On the battlefield of high school, lying is highly effective artillery. Teens protect themselves from judgment by fibbing.
About what they did this weekend. About who they did it with. About how much they studied for that test. About whatever.
So, when 18-year-old Claire Kaufman told the truth to other kids at her high school about being hospitalized for depression, it was a radical act.
By being honest and open, Kaufman attacked the depression stigma head-on and turned her experience into a powerful advocacy tool. Her work recently earned her an award from the Mental Health Association of the North Shore.
“I got fed up,” says Kaufman, whose enthusiasm for talking about depression, of all things, is as abundant as her tight, dark brown curls. “Depression is timeless. It’s been around since cavemen. And the stigma is making it worse.”
Kaufman, who just graduated with honors from Regina Dominican High School, wishes someone had told her a couple of years ago what she tells people now: Depression is a mental illness, no one should have to go through it alone and there are ways to get help.
The Wilmette teen was able to become an advocate after undergoing intensive, day-long therapy programs during two hospital stays, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), music therapy and art therapy. She still sees a therapist twice a week, which she says gives her confidence and coping strategies.
“My therapist changes my perspective on things,” she says. “You can’t always rely on a friend.”
During her senior year, Kaufman created a 20-minute film about adolescent depression using YouTube clips of teens talking about their experiences and convinced teachers to show it in several classes at her all-girls, Catholic school.
Because the film came from a peer who had first-hand experience with depression, “the kids really connected to it,” says Kathleen Houston, a Regina English teacher who showed it in her class. “It made for a very healthy dialogue. It got the class all riled up.”
Kaufman wanted people to benefit from what she had been through. “You don’t find that a lot,” Houston says.
Word of the film got around to the Mental Health Association, and Kaufman was one of three teens honored at the organization’s annual benefit in June for dispelling stigma and promoting mental health awareness.
“A young girl with that much courage, to be so sincere and open—it brought tears to a lot of people’s eyes,” says Sue Laue, a board member and past president of the association.
Meanwhile, Kaufman is just glad her passion for filmmaking is changing how people think. “People said it really changed their view about depression. One girl said: ‘It saved me.’ That meant a lot,” she says. “I want to have an impact on people’s viewpoints.”
Kaufman talks about starting her own nonprofit someday. But first, she’s heading to Mills College in Oakland, Calif., this fall.
In the meantime, her fight against stigma marches on—literally. Last weekend, she and her mom, Rachel Perlman Kaufman, walked in the Out of The Darkness Overnight to benefit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Claire met her goal of raising $1,000. Her mother is still seeking sponsors here.
Having come to terms with the darkness herself, Kaufman’s future looks bright.
This profile of Claire Kaufman is part two of our three-part series on Teen Therapy. Last week we wrote about how to find a therapist for you teen. Stay tuned next week when we examine some solutions to the pitfalls of teen therapy.