Nonprofit exec uses brother’s suicide as driver for mental health awareness work
— Alison Malmon was a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania when her brother lost his battle with mental illness and took his own life.
“The emotion that struck me the most was fear after he died, because Brian and I were really similar people,” Malmon said. “And my campus and his campus were pretty similar campuses. And it scared the daylights out of me that that could have happened to him, and it could very well happen to me.”
The founder and executive director of Active Minds, Malmon recounted her brother’s story, and the story of her life since his death, to an audience at the recent Akron Roundtable luncheon at Quaker Station. After his untimely death, Malmon poured herself into research, desperately trying to understand what happened with her brother, and grasping for a way to prevent others from suffering the same fate. And what she found was startling.
“This is something that’s much bigger than my story and Brian’s story,” she said. “And this is the story of millions of college students across the country.”
Malmon discovered that Brian was one of 1,100 college students who lose their lives to suicide every year. In fact, according to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, suicide is the second leading cause of death for college students.
“This issue is real,” Malmon told the Roundtable audience. “This issue is not just my family, and I think very early on I could tell from my group support on campus that the student group I had started could be and would be much bigger.”
The group she was referring to was, at the time, a small student organization she formed two years after her brother’s passing to shed light on mental health awareness on college campuses. Their goal was simple – to simply engage their campus in a dialogue about mental illness.
“[Brian] went through three years on campus, during what we’re all told is the ‘best time of our life,’ in pain and isolation and fear,” Malmon said, “hearing things that weren’t real, thinking as though something was wrong with him, while everybody else had it all together and it was just something that he had done wrong.”
Students are not alone
After graduating, Malmon dedicated her career to expanding the cause. She started the nonprofit organization Active Minds with the goal of duplicating the group from her alma mater on other college campuses. After 11 years, the organization has chapters on 400 campuses across the country, in almost every state. And 9,000 students sign up every year to be a part of the initiative.
“They want to do something with the experiences that they’ve had,” Malmon explained. “They want people to start talking about these issues, to know that they’re not alone, and to get help as soon as they can.”
These chapters are not typical support groups. They go beyond that mission to one of advocacy, serving as outreach arms for campus counseling centers. The student groups aim to be a non-threatening source of education, hosting panel discussions and using sidewalk chalk displays as platforms for talking about mental health awareness and suicide prevention.
“This is not just a black-and-white issue,” Malmon said. “We all are on the spectrum. We may not all have mental illness, but we all have mental health.”
According to the National Institutes of Health, about half of mental illnesses start by the late teens, and that number grows to 75 percent by the mid-20s.
“This is a conversation that is too seldom had and too often necessary,” Malmon said. “Part of the mission and motto of Active Minds is to change the conversation around mental health, and where that starts is starting the conversation about mental health, because there are too many people who struggle, and they do so alone, and they do so in silence.”
Malmon shared that from her perspective, that conversation is the most crucial component to the work Active Minds is doing. The University of Akron is one of about a dozen local universities that are having those conversations. Other local colleges who have started chapters include Kent State University, Walsh University, John Carroll University, Baldwin Wallace University, Case Western Reserve University, Cuyahoga Community College and Hiram College.
“Opening up that conversation and opening up that dialogue truly will change and save lives,” she said. “If you’re worried about somebody, ask them.”
For more information about Active Minds, or for tips about how to address these topics with a student, friend or child, visit their Web site or follow them on Facebook or Twitter. This Akron Roundtable speaker was sponsored by The Margaret Clark Morgan Foundation. For more info, visit www.akronroundtable.org.