Students Against Stigma spreads awareness about mental health


Alice Xu

Students Against Stigma hosts “Talk-it-out-Thursdays,” where students can openly talk to their peers about mental health.

On Nov. 12, the club “Students Against Stigma” held a forum in the Atrium featuring guest speakers Katie Keyser, who is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) specializing in teen psychotherapy, and Becca Whitson, who is also a LCSW and works with adolescents and families. Students learned about a variety of topics, including stigma through language, eating disorders, suicidal thoughts, grief, anxiety and substance abuse.

Although the club is only two years old, Students Against Stigma has become well-known in the Upper School community through its many forums and events. The club, led by seniors Nylah Ali, Stefan Gustafson, Lily Pesikoff, junior Nora Doughty and Upper School Counselor Ashley Le Grange, aims to spark conversation and break the stigma surrounding mental health.

Le Grange started the club in 2019 alongside Melody Trautner, Louisa Sarofim and Soraya Stude (all ‘20). 

“A person can’t operate without their mental health,” Le Grange said, “so if they don’t take care of it, they’re not nourishing their body or their mind.”

The National Alliance on Mental Health found that one in six Americans from adolescents experience a mental health disorder every year. Pesikoff hopes that Student Against Stigma will help the Upper School build an environment where students can talk openly about their experiences without facing judgment.

“Students Against Stigma has definitely allowed people to be more outspoken about their mental health or mental illness issues,” Pesikoff said. “When I bring it up in conversation, there’s less gasping. People understand where I’m coming from.”

To many students, addressing mental health is especially important in an environment like St. John’s. 

“St. John’s has a very work-heavy culture,” Doughty said. “Everyone is taking difficult classes and doing a lot outside of classes—therefore, a lot of people are stressed.”

Because of this culture, Doughty sees educating students on how to handle stress as imperative. Students Against Stigma helps students learn about mental health-related topics through a variety of forums, such as a collaboration with the Unity Council to discuss mental health in people of color, a presentation with PRISM about LGBTQ+ mental health, and a discussion on the role of mental health in friendship.

“The idea with the forums is to educate, inform and break stigma,” Le Grange said. “It’s also about offering resources and being able to connect with experts, therapists and the people in the field.”

Students Against Stigma has definitely allowed people to be more outspoken about their mental health or mental illness issues.

— Lily Pesikoff

The club leaders believe that these discussion-based events help strengthen the community.

“When you’re doing these activities and learning new information, it seems like everyone’s merging and growing together,” Pesikoff said. “I think that is really important for a topic that’s as tricky to navigate as this one.”

Students Against Stigma also hosts “Talk-it-out-Thursdays,” where students can talk to their peers about mental health. The only requirement to join the discussions is having an open mind. 

“On Talk-it-out-Thursday, I was sitting on the grass with freshmen that I knew but not terribly well, and I felt comfortable,” Pesikoff said. “I felt comfortable saying, ‘I’m a little stressed, and here’s what’s going on.’”

While the majority of the forums are directed towards Upper School audiences, Students Against Stigma also works with St. John’s eighth-grade students. Recently, the club leaders gave a presentation to the group on stigma through language, and another on past experiences with mental health. 

“It’s especially exciting to me knowing that they’re going to be freshmen next year,” Doughty said. “As a grade coming in, they’re already going to have information on mental health, whether they use it for themselves or to be more empathetic towards their older peers.”

Pesikoff hopes to further expand Students Against Stigma’s projects to involve both younger and older members of the St. John’s community.

“Part of normalizing the discussion of mental health is teaching about it at a younger and younger age,” Pesikoff said. “I hope in the future, we can even normalize discussing it with teachers.”

Last year, all Upper School activity, including Students Against Stigma’s events, moved onto Zoom because of the pandemic. While the club had to change the format of their presentations, Le Grange saw some benefits in the switch. 

The nice thing about doing Zoom forums was that we could have an expert available to all the students at everyone’s convenience,” Le Grange said. “It’s harder to get experts to come on campus in the middle of the day because it takes them away from their clients.

Virtual school also allowed Students Against Stigma to host monthly forums, and since students were confined to their homes because of quarantine, it became easier for people to access the club’s meetings.

But despite the world gradually returning to normalcy, Le Grange believes there has been a change in the way mental health is discussed on campus.

“There’s been a lot of talk about mental health in the media, and students in our community have really stepped up in being able to ask for help,” Le Grange said. “We’ve been putting in efforts to break stigma, and we’ve actually made some traction.”

Additional reporting by Amanda Brantley.

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