James Madison University

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Active Minds Chapter Formed at JMU

By: Jordan Pye
Posted: November 6, 2009

Last semester JMU adopted a campus chapter of Active Minds, bringing the student body a new and valuable resource for learning about mental health issues.

Alison Malmon founded the non-profit organization Active Minds in 2001 as a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, a year after the suicide of her older brother Brian. He had suffered from depression and psychosis for three years before his death and had received treatment for schizoaffective disorder, but had hidden his condition from everyone around him.

To avoid further tragedies like her family experienced, Malmon sought to fight the stigma of mental illness by encouraging students on Penn’s campus to talk about mental health and seek help for the problems they faced. A year later another student, Kate Hard, brought the program to Georgetown University, and a national headquarters for Active Minds, Inc. was established in Washington, DC in 2003. Since its founding the group has become the predominant advocate for young adult mental health, currently running 224 campus chapters nationwide and receiving press coverage from CNN and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Mental health issues are much more prevalent than most college students might expect, or even admit. With more than 1,100 deaths each year, suicide is the second leading cause of death for college students, according to Active Mind’s statistics. The National Institute of Mental Health says that roughly 22 percent of Americans 18 and older suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder, most of which will present by age 21. In addition, anywhere from 20 to 30 percent of college-age woman may display bulimic behaviors.

While Active Minds chapters are not peer support groups, they connect students to resources in the mental health community. Most groups plan campus-wide educational events that teach students to recognize when help is needed and where to find it in their area.

Psychology major Liz Loveless learned about Active Minds through a psychiatrist’s presentation last year while working an internship at JMU’s counseling center, Varner House.

“She kind of planted the seed and from that we realized that there was nothing really at JMU that was like this,” Loveless, now a senior, said. “There’s Psych Club and there’s organizations for psych majors, but there’s nothing really to address the issue in a more broad, campus-wide focus.”

Active Minds already had chapters at other Virginia colleges, including William and Mary, University of Virginia, Mary Washington and Virginia Tech, and Loveless wanted a branch at JMU to fill that niche.

“I think that overall, on any college campus, you’re going to find a lot of depression and a lot of anxiety disorders,” she said. “We have a large population of females at this school, and that definitely increases the chances of eating disorders, so I think that’s an issue.”

Since its founding last semester Loveless estimates the group has 20 consistent members, most of which are Psychology majors with a general interest in mental health. Under chapter advisor Dr. Colleen Slipka, a psychiatrist at Varner House, the group does not require member dues and generates its own funding through its activities.

“We just got started last semester so we’re still pretty small right now, but I think considering our size we still do a lot of events,” Loveless said. “The point of Active Minds is for education about mental health and to reduce the stigma, so our events are really focused on getting information out there.”

Their first big event was organizing a “Stress Out Day” before final exams last spring. In the Commons on campus, members handed out literature about different mental disorders and tips for handling stress, and provided games and bubble-blowing to help students to take a break from studying.

In early October they participated in Mental Health Awareness Week by attending a suicide prevention conference held at JMU by the Campus Suicide Prevention Center of Virginia, along with representatives from counseling centers of different Virginia universities. The center is a resource for higher education facilities statewide, funded by the Virginia Department of Health and housed in JMU's Institute for the Innovation of Health and Human Services. One guest speaker was the original Active Minds founder Malmon, who had lunch with the chapter and helped brainstorm projects.

“Speaking with Alison was extremely helpful and she was so inspirational; the whole chapter got to sit down and have lunch with her and pick her mind for ideas,” Loveless said. “The website and the national organization do a really good job of giving you all the resources you need, and I think as the group grows it’ll be really easy to put those events on.”

As for future events, the group plans to celebrate Eating Disorders Awareness Week in February, and has discussed holding a day where counselors from Varner House could come out to the commons to introduce themselves to students, perhaps even by handing out cookies to lessen the intimidation.

“As far as seeking help, we usually recommend that students go to the Counseling and Student Development Center at Varner House,” Loveless said. “It’s a free service and it’s right here on campus, so I think that’s really the best resource for the students.”

Active Minds usually meets bimonthly, at 8 p.m. on Wednesdays in Taylor, room 404. To find out meeting times, Loveless recommends that students contact her to be added to the email list. Information is also available through their Facebook group, Active Minds at James Madison University.

“I think the ultimate goal is really to get people talking about mental health issues and get the idea out that it’s not about mental illness, it’s about focusing on mental health,” Loveless said of her vision for the growth of Active Minds. “Everyone has mental health on a wide spectrum: some people are at a very far end and some people are in the middle. It’s not something that’s scary to talk about, it’s something really natural and part of our everyday lives.”