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Featured Charity: Active Minds Inc.

Active Minds / Active Minds Send Silence Packing

Featured Charity: Active Minds Inc.

Alison Malmon, founder and Executive Director of suicide prevention nonprofit Active Minds Inc., shares thoughts on why lifting the stigma surrounding mental health issues is vital (especially for young adults).

Where did the inspiration for Active Minds Inc. come from?

Malmon: “When I was a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, my brother Brian died by suicide. He was four years older than me, a college student himself. He started struggling in freshmen year of college but didn’t tell anyone; he was ashamed and didn’t understand what was going on. He thought he was the only one, that it was his fault. On the outside he had a high GPA, was a star student, a sports editor. Brian finally got help and took a voluntary leave of absence, staying at home to get treatment for schizoaffective disorder. But about a year and a half after that leave of absence, he took his life. It was March of my freshman year.

I realized that what happened to Brian could have happened to me. Even though we come from a supportive family and have great friends, no one was talking about mental illness. There was no support for it. I dove into research and found that his story, the fact that he’d begun experiencing mental illness while enrolled at an ivy league university, wasn’t that uncommon. The onset of almost every mental health disorder is college-freshman age. So I was flabbergasted that no one ever talked about it, not at any freshman welcoming ceremony or anything. I started Active Minds when I graduated college. I wanted to start promoting mental health awareness the same way fraternities have benefits for cancer research – to bring public attention to our society's need to talk more openly about mental health. We need to talk about it the way we talk about every other health issue.”

What are some ways Active Minds is starting conversations about mental health?

Malmon: “One way is our suicide awareness program, Send Silence Packing. We collected 1,100 backpacks to represent the 1,100 college students who die by suicide each year. Quite a few families donated the actual backpacks that had been carried by college-aged loved ones they’d lost to suicide. Those have stories and pictures attached to them. We travel to schools and community centers and cover main areas with the backpacks; the display can cover a third of a football field. When people wander through and read the stories, they realize that these students were just like you and me, but they felt so alone.

Another way is PostSecretU. We’re thrilled to have worked with Frank of PostSecret for many years. We formed a partnership whereby Active Minds created a campus-based version of PostSecret (Frank’s community-based art project, which encourages people to submit anonymous secrets). Students distribute postcards that have mental health resources attached on sticky notes around their campuses, and people write their secrets on the postcard and drop them off in mailboxes. The campus then displays the postcards in a main area of campus. It’s an area where students come see the secrets shared, to see the similarities among us. It shows that students are not alone. they don’t need to keep it quiet."

Why do you think people are so afraid of talking about mental health?

Malmon: “A lot of it, of course, is that mental illness is stigmatized. Depending on what research you look at, anywhere from 90-95 percent of suicides were suffering from a mental health disorder when they died, but many were undiagnosed. Too many people separate it, saying people committed suicide because of things like breaking up with a boyfriend or losing a job. But if you dig into it, most of them suffered from a disorder. People want to say that young adult suicides were circumstantial, not the result of a mental disorder.

I also think young adults have a unique level of stigma because this is the age when you feel you're supposed to be making a name for yourself, figuring out who you are. And this is also the time when mental disorders present. So it’s an internal stigma in addition to a social one.”

Chapters of Active Minds Inc. often connect with young adults through social media. Would you say social media has been helpful in your mission to destigmatize mental health issues?

Malmon: “Reporters often ask me, ‘Don’t you think social media makes things worse?’ and my answer is that it does not. When I was in high school it was the beginning of AOL Instant Messenger, then Facebook, Reddit, Instagram... I think young people have more of a chance to share what they’re going on in their lives today, whereas in generations past, people would just write it it their diary. Social media can cause issues of course – we all put our best foot forward online so it's easy to think other people’s lives are perfect. But it can also be a huge benefit to communicating and supporting mental health.”  

Originally published 08/03/2015