Tragic loss inspires a movement


When Alison Malmon was a freshman in college, she lost her only brother to suicide.

Brian Malmon, 22, had been a successful high school student, a successful college student at Columbia University. But he struggled with depression and psychosis, which he mostly kept to himself. His friends had an inkling something was wrong, Alison said, but they wanted to respect his privacy.

Eventually, Brian took leave from Columbia and went home to heal. "This was literally the first time my family knew he was struggling with anything,” Alison said.

The March after he should have graduated, Brian took his own life.

Brian and  Alison Malmon,  p    hoto courtesy of Alison Malmon

Brian and Alison Malmon, photo courtesy of Alison Malmon

"As a freshman in college, I was trying to figure out who I was and trying to find my identity, and suddenly I became an only child,” Alison said.

Struck by the knowledge that her brother had struggled alone for years, and that other students were likely suffering, Alison looked for a way to help.

“I was devastated, and I was scared to death,” she said. “My brother and I were really similar, and I realized it could be me, or it could have been me."

She realized a major step was to break the stigma around metal health issues, the idea that depression is weakness, or something to simply “snap out” of.

Suicide survivors -- people who lost someone to suicide, often feel anger toward the people who commit suicide. But Alison wasn’t angry at her brother. Instead, "I felt anger toward our society that forced him to feel (like he had to struggle in silence)."

She created a support group, then called Open Minds, on the University of Pennsylvania campus, where students would have a safe place to talk about their struggles and would be able to ask for help. Alison wanted to create a space for people like her brother, a space they could be safe. Thousands, perhaps millions, of young adults across the country struggle with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.

Students look on at a   Send Silence Packing  display.  Photo courtesy of Active Minds

Students look on at a  Send Silence Packing display. Photo courtesy of Active Minds

“This is much bigger than Brian’s story,” Alison said. "The first part of changing the conversation about mental health is starting a conversation about mental health." 

After graduating in 2003, Alison formed her organization, renamed Active Minds, and established it as a non-profit. She gave herself two years to make it work. Ten years later, Active Minds is a nationally recognized entity in the field of young adult mental health awareness, with more than 400 chapters on college campuses across the United States.

On October 6, Active Minds celebrates National Day Without Stigma as part of Mental Illness Awareness Week.

"I hear from students on a weekly or monthly basis that Active Minds has saved their life, or a program that we did has gotten them help,” Alison said.  “Nothing will ever bring my brother back, (but) knowing that one other family doesn't have to go through what my family has gone through keeps me going."

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