When W.T. Clarke High School senior Stefanie Kaufman received a letter from the White House — complete with the presidential seal and President Obama’s signature — informing her that she had won the President’s Volunteer Service Award, her initial reaction was not celebration, but relief.
For the past year, Kaufman has tried to change the way people view mental illness, both in the school and throughout the community, with mixed results. It is a topic that few people want to be lectured about, the 17-year-old quickly discovered, let alone by a teenager. But the President’s Service Award, given out annually to young adults who inspire others to get involved as volunteers, may have finally given her the chance to make her voice heard.
Project LETS, or Let’s Erase The Stigma, is a group Kaufman created to inform adolescents about mental illness, and to try to change the mindset people have about a topic often viewed negatively. “People are really embarrassed and ashamed of mental illness in today’s society,” she said. “It’s seen as a weakness. In my opinion, nobody really wants to talk about it.
“That’s the stigma that I want to get rid of,” Kaufman continued. “It’s OK to talk about it and ask for help. It’s not something that needs to be hidden.”
Turning tragedy into triumph
In 2009, an East Meadow High School freshman named Brittany Petrocca lost her battle with mental illness and committed suicide. Kaufman said she was friendly with Petrocca, and they shared mutual friends.
Petrocca’s death had a great impact on Kaufman, and after attending her wake and talking with her friends, she decided that suicide prevention was something that needed more attention. “I’ve seen the after-effects of a suicide, and I know what it does to a community,” she said. “It’s been an emotional issue for everyone involved. I’m trying to put my feelings about that situation into something positive now.”