After Losing a Brother to Suicide, This Woman Became a Mental Health Advocate for Students

After her brother took his life, a woman was inspired to become a mental health advocate for college and high school students across the U.S.

alison malmon headshotCourtesy Alison Malmon

She was a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania when she got a voicemail that would change her life forever: “It’s mommy, call me.” Alison Malmon never called her mother “mommy” and her mother never referred to herself that way, so she knew something was wrong.

When Malmon called back she got the news: Her 22-year-old brother Brian, a senior at Columbia University, had taken his own life.

Smart, outgoing, and fun to be around, Brian Malmon didn’t seem to be at risk for suicide. That was the problem. “Diving into the research around mental health, I learned that Brian’s trajectory—the fact that he started struggling with mental health in college—is actually typical,” says Malmon.

“The age of onset mental health issues is college age. The fact that it had happened to him helped to illuminate for me the need for a conversation about these issues that just wasn’t happening.”

After the tragedy, Malmon formed a student group, called Open Minds, as a means for students to openly talk about mental health issues. Now, the group and nonprofit organization, renamed Active Minds, uses its office in Washington, D.C., and its chapters across college campuses throughout the country to break the mental health stigma.

Now age 38, Malmon shared with us how her brother’s death inspired her mental health advocacy to hopefully help future generations.

Changing the mental health conversation

When Malmon returned to school after her brother’s funeral that spring of 2000, she was still grieving. But—like her brother before her—she was determined to come off as if she was okay, even though she was anything but.

“I immediately put myself in Brian’s shoes and recognized I had been through this tragedy and yet I was trying to be this person who was strong and that people could look up to,” says Malmon. When she sought out help on campus, however, there was no place to turn.

Back then, based on Malmon’s experience, “students weren’t encouraged to talk about their mental health,” she says. “I started reflecting on the fact that there was an immense need to get that conversation going.

The fact that Brian started struggling in his freshman year but didn’t tell anyone—that’s very much what would’ve happened to me. I would’ve kept everything quiet.” (Here are 10 myths about mental health that need to be set straight right now.)

Depression and anxiety are common on college campuses

When Malmon decided to keep quiet about her struggles with mental health, she wasn’t alone. According to the American College Health Association’s 2019 National College Health Assessment, 45 percent of college students reported feeling so depressed in the past 12 months that it was difficult to function; almost 66 percent felt overwhelming anxiety; and 13 percent said they seriously considered suicide.

Yet only one in five sought treatment for depression and just one in four sought treatment for anxiety.

Psychiatrist Ludmila De Faria, MD, co-chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s College Mental Health Caucus, explains why.

“Late teens and early adulthood is a crucial period when major developmental tasks such as [separating] from family, accepting responsibility for yourself, making independent decisions, and establishing an adult relationship with your parents take place—all with relatively little support and, if attending college, in an environment that can be quite demanding,” she says. “It’s also a time when most major psychiatric disorders present [themselves].”

Mental health support for students across the country 

When Malmon launched Active Minds in 2003, her goal was at once ambitious and simple: She wanted to change the attitudes and behaviors surrounding mental illness.

As a 21-year-old recent college grad with no track record, she knew there would be hurdles getting people in the nonprofit world to take her seriously. What she didn’t expect: Just how difficult it would be to raise money for something no one’s comfortable talking about.

“The challenge I’ve faced over the past 20 years is the topic itself,” says Malmon. “I started Active Minds because there was no conversation about mental health. I felt deeply then—and still do—that mental health needs to be as openly discussed as all other health issues and as well respected as all other health issues. That’s why we exist: To change the culture around mental health.”

Overcoming the stigma of mental health

The key to eliminating the stigma surrounding mental illness? “Educating the general public about mental health, and developing the vocabulary so that it’s discussed in the same manner that we talk about physical health,” says Dr. De Faria, who is also director of the Transitional Age Youth Program, and clinical associate professor at the Florida State University, Tallahassee.

Case in point: Suicide. You don’t commit a heart attack, you don’t commit cancer, says Malmon. “Suicide is the only death where we use that pejorative word of ‘committing,'” she says. “If we take that word out of our vernacular, we can make significant changes in how we think about suicide to the point where people reach out for the help they need as soon as they need it.”

(Learn about depression during quarantine and tips to cope.)

If you provide mental health support, they will come

Now, 17 years after Malmon launched Active Minds, the organization is the largest young adult mental health advocacy group in the U.S. Currently, there are more than 550 chapters on campuses—at high schools and colleges—across the country.

A study published in 2018 in Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, highlights the reasons why. Researchers evaluating the success of Active Minds found that just having an Active Minds chapter on campus encouraged students to seek out counseling more often.

And the organization’s programs—among them, the award-winning Send Silence Packing suicide-prevention traveling exhibit—aim to decrease the stigma surrounding mental health.

“What I’m most inspired by is that my generation and the generations coming behind me are addressing these issues as never before,” says Malmon.

“They’re taking on mental health as their social justice issue and helping each other and themselves and rallying behind Active Minds. Our tools are changing not only their campuses, they’re changing their families, too,” she says. (Here are the mental health issues you’re most likely to get in every decade.)

If you or someone you know has had thoughts of self-harm or suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255), which provides 24/7, free, confidential support for people in distress.

Sources
  • Alison Malmon, founder and executive director of Active Minds, a nonprofit organization that advocates for mental health awareness for students
  • Academic Psychiatry:"College Students: Mental Health Problems and Treatment Considerations"
  • American College Health Association: “2019 National College Health Assessment”
  • Ludmila De Faria, MD, psychiatrist, co-chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s College Mental Health Caucus, director of the Transitional Age Youth Program, and clinical associate professor at the Florida State University, Tallahassee
  • Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry: “Strengthening College Students’ Mental Health Knowledge, Awareness, and Helping Behaviors: The Impact of Active Minds, a Peer Mental Health Organization”