Kevin: In 2019, more than one in three high school students reported experiencing persistent feelings of sadness, or hopelessness. That's a 40% increase since 2009. And as a result of the pandemic, nearly three in four students reported experiencing increased stress and anxiety. With so many kids struggling today, I'm wondering what more we can do to ensure they get the help they need. How can we learn to spot the signs of depression and intervene in positive ways? What systems can we put in place to provide students with a safe place to turn? And how can we help our schools be more helpful and supportive when it comes to managing mental health? This is "What I Want to Know."
Kevin: And today, I'm joined by Alison Malmon to find out. Alison Malmon is the founder and executive director of Active Minds, an organization devoted to supporting mental health awareness and education for students. Alison formed the organization in 2003 as a 21-year-old, following the suicide of her brother and only sibling, Brian. Wanting to end the silence that caused her brother to suffer alone, Alison created a group at the University of Pennsylvania to promote open dialogue around mental health. Since then, Active Minds has grown into the country's foremost mental health organization for students and young adults with award-winning programs and a vibrant network of chapters located more than 600 colleges, universities, and high schools nationwide. Alison is with us today to discuss what more we can do as parents and educators to help kids overcome the challenges they face. Alison, welcome to the show.
Alison: Well, I really appreciate the chance to be with you here and have the conversation.
Kevin: So, I do want to talk to you about this whole issue of mental health. Let's talk about the stresses of young people. I think more than when I was younger, there's a deep recognition that the stresses and anxiety associated with being under the age of 25, let's say or 21 are more profound than ever. And why is that?
Alison: We can talk all day about how the world has changed and the environment that young adults are in. I think also there's just a lot more attention being paid to the stresses of being young. And so it's a little bit of what's the chicken and what's the egg in good ways we're talking about this. And it also highlights so much of the pressure. But what we know is that our youth and young adults are feeling external pressure, they're seeing events out in the world that they don't have control over, or that they see their families involved in or friends involved in. They themselves are trying to figure out who they are, their brain is developing, trying to figure out what they love and what they're supposed to love. And we're teaching everybody that you find your passion and you do your passion in life, or how at 18 or 21, or whatnot, are you supposed to know what your passion is, and then how are you supposed to pay for it.
And all of the youth and young adults who are experiencing houselessness or food insecurity, or inability to be able to, kind of, go to school in the way they need because they're taking care of their families as it relates to COVID. And then we've got social media. Social media can be the blessing and the curse. We talk often about the pain that social media can bring because you think young adults are constantly on their phones, or they're comparing themselves to the people around them. There's a lot of advantages of social media too, I wanna say because we're giving youth young and adults a platform to share about their experiences and to talk about their struggles in a way that back when I was a kid, it was only writing in your diary. That was the only way you could get out any of your thoughts. So, we've added a lot to the lives and the experiences of youth and young adults and we just expect them to be able to figure out how to adjust to all of it and live the life that we lived with all of these additional external factors that that are at play right now.
Kevin: You mentioned the blessing and curse of social media or the internet. My two-year-old grandkids can swipe the phone. And I think years ago, young people were allowed to slowly develop and I've had neuropsychiatrists on the show talk about the fact that the human development of the brain has all accelerated now sometimes for good, sometimes for bad.
Alison: Right. Right. It is. And I have young kids myself, and I witnessed it myself too. And I think in some way we want them to be living the world that we knew. And we think about...my five-year-old knows technology as well as I do at this stage. And that's normal for her. And part of it is we have to allow that to be normal. But it also, we also have to say, "We need to put that away, and now it's time to go out and ride a bike." And so, even if it feels archaic or maybe it feels like I'm trying to relive my youth, no. We need to help recognize that their reality right now is different from what our reality was.
