From Darkness To Light
Suicide Prevention On Campus
After losing her brother, Brian, to suicide during her freshman year at University of Pennsylvania, Alison Malmon, a native of Rockville, was determined to raise awareness about mental illness and suicide among college students. Malmon launched Active Minds, a nonprofit that works to encourage conversation around mental health issues on college campuses. Active Minds started on her campus, and 10 years later, the organization now exists on 410 campuses across the nation.
“When my brother was in his freshman year at Columbia, he began to experience some mental health issues, but he didn’t seek help until his senior year,” said Malmon.
“At that point, he took a leave of absence from school and was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder [a mental disorder characterized by recurring abnormal mood and psychotic components] and began intensive treatment. In March of my freshman year at Penn, he took his life.”
At the time of Brian’s death, Malmon’s family was affiliated, but not especially active, at B’nai Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Rockville. The support they received from their rabbi at B’nai Israel strengthened their ties to Judaism.
“After Brian died, we got a lot of support from our rabbi, Jonathan Schnitzer. … He also had a son at Columbia, so I think it really hit home for him,” said Malmon. “At first it was suggested that perhaps since Brian’s death was by suicide we might want to have a smaller service. But my mother said that wasn’t happening; we were going to celebrate Brian’s life, and [the rabbi] came on board right away. Rabbi Schnitzer still calls my mother each year at my brother’s yartzheit.”
Outside of Rabbi Schnitzer, Malmon said she found that some people were uncomfortable talking about her brother’s suicide.
“I … think there’s a stigma about suicide. People don’t know what to say,” she said.
Now 32 and a Washington D.C., resident, Malmon noted that it is common for symptoms of mental illness to first present themselves during the college years, a fact reiterated by Dr. Komrad, who emphasized that suicide is the second most common cause of death in young adults.
A national organization, Active Minds, sponsors a range of on-campus activities designed to raise awareness and encourage students to take care of their mental health.
“We have a speakers’ bureau and have trained about a dozen students to tell their stories about their mental health struggles, experiences and recoveries,” said Malmon, noting that the organization has counselors meet directly with students on their turf “so that students can see they are normal people. We try to break down the barriers to seeking help.”
Additionally, Active Minds provides eating-disorders awareness campaigns, films and other campus-friendly events related to mental health education. The organization also provides stress-release programs at the end of each semester, when students are especially pressured.
“We may not all have mental illness, but we all have mental health issues,” Malmon said.