After brother’s suicide, Montgomery County woman looks to prevent others

Siblings Alison and Brian Malmon grew up in Potomac, Maryland. Now, "Active Minds" helps young people deal with mental health issues. (Courtesy Alison Malmon)

WASHINGTON — Alison and Brian Malmon grew up in Potomac, Maryland. Alison’s heart is full of memories of playing with her older brother and the two of them enduring their teen years together.

That’s where the memories stop. Brian Malmon developed mental health problems in college and suffered in silence. His friends knew something was wrong, but they didn’t know what to say. By the time he asked for help, it was too late.

“I became an only child after he took his life,” says Alison Malmon, “and his story was really what motivated me to start what was then a student group on my campus.”

Malmon envisioned a place where students could talk openly about mental health and offer support to those in need. She began with a handful of classmates at the University of Pennsylvania.

It didn’t take long before a Penn transfer student launched a similar group at Georgetown University.

In 2003, Active Minds opened a national headquarters in Washington, with Malmon as executive director. Today, there are more than 400 chapters nationwide, including campuses across the D.C. region.

Many nonprofits are struggling for survival these days, but Malmon is not surprised by the rapid growth of Active Minds.

“I wouldn’t have started this organization if I didn’t think it was needed,” she says.

The American Psychological Association says there has been an alarming increase in the number of students requiring mental health services. And while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists suicide as the third-leading cause of death for young Americans ages 15-24, the APA says it’s the second-leading cause for college students.

“This is a problem that affects every college campus,” says Ashli Haggard, a University of Maryland student who sits on the national student advisory committee at Active Minds.

Haggard is living proof. She struggled with depression her freshman year, and says, “I really believe I would have tried to kill myself if I hadn’t found Active Minds.”

A concerned friend pushed her to get involved. She protested all the way to her first meeting, but when she got there, she was stunned by the stories she heard from other students.

“‘These people get it! It’s like they are inside my head! They know what I am feeling!'” Haggard recalls thinking. “I kind of learned that everyone struggles, and I am not alone in that, and there are people who will understand.”

Statements like that give Malmon hope. She says the new generation on campus cares about the issues in a way that no other generation has, and as they become parents, teachers and policymakers, the suicide rate will start to decline.

Young people are breaking the silence, she says, and are offering support to those in need — much like the best friend who took a troubled Haggard to that meeting on the University of Maryland campus.

All this comes too late to help her brother, but Malmon says she sees her work with Active Minds as a sort of fitting memorial.

“What I do on a daily basis allows me to remember him and talk about him, and honor him,” she says.

Fourteen years after his death, she says there is no job she would rather do.

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