share their stories. Like, they may say the wrong thing or trigger someone. And yes, there is a lot of boundary setting and community guidelines that we have in our spaces. But it’s absolutely critical to see people with lived experiences as experts of what they go through and allow them spaces to share. We started doing workshops, like “Life With Depression” or “Life With OCD,” where we put six depressed people on the stage and let them share their story. We’ll have 60 or 70 students come out who are really aching for a space where they can hear people echoing what they go through.
Through the Peer Mental Health Advocate program we have a space in which students who had not accessed mental-health services before or were terrified to get help from the institution were finally reaching out to us for support. We have over 115 peers in the program consistently and have had some huge trends of success with those students: We found that over 70 percent of students felt more prepared to handle crises. Looking at the racial and gender dynamics making up our program, we are finding that it’s more accessible culturally, and socially responsive and relevant for folks from marginalized communities, because we’re able to pair students with somebody who they specifically request who oftentimes shares aspects of their identity. But I think the depth of what we’ve done is not just the one-on-one interactions; it’s the programming that I believe has caused a real cultural shift on campus. People feel comfortable reaching out to their peers through this network that they feel is good and safe and has resources. We get calls from students who are really struggling to support their friends or don’t want to get the institution involved because they’ve seen their friends taken away on stretchers by emergency medical services, and they want to avoid that at all costs.
And oftentimes, through de-escalating situations, through connecting folks to the proper resources, and through just knowing some basic skills in crisis and mental-health care, we can really avoid needing to get authority figures involved and needing to get 911 involved. A lot of people just get overwhelmed and scared and frightened in those moments because they haven’t ever had any education about what to do.
So it’s been a lot of different arenas where we are seeing changes on campus, and now we’re expanding. We have 12 chapters established (including two in high schools) and seven new chapters we are working with. So we’re really excited to see a lot of the successes we’ve had on Brown’s campus replicated at other schools across the nation.
GT: What are some barriers that students face when accessing mental-health services on campuses? How does Project LETS help eliminate or reduce these barriers?
SLK: I think it’s different for everyone. There are some folks who are restricted by the services that their university is providing; [often] it’s the limited number of counselors available. We tend to work with a lot of students who have long-term histories and come to college knowing that they have a mental illness. A lot of folks in these communities get referred off campus really quickly because they’re told that their issue is too large to deal with within the university campus. And now this becomes an issue of privilege, right? If I’m somebody who has insurance and financial privilege and maybe a car, I have no problem getting to an appointment and paying my copay. But if I don’t have those things—and oftentimes issues of insurance and financial privilege coincide with racial dynamics and gender dynamics, as well as queerness—if someone doesn’t have insurance and the ability to get transported to an appointment, how do they get help?
GT: Where do you see Project LETS in the next five to 10 years?
SLK: We’ve always been really committed to providing services to folks who don’t have educational privilege, to expand [the mental-health model that we’ve developed] into a community-based setting. A lot of the original work started in high school, so we’re really going back now and looking at how we can build these peer-counseling systems in high schools, especially impacting the prison-industrial complex. We know that the two largest psychiatric-care providers in the United States are county jails, which is an atrocity. We know, historically, that mentally ill people have been [disproportionately] institutionalized and incarcerated.
We have a platform, and we need to not just be advocating for folks who have the privilege to attend Brown University, but people who are across the spectrum: whether you’re incarcerated, whether you’re currently being voluntarily housed, whether you’re in a residential treatment facility, or whether you’re outside of the United States and have a completely different experience with mental-health services—that’s really important for us in the long term.