August 2013, the month before she came to Brown, Stefanie Kaufman’s ’17 now-national nonprofit organization Project Let’s Erase the Stigma became incorporated. Today, the organization has chapters in middle schools, high schools and colleges across the United States and supports people all over the world through its website.
When Kaufman was in high school, she “became more aware of the kind of inequities and inequalities that (exist) not only in the mental health care system, but (also) how we treat and view mental illness as a whole,” she said. After losing a friend to suicide and silently dealing with her own mental health issues, she decided to become more active in approaching local board meetings and asking questions about the place of mental health in schools.
She describes the organization’s role as “filling this gap we see between mental health providers and professionals and typical awareness organizations,” Kaufman said.
A Project LETS chapter was established at Brown in early 2015. The group consists of about 30 peer mental health advocates who specialize in different areas, such as anxiety, depression and eating disorders. Each specialty group hosts two panels or workshop events every semester to raise awareness and inform the student community about a particular issue. Each advocate also acts as a peer counselor to students, meeting with his or her advisees at least once a week and communicating with them at least twice a week.
Project LETS and its advocates operate independently of Counseling and Psychological Services, setting Project LETS apart from peer counseling programs at many other universities. For example, the peer counseling program at Washington and Lee University is directly overseen by a psychiatrist from the university’s counseling services, said Kathryn Sarfert, organizer for the peer counselor program at Washington and Lee. The counseling program there is an extension of university counseling, and counselors are assigned to freshman dorms.
At Brown, students have been asking for a peer counseling program for several years, but CAPS did not have the resources to introduce one, said Jackie Twitchell, interim co-director of CAPS. “If we run a peer counseling center, there are a lot of rules and regulations. We have liability, and we’d have to have pretty extensive training and supervision and a place to put the peers. Those are resources we didn’t have,” she added.
The University would face different liabilities were the program to be completely student-run, rather than under the umbrella of CAPS, Twitchell added.
“We definitely aren’t therapists, and we’re not qualified to administer care to everyone,” said Lindsay Gantz ’17.5, an advocate for Project LETS and a former senior staff writer for The Herald. “The main purpose of being a (peer mental health advocate) is to be a supportive resource and ally.”
But for peer counseling to be effective, “it needs to be very well supported by clinical staff on campus,” said Sara Abelson, vice president for student health and wellness at Active Minds, a national mental health organization that raises awareness and promotes mental health through education and outreach.
Kaufman said that each advocate undergoes several weeks of training and becomes certified through the national nonprofit. Project LETS emphasizes confidentiality and tailors its peer counseling to each individual advisee’s needs.
“The point is to be supportive for whatever the needs for the other student are,” Gantz said. “We create a personal safety plan with them and work on setting goals for recovery.”
Mental health organizations often emphasize the importance of peer support when dealing with mental health issues. “Having students front and center and leading the conversation is so important,” Abelson said. “Whenever you have students talking openly about mental health, whenever there is personal story sharing … and people that have dealt with mental health challenges can share what helped them, whenever you can make students realize they’re not all alone and connect them to resources — we find that to be the most effective programming.”
“Peer support is really helpful in that it allows you to feel understood and validated and have that feeling that this person gets you, especially when it’s an aspect of identity that society says you should be silent about,” said Brown Project LETS Chapter President Molly Hawes ’17.
Though speaking to professionals can be helpful, students may prefer to speak with peers for the different perspectives they can offer.
“Some students want to come to a professional who’s been trained in the mental health profession, and some feel more comfortable going to peers. It has to do with who the student is going to go to. Peers understand peers in a way that staff will not,” Twitchell said. “Mental wellness is part of everybody’s responsibility … We can’t possibly take care of everyone on campus without the involvement of our campus partners.”
“Mental health is not a detriment to living. It’s something to live with,” said Phoebe Gallo ’17, another advocate. “I’m hoping in this role to promote and practice that.”