Kevin: How is this play itself out in academic settings because we know there's the family setting, there's a social setting or friends, but then there's also school, where a lot of these things all come together. And academically, many children who are going through challenges, it can impact them. But also many children who are going through challenges, their academics could be fine because that's their one escape. Talk to me about the convergence of these stressful depression-latent realities for many of our young people, how the academic setting comes into play.
Alison: One of the things that we have to remember is COVID has disrupted that so hugely, whereas again, thinking back to when I was younger, middle school in high school was the time that I was supposed to hate my parents, and I was supposed to be out with my friends and figuring out who I was and create those boundaries for myself. Well, in the past couple of years, we've had teenagers who have been forced to be at home, separated from friends, separated from that social scene. And that's been extraordinarily difficult. And I don't think we've given enough credit to the next generation, to our youth and young adults who have dealt with this. And as a mother of young kids, there's been a lot of focus on people like me dealing with working and young kids, and I'll take that. And I own that. But we forget those 13 to 18-year-olds who have had their what is supposed to be a natural part of their growth and development ripped away from them because they weren't able to physically go to school, or maybe they've started up again, but they're wearing masks. And so, they're not able to express themselves in the way they want or whatever it may be, or graduation was torn from them or plays are being torn from them because kids are sick with COVID, whatever it may be. So, it's huge. And I think the social scene of school, school is not just about academics. And you can see that in high school, you can see that in college. It's that when somebody is their best selves, they will do their best academically. But this is about a lot more than just their academic success. And for the past couple of years, the youth and young adults in our lives have really had to bear a burden that none of the rest of us will ever understand. And we have to give them credit for that. And I don't know that we've done enough of that yet.
Kevin: I think you're absolutely right. And they've seen something we've never seen or never had to see. I do wanna get to Active Minds. And this is probably a good segue. You talked about the fact that years ago if you had some challenges, you wrote in your diary. But even back then, you didn't want anyone else to read your diary. And that kind of mindset carries over to today. And I know this is part of the reason why you founded Active Minds is that there's this unwillingness to discuss mental health generally. And it is an unwillingness to unleash your own challenges to other people. Many young people are deathly afraid of that. Now, as we mentioned, there's more tension on this change. But why is that? Is there too much vulnerability associated with unleashing and unburdening those things that trouble you from mental point of view?
Alison: With mental health, we don't talk about these issues until there is a problem. So, there is no way to know, "Hey, I'm not doing okay right now." And I can see that in myself or my friends are seeing it in me. And I know who to go talk to, or I feel comfortable reaching out for help. Now, we don't talk about mental health in our society right now until there is a crisis. And so, the problem becomes before crisis, we're all struggling ourselves thinking that we're the only ones struggling or thinking that everybody else is having the time of their lives and there's something wrong with us. And it finally gets to a point where we are unable to function. And that's when we're reaching out for help. And so, yes, it's a little bit about being too vulnerable, but I think that's because we've defined mental health crisis or mental illness or mental health. It's just too far down the pike if we can define it as we don't all have mental illness, but we all have mental health. So, let's talk about our mental health all the time, and let's help people recognize when what you're going through is kind of a normal, this is normal pressure of exams, for instance, or normal pressure of the first week of COVID. And then when it's like this is not okay. And more than anything, you deserve to feel better than this. And you deserve to get help for what you're going through. Let's talk about it. And if we can open up that conversation, and we can change that culture and those social norms, then it's not gonna be about like, I'm being vulnerable by sharing and I'm being strong by keeping it inside.
Kevin: Yeah. I think that's a great point, Alison. And help set the stage for the founding of Active Minds. And I know as tough as it is, the founding came because of your brother and his suicide, your only sibling. I'm always interested in how people turn tragedy into attempted triumph to help others. And that's one of the reasons why I wanted to have you on the show. What from that experience turn into action and why did you choose this vehicle?
