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.