After her mother passed away during her freshman year of high school, Alexis Augustine found that therapy became an outlet for her to address her mental health. But when she told some of her family and friends that she had been seeking professional help, she was taken aback by the judgement that followed.
As a result, Augustine, then a high school senior in New Orleans, founded Change the Stigma, a nonprofit initiative dedicated to fostering meaningful and inclusive discourse about mental health among young people.
“I didn’t get the reactions from people that I wanted,” said Augustine, now a freshman majoring in psychology. “It was heartbreaking — and out of that, I started reaching out to people to see if [others] wanted to talk about [these issues].”
When she began reaching out to her friends to join Change the Stigma, Augustine realized that more people needed to be in a safe environment to comfortably discuss their mental health struggles.
Founded in 2017, CTS originally began for students in Augustine’s community to work toward the destigmatization of mental health issues through open discussions.
Since then, the nonprofit has grown into an organization that centers its efforts on arts initiatives dedicated to the broader topics of diversity, mental health, equality and representation. Augustine helped coordinate public productions at local theaters and creative spaces with fellow CTS members.
“We make a production that highlights a [stigmatized topic],” Augustine said. “The performances are supposed to be thought-provoking.”
Augustine said that during a production in 2017, which showcased spoken word poetry, musical numbers and even a live jazz band, she found that audience members were moved by a performance illustrating the transgender experience.
“The ones that I have put on at home have really changed a lot of people’s minds on certain things,” Augustine said. “My grandma went to my show and she’s very old school … [and] said that she has never thought about these types of things.”
When Augustine came to USC in August, she was determined to find a group of creative and dedicated students with similar aspirations to establish a campus chapter of the nonprofit. Through her dance minor classes, Augustine met freshman Isabella Allen, a freshman majoring in dance. after discovering that they shared similar interests, Allen became CTS Vice President.
“Especially while we’re being educated in an institution [such as USC], it’s good to have discussions on things that are not brought up in regular lectures,” Allen said. “[We should be] open to growing in your awareness of things outside of your own life or personal life and learn[about] other people’s own experience.”
Augustine said that a shared passion for encouraging creativity and increasing awareness about mental health issues is what initially brought the two students together.
“Psychology is my major, and dance is my minor,” Augustine said. “Dance is [Allen’s] major and neuroscience is going to be her minor … [so she was the] perfect person to be my vice president.”
Augustine and Allen spent last semester organizing a team of eight freshmen from various schools and backgrounds at USC to join the organization. The unique team comprises students majoring in accounting, public policy and environmental studies, among others.
CTS member Yahm Steinberg, a freshman majoring in theatre, said she hopes that CTS can bring students together to address issues such as discrimination through different art mediums.
“I do think there are a lot of harmful stigma and stereotypes in society that contribute to bigger problems, like microaggressions are ultimately something that build up and lead to things like racism, anti-semitism, sexism,” Steinberg said. “Art is a beautiful way to try and make a change … and as someone who considers themselves a social activist and artist, the combination of the two things are appealing to me.”
CTS was officially recognized as a USC student organization this semester, and Augustine already has a topic for the organization’s first production on campus.
“[Allen] and I are really interested in dance therapy,” Augustine said. “I want to highlight how art is therapeutic and how that can change stigma.”
Though the production is still in its planning stage and doesn’t have a performance date yet, Augustine is excited to welcome new members to the organization. Nearly 100 students expressed interest at Thursday’s involvement fair, according to Augustine.
“We’re going to have a lot of talented minds to bounce ideas off of,” Augustine said.
Augustine hopes that through CTS, USC students will help change the climate surrounding mental health issues.
“This is needed in a lot of people’s lives,” Augustine said. “Just discussion about the things we are not discussing … [and] especially with college-age students, [for us] it is a very vulnerable time so I think it could be beneficial to be open.”