Project LETS Works to Erase the Stigma

Big Cartel Art Works is our initiative to provide work, opportunity, and creative freedom to artists in this time of uncertainty. As the pandemic has intersected with overdue discussions on racism and inequality, we’ll be commissioning some projects that stretch beyond our normal areas of expertise. Right now, it’s time to learn and elevate stories that we all need to hear.

We’re doing our work to understand - and undo - the harm caused by systemic racism and racist atrocities. Today, Mitchell Kuga interviews Stefanie Lyn Kaufman-Mthimkhulu of Project LETS, an organization with the mission to provide peer support for mental healing.

This article contains discussion of suicide and mental health.

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After their 14-year-old friend Brittany Marie Petrocca died by suicide, in 2009, Stefanie Lyn Kaufman noticed a shocking lack of resources from their local school district. Though it was clear that Brittany’s community in East Meadow, New York, was grieving, teachers and school officials did all they could to avoid discussing her death - even refusing to include her in the yearbook four years later, after her mother offered to pay for an ad. By extension, administrators also squashed any discussion about suicide prevention or resources for mental illness. “l think the school thought that if they addressed it in any capacity they might be liable: why weren’t teachers aware that their student was suicidal, for example,” says Stefanie, who uses she/they pronouns. “So there were a bunch of 14-year-olds, many of whom this was their first experience with loss; it was such a traumatic loss, a sudden loss, and we had nowhere to turn.”

Galvanized by the silence, in 2010 Stefanie started talking. The high school sophomore put together a powerpoint presentation that outlined their lived experience with self-harm, depression, and symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder, then spoke to local community groups - as a former girl scout, Girl Scout Troops were a primary audience - with the intention of destigmatizing mental illness. On their website, Stefanie listed their phone number and encouraged calls from anyone who needed to talk. Late one night, the response, with callers from as far as Bulgaria and Brazil, was overwhelming. Stefanie knew they had to expand.

The result is Project LETS, or Let’s Erase The Stigma.

Founded by Stefanie as a non-profit in 2013 during their senior year in high school, the national grassroots organization provides resources and communities of peer-to-peer support, meaning each chapter is led by the very people it hopes to serve: folks with lived experience of mental illness and madness, disability, trauma, and neurodivergence. It now has over 35 chapters, a majority based on college campuses throughout the country, where students are experiencing record high rates of anxiety and mental illness (something Stefanie discovered at Brown, where they developed Project LETS’ Peer Mental Health Advocate curriculum). Project LETS applies an abolitionist framework to the mental health care system as we know it, advocating for dismantling medical institutions like psych wards in favor of a more just system, particularly in regards to race, disability, and class.

In July, as part of Big Cartel’s commitment to anti-racism, the company donated $10,000 to Project LETS. In August, we chatted with Stefanie from their home in Rhode Island about what peer-led support looks like, mental health in communities of color, and reclaiming the word “crazy.”

Between a pandemic that’s led to a massive recession and the renewed attention being paid to racial violence in this country - not to mention the upcoming election - this feels like a particularly precarious time for anyone struggling with their mental health. In what ways has your work with Project LETS changed since March?

I cringe every time I see a piece that’s like Covid has created a mental health crisis.

No, we need to be very specific with our language. Covid has created a social and economic crisis, which in turn has created and exacerbated a mental health crisis. It is completely logical for someone to be suicidal if they cannot pay their rent or put food on the table. If we frame it in a socioeconomic way we can provide social and economic solutions as opposed to saying, “All these people are now anxious and depressed, let’s just get them on medication and not address everything.”

For the first time, people who haven’t been radicalized are very much understanding the connections between social conditions and disability. There are many people who have survived Covid who may be disabled for the rest of their lives. Where is that support coming from? What is that going to look like?

And from these uprisings, people are coming into disability in a very political way - people who have been shot by police with rubber bullets, people who have lost eyes - which I think is helping to illuminate a lot of what we’re talking about. All of a sudden everyone is an abolitionist, so we’ve really taken this as an opportunity to say, hey everyone, incarceration is not just in prisons or jails, it’s also in nursing facilities and psychiatric units and group homes. Look who’s been left to die - all the nursing facilities, people who are in prisons and psych wards. So I think certain aspects have been really radicalizing for people.

In terms of our work, we’ve definitely shifted a lot of things online, which has been interesting and also hella frustrating as a disabled person; I’ve worked with so many students who had to leave their universities because schools wouldn’t provide access to taking classes remotely, but all of a sudden in a week every university in the United States manages to go remote. You couldn’t make that accommodation before? It has been great to see what is possible, but also infuriating.

I recently listened to a podcast with Maria Town, who said something I never thought about before: “Everyone will become disabled if they are lucky enough.” Reframing disability as a privilege, and as pedestrian as aging, felt really illuminating to me.

