Student-run mental health group to increase campus presence

Active Minds provides peer-to-peer support for students struggling with mental illnesses

· January 28, 2014, 6:44 pm   ·  Updated January 29, 2014, 12:12 am

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Talking to peers is often easier than talking to a professional — this is the philosophy and ultimate approach of Penn’s mental health group Active Minds.

In light of recent tragic events at Penn, the University’s chapter of Active Minds said that it aims to increase its presence on campus — both through collaboration with other student groups and sponsoring a greater number of events.

Founded by 2003 College graduate Alison Malmon two years before she graduated from Penn, Active Minds is an organization dedicated to focusing on adult mental health, both by raising awareness and offering support. Malmon started the group at Penn after losing her brother to suicide. The organization is now on over 400 college campuses across the United States.

“[The recent events] have been very tragic for us and definitely reinforced our mission to make it a more open environment about mental health on campus,” College sophomore and member of Active Minds Emily Cutler said. “We want to encourage people to talk about it and get help by seeking treatment.”

“Every single student that we lose to suicide is a tremendous tragedy, and each young person that we lose continues to point to the important work of Active Minds,” Sara Abelson, senior director of programs for the national organization, said.

Each entirely student-run group plans its own programming, receiving help from a university-supported advisor to oversee major activity.

Related: UA discusses mental health and add/drop

“Active Minds’ approach is very much a grassroots student led, student empowering focus,” Abelson said, noting that research shows students talk to each other more than professionals.

Vice President of Penn’s Active Minds chapter Changhee Han, a College junior, said that the organization will also produce a video campaign this semester that features students and staff who have dealt with mental health issues. The goal of the video is to put mental health at the forefront of public consciousness.

Han said that these initiatives are all attempts at improving the way Penn interacts with mental health issues, which he noted is currently somewhat problematic.

“When a student who is struggling is actively seeking help, it takes a tremendous amount of courage to speak up about it and the process in CAPS can be intimidating and lengthy,” Han said. “One experience I had was waiting 15 to 20 minutes before speaking with a professional on the phone — that’s a long time especially if someone is in dire need of mental health support.”

Han said that even though CAPS’ hiring of at least three more temporary staffers in the coming weeks is “a great step forward” for Penn, “there are still many needs that remain to be addressed.”

Related: CAPS to add staffers, expand hours

Last semester, Active Minds hosted a fundraiser where people sent care packages to friends, a study break with trained therapy dogs and Stomp out Stigma — an event on Locust Walk where “people traced out their footsteps as a symbol of stomping out the stigma of mental health,” Han said.

Cutler said that she became involved in Active Minds because she wanted to eliminate the “stereotyping of people with mental illnesses” she has seen in the past.

“I have social anxiety, and I’ve definitely felt excluded because of that,” Cutler said. However, she added that “Active Minds is a safe place for people struggling with mental illnesses.”

Nationally, the organization hosts programs such as a National Mental Health on Campus Conference, a Suicide Prevention exhibit, a speakers bureau, Stress Less Week and National Day without Stigma.

Related: CAPS may move off campus

“Our amazing network of students who are passionate about mental health advocacy help remind people how important it is that every campus has an open dialogue,” Abelson said, “so that every student knows there are places and ways to access help and that no one should have to struggle alone.”

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