Trying to erase a stigma

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Last year, Kaufman created Project LETS and began speaking to local Girl Scout troops and other youth groups about mental illness. She is also part of a schoolwide anti-bullying organization called Friends of Rachel, a group named for Columbine victim Rachel Joy Scott, but Kaufman has not yet received permission to conduct formal suicide-prevention presentations in the district.

But the lack of discussion is not just a local problem, she said. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the third leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds. Depression, meanwhile, affects 15 percent of the nation’s population.

“I think it is great that she’s trying to force the community and schools to accept these issues and learn how to prevent it,” said Brittany’s mother, Carrie Petrocca-Aronson. “I think it’s a great idea, and I hope someone listens.”

Kaufman has also tried reaching out to local elected officials, aiming to get her voice heard more widely. “She’s a very sweet, smart, caring young woman that is trying to do something worthwhile, and I really, really hope she can get through to these officials,” Petrocca added. “I really do.”

Changing the perception

Last year, Alaska became the 10th state in the country to pass legislation requiring school educators to receive annual youth suicide awareness and prevention training. Having researched the Alaska legislation, Kaufman took it upon herself to write her own draft of a bill, calling for similar state-mandated requirements for New York.

“Teachers are with the students all day long,” she said. “If they’re trained to pick up on the signs and know how to talk to students … I think that would help a lot.”

She credited Clarke principal Timothy Voels and social worker Maryann Harding for supporting her initiatives, and it was school officials who nominated her for the President’s Service Award.

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