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BIDEN INSTITUTE BLOG Bringing Awareness to Mental Health on College Campuses

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by Alison Malmon, Founder and Executive Director, Active Minds

Alison Malmon’s brother, Brian, died by suicide during her first year in college after a protracted and silent struggle with schizoaffective disorder. Left with more questions than answers, Alison looked for a student organization on her campus that was talking about mental health. Finding none, Alison started her own.

Today, Alison continues to inspire audiences with her story and calls to action. While dispelling the myths, fear, and shame that surround people who struggle with their mental health, Alison mobilizes communities to take action and join the mental health movement. Alison lives in Colorado with her husband and three children. Alison is a graduate of University of Pennsylvania and has been Founder and Executive Director of Active Minds, Inc. in Washington, D.C. since 2003.

I founded Active Minds when I was a junior at the University of Pennsylvania following the suicide of my older brother, and only sibling, Brian. Brian was a smart, popular, and fun student through high school and college. In the beginning of his freshman year at Columbia University, he started struggling with depression and psychosis, but concealed his symptoms from everyone around him for three years. In the middle of his senior year, he returned home and began receiving treatment for what was later diagnosed as schizoaffective disorder. His underlying depression was left untreated and only worsened as he continued to hide his distress from his friends.

The depression had created a space for him where he felt like he was the only one, that all of it was his fault. A year and a half later on March 24, 2000, as I was wrapping up my freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania, Brian ended his life. I recognized that Brian’s story is the story of thousands of young people who suffer in silence; who, despite their large numbers, think they are totally alone. A majority of mental illnesses start between ages 14 and 24 when teens and young adults are in school, and suicide is the second leading cause of death for college students.

At Penn, I saw that no one was talking about mental health issues although many were affected. One of every five students live with a mental health condition, but stigma and shame were preventing students from reaching out. I knew the only way things would get better is if young people started talking about it. I wanted to combat the stigma of mental illness, encourage students who needed help to seek it early, and prevent future tragedies like the one that took my brother’s life.

I looked around for existing groups I could simply bring to Penn to begin to change the culture on campus. Finding none, I created my own student-to-student model and forming a student group then known as Open Minds. The group’s number one goal was to spread the word that seeking help is a sign of strength and not something to be ashamed of.

Within two years, as the number of chapters continued to increase and I also graduated from college, the group grew as more and more students realized that others shared their concerns. Kate Hard, a friend of mine, transferred to Georgetown University and founded the group’s second chapter there. Soon I was fielding calls from all over the country from students and administrators wanting to do something on their own campuses.

A national office was established in Washington, DC. The new nonprofit organization and all of the affiliated campus chapters were renamed Active Minds to reflect the organization’s focus on action and student advocacy in mental health. Active Minds was incorporated as a 501(c)3 organization in late 2003.

Active Minds has since become the premier organization impacting young adults and mental health. Now on more than 600 campuses, we directly reach close to 600,000 students each year through campus awareness campaigns, events, advocacy, outreach, and more.

In addition to a 500+ strong chapter network of passionate student advocates, Active Minds’ programs include Send Silence Packing®, an award-winning suicide prevention exhibit; Active Minds Speakers featuring professional speakers who provide encouraging and safe mental health education for students and other audiences; and the Healthy Campus Award, which honors colleges that are prioritizing student health and well-being.

Our consistent message, amplified by more than 15,000 students each year, is that mental health needs to be talked about as easily as physical health. Only then can we bring suicide and mental health into the open so no one struggles alone.


*DISCLAIMER*

The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Vice President Biden, the Biden Institute or the University of Delaware.

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Biden Policy Dinner Guest Blog by Alison Malmon

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