Stefanie Kaufman of Brown University
As a freshman in high school, I was part of a community grieving the loss of a fellow student and friend, Brittany Marie Petrocca. In terms of giving students space to heal properly and process what had happened, the conversations were shut down, and students who spoke up were essentially silenced. There was an overwhelming feeling that any mention of what had happened was glamorizing suicide, and if we spoke about it, we would encourage more students to take their lives as well. It felt like the argument used to curb education against contraceptives and alcohol, etc.; and I was frustrated by our incredibly basic overview in our health classes in high school.
Furthermore, I had ben living with a fairly severe case of OCD since about the age of 12, and I would soon reach a personal breaking point in high school following a sexual assault my senior year of high school. I was also engaging in self-destructive behaviors, while I watched individuals in my social circle mock those actions as attention-seeking, or silly. But as I silently lived with my deteriorating mental health, I was able to perform to a standard that was deemed socially acceptable, and continue to perform academically well — two factors that assure one is not mentally ill. Thus, I felt an urgency and need to use my abilities to advocate for a better system.
At first, our mission was fairly simplistic — focusing on just erasing the stigma (hence, the name!). But as I’ve grown, our mission has grown as well. Though we’d like to imagine a world without stigma, it is still very real for individuals. We can tell people all we’d like to seek help, but what does that do to address the traumas individuals may face once they do seek that help? What if we encourage someone to come out as mentally ill, and they lose their job? What if we tell students to just ask for that accommodation, and then it is denied? I truly starting viewing this issue as much more complex and dynamic, with many factors impacting mental health/illness besides access to care.
At Brown, I’ve worked with a number of students (including myself) who have felt discriminated against, unsupported, or disregarded by the system. In my perspective, it is not enough to shuffle students to these resources. We must also hold these systems of care and support accountable. Personally, our main solution is through peer-led interventions of support, and we’ve seen really remarkable changes through our Peer Mental Health Advocate (PMHA) program at Brown University, a full-functioning peer counseling and advocacy service free for all students. Students are matched one-on-one with a trained PMHA who has lived experience with a mental illness. Students may choose a PMHA that has a similar race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, or area of experience with mental illness. We work to build comprehensive safety plans and coping skills with our students, and help connect them to whichever services they are able to/would like to work with. We work to advocate for our students, and help sending e-mails, making phone calls, and holding resources accountable. Most importantly, we provide ongoing support, and follow our students through their use with these services so they do to fall through the cracks.
At the end of the day, we know what it takes to help a student with mental illness stay in college. Because we share lived experience, we have a unique ability to help our fellow students achieve an increased quality of life/maintain recovery/engage in harm reduction, and explain clinical and medial terms in a way that the average person can understand. Our PMHAs also offer emotional support during crises and otherwise, and we connect to larger systems of wraparound care, such as 24/7 Crisis Lines.
In terms of whether or not the negative stigma associated with mental health/illness is heightened in a collegiate atmosphere, I definitely think that is subjective and dependent on what type of environment you are used to. Some students will come from a fairly conservative place, or perhaps come from a cultural or religious background that doesn’t talk about mental illness in the same type of open way that colleges are now attempting to. By and large, many colleges are engaging in awareness campaigns or making mental health more of a priority, but on an individual social scale, it can all depend on your network of friends, and how knowledgable they are in terms of perpetuating stigma and appropriate ways to support people living with mental illness. In addition, as I stated above, many students are coming forward and citing specific instances of discrimination and stigma stemming from university administrators, so we also need to practice what we preach.
I have definitely witnessed a connotation of mental illness with weakness, and have met individuals who believe that students are just making excuses, faking it, or aren’t trying hard enough when it comes to mental illness. If a student asks for a Dean’s note before an exam, they just must not feel prepared, and are finding a way out of it. We can see this attitude reflected in the current debates regarding trigger warnings, which to me, is a hidden debate of who deserves to feel comfortable while receiving an education.
It is important to remember that these institutions were treated for white, heterosexual, cis, men. When a system was not designed for you, even with accommodations, privilege is still ingrained in the structure itself. Project LETS also exists as a chapter on campus, and we have seen that uniting as a group allows individuals with mental illness to affect structural change — making others aware of systemic oppression and erasure of our narratives, and to enact solutions to these institutional injustices. Through this, we take ample time to support ourselves as well, and work to educate our fellow students; always through the perspective of those with lived experience.