For Alison Malmon, the more than 1,100 college students who commit suicide in this country every year are much more than a statistic. Her brother was one of them.
When she was a freshman at Penn, her older brother Brian took his own life. Alison and Brian had been so close people thought that they could be twins. But when Brian found himself plunging into psychosis and a deep depression, he’d hidden his symptoms. “He was ashamed. He was scared. He thought it was his fault,” Alison explains. “He thought he was the only one not having the best time of his life in college, and that’s why he kept it quiet.”
And that’s why Alison founded Active Minds—so that other college students who are struggling emotionally will know they’re not alone. Active Minds encourages students to speak openly about mental health, to dissolve the stigma and secrecy around mental illness.
“Brian needed to hear from his peers, from his friends, from people who had graduated from his university and were successful, that they too had struggled, and yet they were okay, and they were living with and managing their disorder as part of their everyday life,” Alison adds. “But he never got that message.”
Now more than 10 years old, Active Minds involves 10,000 students a year in student-run chapters on 400 college and high school campuses across the country. These groups promote awareness of mental health, support students who are struggling, and help connect them to counseling. They are changing the environment on campuses by welcoming students to share their suffering and seek help.
Research shows that 60 percent of young people with depression and 80 percent of those struggling with anxiety don’t get treatment. Untreated anxiety and depression are major risk factors for suicide.
And as Lucy Ingram, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when she was a Connecticut College student, discovered, isolation is a huge barrier to getting effective treatment.
“In addition to the depression and anxiety I was experiencing, I distinctly remember how lonely, isolated and confused I felt during that time,” Lucy writes on the Active Minds web site. “I felt intensely embarrassed and ashamed, and was scared to tell my friends, family and teachers about the difficulties I was experiencing. I had no idea what was happening to me, and did not have an adequate understanding of what mental illness was and where I could go to seek help.”
Active Minds was a life saver for Lucy. “While it remained challenging to be a college student with mental illness, reaching out for help and sharing my experience with those around me proved invaluable to my recovery.”
So the role of Active Minds is to fight that isolation, explains Alison, now the organization’s executive director, by building a community of young adults who know what to say to friends who are distressed, and who know how to connect with the on-campus counseling services, or the crisis text line, or whatever it may take to get to people help as soon as they need it.
“Had Brian gotten support earlier,” she said, “I think his life would have been different.