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Active Minds Shows Struggling Students They Aren’t Alone

Alison Malmon, founder of the campus-based nonprofit Active Minds, has a message for college students dealing with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and other mental health issues: You are not alone, it’s not your fault, help is available, and there is hope.

Alison Malmon, executive director of Active Minds

Alison Malmon, executive director of Active Minds, holds a favorite photo of her brother, Brian, whose suicide at age 22 led her to form the organization. Photo courtesy of Alison Malmon

It’s what she wishes her brother, her only sibling, had understood when he first began struggling with what would eventually be diagnosed as schizoaffective disorder. Bright and beloved, Brian Malmon had seemed to be heading off to a life of unlimited potential when he was accepted into his top-choice Ivy League university. But he soon began to experience severe episodes of psychosis and depression. For the rest of his time on campus, he would try to hide his illness from those around him, family included.

“His brain and his talents had gotten him so far in life, and now they were causing him to think things and do things that were out of his control. He was ashamed by it and embarrassed by it,” Alison came to understand. “Most importantly, he literally thought he was the only one struggling.”

In his senior year at the university, he reached out for help at last and came home to the support of his family and to intensive treatment. But shortly after the four-year anniversary of the start of his illness, “his suicidal ideation and tendencies really hit,” Alison explained, and on March 24, 2000, at the age of 22, he took his life.

His death left Alison, a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania at the time, determined that no one else should have to feel the same need to mask their symptoms while they suffered in isolation.

“From the very beginning, I have believed very strongly that this is a topic that simply needs the opportunity for people to share their stories and use their voice because Brian thought he was the only person on his campus who wasn’t having the time of his life. As soon as you hear that other people are struggling or have struggled and have come out on the other side, it just changes your world.”

‘Everybody Has Been Touched by This’

Active Minds is now more than 12 years old, with chapters on more than 400 campuses, all run by student volunteers and backed by staff advisers. It sees itself not as a support group, Alison explained, but as a forum that allows students to “get talking about mental health, to educate about the signs and symptoms of mental health disorders, the resources for seeking help and to do that all through students — because I know full well it would have impacted Brian a heck of a lot more had his friends and peers talked about their mental health disorder or their mom’s schizophrenia than someone from the counseling center.”

The group also rolls out about a dozen national programs each year that chapters can access to bring heightened awareness to the issues of young adult and student mental health and suicide prevention. And in 2015, Active Minds announced its first Healthy Campus Award, which recognized five universities and colleges that are doing exceptional work promoting the well-being of their students.

The idea for Active Minds was an outgrowth of the research Alison immersed herself in upon her return to college after her brother’s death. “I happened to be taking an abnormal psychology class the semester Brian died. So using my textbook and the little that there was of online searches at the time, I came to learn that the age of onset of almost every mental health issue is the high school and college age. I was dumbfounded by the fact that nobody had ever told me that.”

The structure of her psychology class also disturbed her. “The professor was teaching us about the symptomology of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and what we were going to look for in our future clients, but never once said, ‘Oh, and one in four people struggles with mental illness so if any of this is impacting you, here’s the information for the counseling center’ — you know, never made it personal. And I couldn’t understand why there wasn’t a conversation around this.”

On the first anniversary of her brother’s death, Alison wrote to the national mental health organizations at the time to see what kind of college programs they had that she might be able to bring to her campus. “I never heard back from any of them,” she said, “and it was primarily because they had nothing.”

She decided to form her own group, and six months later, Alison led the first meeting of what was then called Open Minds. (The name would later become Active Minds to better reflect the progressive nature of the group’s advocacy.) “I wanted students on my campus to know they weren’t alone, that there are resources, there’s help, they’re not being weak, and the earlier you seek treatment, the more likely you are to recover.”
Alison found out quickly that when it comes to mental illness, “there is a huge taboo and a huge stigma but a ton of interest because everybody has been touched by this.”

In 2003, Alison decided to set up Active Minds as a national nonprofit. “I knew from the very beginning this was bigger than Brian’s story, but what I saw from that first chapter at Penn was that there was interest off our campus and there was an opportunity for this type of education, this type of conversation and culture change to happen on campuses across the country.”

Learning to Use Their Voice

Today, more than 12 years later, Alison is helped by a committed staff and backed by a board of directors and advisors as she shepherds Active Minds as its executive director. It’s a job made challenging by the constant coming and going of each campuses’ students. “Every single day is recruitment,” she said. “We don’t have the luxury of starting something somewhere and knowing it’s going to exist for 10 years.” The feedback, however, makes the hard work worth it.

“We’ve had a number of students who have said being part of Active Minds has saved their lives,” Alison said. “One particular student said she was not only on the verge of dropping out of school but of dropping out of life until a friend of hers dragged her to an Active Minds meeting. Then she started going, going, going, and she became president of her chapter and it engaged her in her school and in her well-being. It’s honestly just remarkable the stories that we get.”

Just as encouraging to Alison is the sense that the stigma around mental illness is slowly beginning to lessen, something she attributes to the openness of today’s youth. “I realized my generation just thinks about this differently and is willing to talk about it, but no one has given them the words to use and nobody has given them the opportunity to learn more and to share their stories and to use their experiences and their voices.”

With Active Minds, she hopes to help fill that void. “I think this generation is caring, they are empathic, they are sympathetic, they are active and aren’t just going to sit back and let things be. I continue to be so impressed with the students in Active Minds. This generation’s voice in this field is going to be the voice that ultimately changes the conversation about mental health in America.”

To see about starting an Active Minds chapter on your campus or to donate to the Active Minds mission, visit activeminds.org.

There is still hope.

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