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.
"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.
“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."
How I Help: Alise
Alise Sams, 19, Junior at George Mason University, studying psychology
President of campus Active Minds chapter
Q: How did you come to volunteer with Active Minds?
A: When I came to college, it was my first time being away from home. My anxiety was bad and one of my advisors suggested I go to an Active Minds meeting. I’ve seen stigma in my own life, and after seeing how mental illness affects college students, I thought it was really important. I started going to events and volunteering. I started to learn more about specific campaigns Active Minds runs, and it got me more interested.
Q: What sort of work do you do in your capacity as president of the GMU chapter of Active Minds?
A: As the president, I work with the chapter’s executive board. We try to educate the campus and get them to interact with us so we can raise awareness. Our biggest goal is to try to engage the community. We have weekly meetings, and we brought Send Silence Packing to campus. We also work closely with Counseling and Psychological Services, and MasonCares, so we’re kind of student liaisons.
Q: What have you learned, or what has touched you about your experience working with Active Minds?
A: For me, personally, the most moving thing that happens is when a student sees us doing a campaign and they share a personal story that we’ve had an impact on them, or they’ve seen the impact our group has had on campus. Every time we can help someone or make someone feel better about what’s happening in their life it makes me feel really grateful to that person that they felt comfortable sharing that with us. It’s great to see people that are willing to talk, willing to engage with us, because that’s what we want to accomplish by getting rid of stigma. It’s kind of like a little victory.
How I Was Helped: Emily
Emily Lerman, 32, Elementary School Teacher
Q: Why were you in need of Active Minds’ services?
A: At 26, I was in the midst of a severe depressive episode. I was so sick that I had to quit my job and move back home with my parents. I had struggled with depression and anxiety since I was a teenager, but I was always able to somehow function and get through the day. It wasn't until I was 26 that the stressors of life became too overwhelming, and I completely shut down. I couldn't think straight, couldn't eat, couldn't get out of bed. I was terrified and confused, and had little understanding of what was happening to me.
Q: Did anything specific cause your depressive episode?
A: I broke up with my boyfriend of five-and-half years and started a new job, but I want to be clear that I did not become depressed because of the break-up or new job. This is often a misunderstanding with mental illness. I was already depressed, and then two huge life events pushed me over the stress-level edge. It’s like trying to train for a marathon with a broken leg. It’s just impossible. You are too impaired.
Q: How did you connect with Active Minds?
A: When I was living at home, a colleague of my father's suggested to him that I get in touch with Active Minds. I was surprised to see the founder was a high school and college acquaintance, Alison Malmon. I was inspired by her work and felt that this was something—probably the only thing-- I could contribute to while in the midst of this depression. I reached out to her and offered to volunteer.
Q: How has Active Minds helped you?
A: When I connected with Active Minds, I connected with people who understood what I was going through -- and that understanding, compassion, and acceptance was the first step to healing. Had I not connected with Active Minds, I'm not sure how my story would have ended. Active Minds gave me a place to go when I felt as though I belonged nowhere. They gave me a reason to believe in myself and believe that I could, and would, get better, and that I had value in this world.
Because many of them had been there themselves, they absolutely understood what I was going through, and they knew I'd come out of it. And when you're depressed, believe me-- that kind of understanding is everything.
Q: What intangibles have you taken away from your work with Active Minds?
A: Increased self-confidence, knowledge and understanding of mental health issues, acceptance of myself and my illness, a desire to help others, a belief that I can make a difference, and the knowledge that sharing my story can be a life-saver for those who suffer.
A marathoner, Emily has raised more than $120,000 for Active Minds through running sponsorships and fundraising, including spearheading two half marathons to honor a friend, Ari Johnson, who died by suicide in 2013. Emily’s friends and family have also supported Active Minds. Her three siblings have all run to support the organization, and her father now serves as Chairman of the Board.