Active Minds: Changing the Conversation about Mental Health

Imageby Mark Katz, PhD

can be far more painful to bear than the challenges themselves. For college students who are affected by mental health challenges, the rapidly growing network of campus-based, student-led chapters of Active Minds can help. Based in Washington, DC, this nonprofit organization works to remove the negative perceptions about mental illness at colleges and universities throughout the United States.

By using the student voice, Active Minds aims to “change the conversation about mental health.” Mental illness is frequently misunderstood, not only by college students with symptoms but by a significant percentage of the general population as well. Stigma decreases as understanding grows, and college students who are suffering in silence become far more willing to seek the help they need. Some students with learning or attention difficulties experience co-occurring mental disorders, and for this reason, the Active Minds mission will resonate for a number of students with ADHD. A sampling of the organization’s national and campus-based programs can be found on activeminds.org.

Send Silence Packing, an Active Minds campaign designed to increase awareness of student suicide, is among the organization’s signature programs. Roughly 1,100 college students take their lives each year, according to program director Sara Abelson, MPH. The campaign presents a public awareness display of 1,100 individual backpacks, many donated by parents grieving the loss of their child to suicide. Each backpack tells a person’s story. The collection travels from campus to campus around the country, reaching tens of thousands of students. They put a face and a personal story to a suicide, so that others not simply treat it as a statistic. Students who are at risk learn about resources that can help. “It’s very important that students themselves are educated and empowered,” says Abelson. “Research shows that sixty-seven percent of young people who do choose to disclose suicidal thoughts disclose them first to their friends.” Active Minds also reaches out to parents and family members, many of whom participate in campus-based activities designed to increase awareness.

For college students, the days and weeks leading up to final exams can be a particularly stressful time. So, each year, during the spring semester, Active Minds chapters sponsor National Stress Out Day activities designed to help students learn ways to manage stress and reduce anxiety. The program is conducted in collaboration with the Anxiety Disorders Association (ADAA), with support from OCD Chicago and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (NSPL).

More than a hundred chapters conduct special campus-based events to combat stigma during Mental Health Awareness Week. Their mantra: “Stigma is shame. Shame causes silence. Silence hurts us all.”

The Active Minds Speakers Bureau features young adults who share their personal stories through educational and inspiring presentations at schools or for large or small groups that want to learn more. The speakers draw upon their own personal experiences with mental health challenges, some of which include co-occurring learning and attentional difficulties.

Chapters also reach out to local high schools, helping the younger teens become more aware of different mental illnesses and symptoms. They spread the message that there’s no longer any reason to suffer in silence. While the vast majority of chapters are located on college campuses, a few now also exist on high-school campuses.

ImageActive Minds is the brainchild of Alison Malmon, who started the organization in 2001, following the tragic loss of her older brother to suicide. Her only sibling, he had been experiencing serious symptoms for several years prior to his death, yet spent much of that time suffering in silence. Malmon created Active Minds so that no one suffering with mental health challenges ever has to reach the point of feeling hopeless. Among her goals is spreading awareness that help is available and that people with mental health challenges can lead meaningful and productive lives.

PHOTO: Alison Malmon in 2007, holding a photo of her brother. CHRIS ROSSI/THE GAZETTE

Students whose symptoms go back many years likely have also endured the stigma associated with these symptoms for many years. This was clearly illustrated in the findings from the National Stigma Study-Children (NSS-C), the first large-scale national survey of public beliefs and attitudes regarding children’s mental health, including beliefs and attitudes about ADHD. Nearly half of the respondents believed that children diagnosed with and receiving services for a mental health condition would experience immediate and lasting social ramifications (including rejection in school and later in life). More than two-thirds had negative views on psychiatric medications.*

For college students who have endured this double burden for many years, Active Minds could not have come along at a better time. Readers interested in learning more about the organization are encouraged to visit ActiveMinds.org. Facebook groups are also available for those wishing to engage in more immediate dialogue.

* Pescosolido, B.A. (2007). Culture, children, and mental health treatment: Special section on the national stigma study–children. Psychiatric Services, 58 (5) 611-612.

A clinical and consulting psychologist, Mark Katz is the director of Learning Development Services, an educational, psychological, and neuropsychological center located in San Diego. He is a contributing editor to Attention magazine and a member of its editorial advisory board, a former member of CHADD's professional advisory board, and a recipient of the CHADD Hall of Fame Award.

This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of Attention magazine. Copyright © 2011 by Children and Adults with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD). All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without written permission from CHADD.

Posted in: 2011, December