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As you read this, there are students nationwide struggling with depression, anxiety or another mental health condition. Some will only contemplate suicide; others will act on those thoughts.
Mental illness often appears early in life: 50 percent of cases begin by age 14 and 75 percent by age 24. In 2017, a majority (61 percent) of college students said they’d felt overwhelming anxiety in the previous year, while 39 percent reported feeling so depressed it was difficult to function.
For many, suicide feels like the only option. It’s the No. 2 cause of death among college-aged people. And it’s preventable.
Stigmas around mental illness often prevent students from asking for help. According to a study by UCLA, students with suicidal thoughts are less likely to seek treatment if their college campus has a higher level of stigma associated with mental health.
This is why it’s crucial to change the conversation.
“Mental health is the social justice issue of this generation,” said Alison Malmon, founder and executive director of Active Minds, an organization best known for its its network of more than 450 student-led chapters at colleges and high schools nationwide.
For the last 15 years, students have joined Active Minds and facilitated events and trainings for their schools and peers to discuss mental health and encourage people to seek help. Nearly 530,000 people have been reached through its in-person programs.
Throughout it all, the message has been clear: No one should feel alone.
15 Years Later: How the Mental Health Conversation Has Changed
Malmon knows firsthand the tragic effects of silence surrounding mental health issues. Her brother, Brian, began struggling with depression and psychosis during his freshman year in college. He hid his symptoms and felt alone in his battle. In 2000, he ended his life.
“Nobody was talking about mental health [on college campuses],” Malmon said. “There was literally no conversation about suicide, depression, bipolar disorder, anything. The first time I ever heard the word ‘suicide’ was when I got the call from my mother that my brother had taken his own life.”
When Malmon launched Active Minds (as a college student herself), she focused on a public education and public health approach that didn’t exist on campuses.
Effecting Change on Campus
Malmon recalled the early years of Active Minds, when discussions were punctuated with negative and discriminatory news stories about mental health (such as Britney Spears’ “meltdown”). But as more people came forward with their experiences, an evolution began to happen.
Active Minds student members have led efforts to ensure schools have both mental health programming at freshman orientation and appropriate staffing levels at campus counseling centers, and adopt policies that treat leave-of-absence as a health issue (instead of behavioral). Several chapters have successfully lobbied to have crisis hotline numbers printed on the back of student ID cards.The organization hopes to be on 1,000 campuses by 2022.
For many students, being part of a community like Active Minds has given them purpose.
“Being a part of Active Minds has not only kept them in school, but it’s kept them alive,” Malmon said.
How You Can Get Involved
- Support Active Minds’ initiatives through funding or by bringing its programs, like its speaker series, to your local school or community.
- Fund mental health research: Malmon points to universities like Penn State and University of Michigan as leaders in this space. “Because it is a more taboo topic, [mental health] tends to be less funded and supported and thought of when it comes to philanthropic giving.”
- Learn more about investing in youth mental health.