I love that perspective. Even with something like psychosis, we know that anybody who doesn’t get enough sleep can enter into an altered state or become psychotic. These are states that anyone can come into. With physical impairments, someone can get into a car accident at any moment, which for many people is the first time they are actually aware of how incredibly inaccessible our entire society is. A lot of my work is about how you don’t have to become disabled to recognize that things need to change.

How did you develop the curriculum for Project LETS and its peer-led model? Did you have any mentors or did you learn as you went along?

I definitely developed some mentors later on; at first I think a lot of it was me kind of piecing shit together and doing it because I needed it. It was borne out of exactly what I needed in a particular moment, and a lot of experimentation.

The peer specialist role kind of exists in the larger mental health system. They are these one-off positions where a psychiatric unit might hire one peer specialist that worked on the floor and talked to patients. At first I was like this is amazing, and then I looked at the curriculum - it was so white and so medicalized and so westernized. So I took some of that curriculum and also got certified in Intentional Peer Support, this program that really approaches things from more of a social lens, and did a lot of studying on my own - I was a Medical Anthropology major studying neuroscience, and also Contemplative Studies, thinking about how different conceptions of mental illness came to be. It all kind of melded together into our 16-hour Peer Mental Health Advocate curriculum, which gets updated every year.

A lot of it was the actual skills and resources that are needed to do a good job as a peer counselor, but a lot of what we added was political education, like the history of psychiatry, the history of racism in psychiatry. Everything has to be done from an intersectional lens, we have to talk about different experiences every step of the way.

Can you paint me a picture of what peer-to-peer support looks like in practice?

At its core, it’s really people holding each other and working with each other and loving each other in mutually beneficial relationships. We really see it as an abolitionist offering because we are working outside of the state built systems of care and support, focusing on not punishing people, not caging people in distress, and not forcibly medicating people. If you want to talk about self-harm we won’t throw you in the back of a cop car. Having that mutual culturally and socially competent support grounded in a place of lived experience really minimizes those power dynamics. I really think of it as the best friendship that you could imagine. That friend who is always listening, that you never have to worry about coming through for you.

There tends to be a particularly strong stigma surrounding mental illness in communities of color. How does Project LETS address that?

A few years back, I didn’t have the language I have now, and we were kind of calling everything “mental illness,” still using this really medicalized language and noticing that a lot of our peer counselors were really white. We talked to certain community groups [at Brown] and one of the things that kept coming up was that the terminology of mental illness and disability wasn’t really resonating for a lot of different reasons. Someone told us, “I’m already Black and gay, I don’t need to add another marginalized identity to that.”

It’s not that POC aren’t talking about it, but it’s in different languages or with different terminology than what white people want to see. Something that comes up a lot in Latinx communities is “sickness of the nerves,” or talk about the nerves being bad rather than using terms like mental illness, disability, or trauma.

It’s a different risk for a white person to stand up and say I’m schizophrenic versus a Black person doing that. That’s a whole different lens and experience, so we really had to move away from this glorified understanding that the “right way” is to stand up and be loud and proud.

It’s been really important for people to work with someone who reflects their identities, so folks are now able to say I want to work with a Black non-binary person, or I want to work with a queer Latinx person. Ninety percent of the time we are able to make those identity matches and folks are able to have these relationships where they don’t have to explain their identity to someone. That can make all the difference when it comes to opening up and talking about the things you really need to talk about.

Speaking of language, I’ve only recently started becoming more aware of how much words like “crazy” and “insane” have been casually embedded into my speech, which is something I’ve been trying, and struggling, to amend.

Right? It’s also interesting because “crazy” has been a term that some people really claimed, in the same way as “queer” or “crip.” I saw this post the other day that enraged me; someone was like, people who have psychosis are not crazy, and I’m like, yes we are, we are literally crazy. I think it really depends on who is saying it and what their intention is at that moment. But when it’s used in this way - watering it down to make other people feel comfortable with our experience - it’s like no, we are crazy and we own it.

Because Big Cartel is home to all sorts of creatives, do you think artists and makers are susceptible to any particular mental health concerns?

Definitely. I think there’s a lot tied into this idea that the best art comes out of these untreated altered states, these big emotions. I’ve seen a lot of harmful dialogue in that regard, medication shaming and people not wanting to repress their creative energy, people who work best when they’re manic.

You know, we criticize psychiatry and the mental health industrial complex, but we’re never going to tell anyone don’t take your medication. Do what helps you feel your best. There’s also the opposite - someone might be going through a depressive episode and not working as much, and having your self-worth tied to what you create and not being able to do that can really harm folks. It’s tied to our very capitalist understanding of what productivity looks like in that we only have value if we’re creating.

Mitchell Kuga

Brooklyn-based freelance journalist from Hawaii.

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