WHEN ALISON Malmon was a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, her older brother Brian took his own life. He had kept up a good front at Columbia, doing well academically, singing in an a cappella group, working on the college newspaper. He had struggled with mental illness in solitude. His friends had the sense that something was wrong, but acknowledged later that they hadn’t known what to say or do. “He had kept it quiet because he was afraid and ashamed,’’ Malmon says now, over a decade later. “Afterward I wondered: If he had sought help sooner, could his death have been prevented?’’
But Malmon did more than wonder. She took action. When she went back to Penn after Brian’s death, she founded an on-campus group to promote mental health awareness. “There was an immense need for a student-to-student organization,’’ she says. “Something that would help students learn to recognize the symptoms in themselves and in their friends, and feel comfortable seeking help.’’ Malmon’s initial group has grown into a national nonprofit organization, Active Minds, with chapters on over 340 North American college campuses.
Each year between 1,000 and 1,200 college students die by suicide. “If meningitis or some other physical illness was causing that many deaths, the country as a whole would be treating it as an emergency,’’ says Barry Schreier, director of Counseling and Mental Heath Services at the University of Connecticut. Yet suicide is a relatively rare occurrence among the mental health issues affecting college students, which include eating disorders, sleep deprivation, anxiety, and depression. In a recent study, 44 percent of college students reported that at some point during the past year they had felt depression significant enough to interfere with their ability to function.
Divya Srinivasan, co-president of Active Minds at MIT, observes that students are often reluctant to request help, “especially students who have been overachieving for some time. When is too much stress too much? People think they’re supposed to handle it. It’s considered a weakness to reach out. We want to change that.’’ Students can support one another, she says, citing the importance of on-campus training in QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer). “What are the questions to ask when you are worried about a friend? How do you engage them, provide resources, help them to find comfort?’’
At UConn, Active Minds members stand in the middle of the campus every couple of weeks, handing out “cookies and compliments’’ to passers-by. “These are complex issues. Nobody thinks that handing out cookies and saying, ‘Hey, nice shoes,’ is going to cure depression,’’ says Barry Schreier. “But it creates awareness of Active Minds as a resource on campus. It’s taking the issue of mental health and normalizing it, making it a natural part of the scene’’
Part of the effort to normalize the issue is to include positive stories, says Malmon. “Many students are receiving treatment and living well with some sort of mental health disorder. Mental illness is not a character flaw. It deserves the same respect and treatment as any physical illness.’’
A suicide in the family wakes you up, scares you, makes you want to do something. After my father killed himself 20 years ago, I became aware of how little we understand or talk about suicide, and I began writing about his death and the impact it had on our family. Like Alison Malmon, whom I met this fall when I was speaking at the Active Minds national conference in Baltimore, I was haunted by the sense that shame and isolation had contributed to what might have been a preventable tragedy. My father was part of a generation - a long line of generations - that didn’t talk about suicide, or mental illness. Or mental health, for that matter. I am heartened to think that my two children are coming of age at a time when the silence and ignorance of the past is giving way to frank conversation, greater alertness, and a more matter-of-fact willingness to ask for help if there is a problem.
“If we can engage and empower them now,’’ says Alison Malmon of today’s college students, “then we’ll be helping to shape the attitudes of the next generation. And when they go on to become teachers, administrators, government officials, and parents, things will start to be different.’’Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Her website is www.joanwickersham.com.