Inspirational Woman Interview: Alison Malmon

Alison Malmon is the Founder and Executive Director of Active Minds, the leading national nonprofit organization leverages student leadership and voices to change the perception about mental health on college campuses. For her efforts with Active Minds, Alison has been named one of the “Top 15 Global Emerging Social Innovators” by Ashoka Changemakers and American Express, Washingtonian of the Year by Washingtonian Magazine, and a Woman of Distinction by the American Association of University Women. In addition to her work at Active Minds, Alison sits on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Consumer/Survivor Subcommittee, Suicide Prevention Resource Center Steering Committee, and Crisis Text Line Advisory Committee.

What is your background?

Alison Malmon: I am the Founder and Executive Director of Active Minds. I have a Bachelor’s in Psychology and Sociology from the University of Pennsylvania.

You are the Founder and Executive Director of Active Minds, a nonprofit organization that empowers students to speak openly about mental health in order to educate others and encourage help-seeking. What inspired you to found Active Minds and what has been its impact on campuses so far?

Alison Malmon: I started Active Minds after losing my brother Brian to suicide. Brian was a college student who had struggled with mental illness all of his college life but didn’t tell people about it because he was ashamed and scared. He got a leave of absence and came home but ended up taking his life about a year after he started seeking help. I started Active Minds afterwards because of all the time he spent on campus struggling alone thinking that it was his fault and I wanted to prevent that from happening to other parents and families. I started a group at Penn and when I graduated, I founded the nonprofit organization in order to develop other chapters of the group and create a national movement to combat mental health.

I’ve been so proud that we’ve grown from that one chapter at Penn to around 400 chapters in colleges and high schools. All of these chapters are run by student volunteers and on-site staff advisors; they promote education and awareness and seek to change the climate and culture around mental health on campus.

Can you discuss some of Active Minds’ programs and initiatives on college campuses?

Alison Malmon: The chapters are working to promote awareness and education through a variety of means. Many chapters run our national programs including awareness campaigns: Suicide Prevention Month in September, National Day Without Stigma in October, Stress Less Week in December and April, Eating Disorders Awareness Week in February, and a few others. Students run campaigns under those umbrellas to bring mental health illness to campus. We have self care selfie campaigns to encourage people to take selfies that show their acts of self-care. We also encourage highly-trained young adults who are part of our Speakers Bureau to come on campus and share their mental health experiences and reach out to people who want to seek help.

We also run the Send Silence Packing initiative, which is a display of 1100 backpacks to represent the 1100 college students that die of suicide every year. These are backpacks that have been donated to us by families of students who have died by suicide; many of these are actual backpacks from these students. They have stories and pictures laminated on the front that demonstrate the impact of this incidence of college suicides and what we can do to prevent it. For our campaign PostSecretU, we partnered with PostSecret Founder Frank Warren to provide chapters on campus with the ability to collect anonymous secrets and help people recognize that what people think is personal to them is really felt by many other people. We also have an Emerging Scholars Fellowship where we give funding for college students who want to do research related to mental health. We have a National Conference for campus organizers as well. These programs all help to arm students with knowledge, resources and empowerment to change the culture related to mental health issues.

In your opinion, what needs to change to prevent and reduce rates of mental illness?

Alison Malmon: I am concerned that when confronted with mental health illness, we wait too long and do not encourage people to seek help regarding their issues. By that, I mean that mental health is a final frontier and we are so silent and quiet about our mental health struggles. We need to create a culture that embraces depression and other mental illnesses in a way that embraces the flu. By doing so, we are encouraging people to get help early and we really do prevent a lot of unnecessary struggle and suffering. This helps people get the help that they need before mental health becomes a more serious or negative concern than it needs be.

In your opinion, what are the biggest links between women’s health and mental health?

Alison Malmon: I think women are often caregivers and often not care-seekers and this can play out with mental health – this desire to take care of others instead of one’s self. I encourage women to reach out for help. There’s a lot of pressure on young women and many women struggle with anxiety and depression from society and this pressure cannot be ignored. We can’t talk about women’s health without talking about women’s mental health. Mental health disorders are as real as physical ailments and for both types of health it is critical that you seek the correct institutions and help.

On a personal level, why does women’s empowerment matter to you?

Alison Malmon: I believe so strongly that society is not society without every voice being heard. Too often in our history, women’s voices have been silenced and we need to continue to create a culture that embraces differences and diverse opinions. Women’s empowerment is so critical – for girls and women to know that they can accomplish anything. Women need to be given the space to achieve that. Oftentimes when we are in a culture surrounded by men – whether in a male-dominated workplace or major – it can feel like women don’t belong. We need to let women know that they do belong and have an important voice at that table where they’re sitting.

Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?

Alison Malmon: There are so many women and this sounds like a cop out but I would have to say it’s my mother. In the world in which I work in mental health, I learned from my mom from the very beginning not to be ashamed of our family’s history and experiences with mental illness and suicide. From the moment that my brother took his own life, my mom embraced him and embraced the word mental illness. She acknowledged that he was an incredible man who had suffered from and died of mental illness. I from a young age have always been open to understanding more and being vocal about my family’s experiences. Only since have I learned that that is not typical. I credit my mom for not shying away and for being a bold woman and not timid and not giving in to society. I credit her for shaping both my views of mental illness and suicide and my views of being a vocal advocate.

What is your advice for individuals who are experiencing mental illness and for individuals who have friends who are experiencing mental health issues?

Alison Malmon: The first thing I would say is that you deserve help and seeking help is a sign of strength. Help and support can come from a variety of ways — it can be reaching out to a parent, friend, or clinician, it can be yoga or other sports. There are varying degrees of mental illness and varying degrees of what can help. Just know that you are not alone, t’s not your fault and it’s not all in your head. You need help and the earlier you get help the more likely you are to recover. If you know that you are important and that many people care about you, that matters a lot.

If you are a friend and you’re worried about someone, don’t hesitate to ask them. Sometimes as a friend, you can see in a friend when they are struggling and not doing well. Tell them “I’m worried about you, can I do something for you? Can I walk you to a counselor or call a hotline for you?” Ask them if they are thinking about suicide or self-harm and listen to their stories. You can be the person to connect them to the resources that do help them.

What are some of your favorite books, films, websites and resources related to women’s empowerment and mental health?

Alison Malmon:

Books: Touched With Fire and An Unquiet Mind by Kay Jamison are eye-opening and helpful to understand what it means to have a diagnosis of mental illness and several ways to cope with mental health disorders. Books and TEDx talks by Brene Brown give very important messages to women on empowerment and how to find that empowerment.

Films: Many pop culture films are helpful as they shed a light on different types of mental illness from Silver Linings Playbook to A Beautiful Mind – they really show in real life what these illnesses can be and how you can live with it and how families can come together and cope with it.

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