Alison: Yes. So, my brother and I grew up outside of DC, we went to the great public school system in Maryland. Brian's four years older than me, and so I was always following in his path. He got into his top choice college. And when he was in college, he started doing things that all young adults do. He joined a bunch of extracurricular activities, figured out his major, Dean's list student, all of those things. And he ended up coming home for the recommendation of a therapist at his school in November of his senior year. He was at Columbia in New York. And he came home under her recommendation and ended up staying at home because we uncovered that Brian was really struggling with his mental health. He was at home for a year and a half with intensive therapy and treatment. My mom is a clinical social worker. Again, we come from the most privileged background possible for somebody to get the help that they need and they deserve. But Brian ended up taking his life about a year and a half after he came home from Columbia initially, which was my freshman year of college when he died. And I started thinking mostly about when I was going through the grieving and understanding more about what had happened, this idea that Brian...what we learned was that Brian started struggling with his mental health, actually, in his freshman year of college, but didn't tell anybody until his senior year.
I dove into research, and I learned at the age of onset of almost every mental health issue is the high school and college age and that suicide is the second leading cause of death for college students. And I was floored because I was a college student having to dive into research myself to learn all of this. Nobody had taught me about mental health, nobody had taught me about suicide, even though this was the thing that was impacting me and my peers the most. And so, that's really where it started. So, it feels...I often get credit for turning something into an action. And I guess, technically, that's what it was, but it's more of this desire of this needs to change. This was not okay. And I'm miserably sad to be missing my brother and to be an only child now. And more than anything, I'm miserably sad that he had to go through this. And so, this can't happen to other people, this can't happen to other families, and this can't happen to other Brians out there. So, that's what really caused me to start Active Minds, this idea of we need to change the culture around mental health, we need to change the social norms. We need to get people talking about this so that people like Brian know that they're not alone. It's not their fault, how prevalent the issues are, or like Brian's friends know what the signs and symptoms of mental health struggles are and know what to say to people when they're struggling. I think the one other piece that has been really meaningful to me in my journey was that right after Brian died, I saw how my friends and his friends...
So, I was 18 when he died and he was 22. So, other 18 and 22-year-olds, I saw how they responded to his death, and how different that was from my parents' and grandparents' generation. And I saw my 18-year-old friends sitting in silence with me and then breaking the silence and saying, "Alison, we don't know what you're going through, but we really want to help. How can we help you?" They were willing, they were wanting, they had just never been given the words to use. And the stigma was still so strong and my parents' and grandparents' generations that they didn't necessarily get that support. They had friends and family who didn't know what to say, so they didn't say anything. Not vindictively, but just without having a sense of it's okay for me to be vulnerable. And so, I saw not only that the world needed to change, but that it could change, and it would change if we gave this next generation the opportunity to be that change.
Kevin: You started at University of Pennsylvania, now you're in over 600 college campuses, high schools. And the seeds of the approach of your company is to aggressively ferret out these conversations and talk about mental health, which I think is a beautiful thing. Have you noticed because the colleges seemed to do this better. But have you noticed? Is it true that the challenges seem to be getting for kids younger and younger?
Alison: Yeah. It's hard to know for sure. That's where the research is coming in and none of us actually know this is why this is happening. I do think, to be very honest, I do think a lot of these thoughts were happening 20 years ago, but kids weren't talking about it. And that's the piece of it is we don't really know, but it is definitely the case that these issues don't start in college, these issues don't start in high school. And there's an opportunity for us to start talking about resilience and start talking about having bad days and hard feelings when kids are in kindergarten and before. And so, these are issues that we need to address in an age-appropriate way from the get-go. But it is definitely the case that there are an elementary school students who are struggling mightily with their mental health.
Kevin: So, I have one last question as a follow-up on this point. And that is for that reason, the fact that colleges are more adept at addressing these issues because, historically, they propped up publicly in Cali settings. This is what I really wanna know. What advice would you give to K12 administrators and teachers on the best way to address and help kids who have mental challenges, particularly in light of the fact that there's a growing number of these kids that are existing in the K12 space?
Alison: So, number one, I would say this is not just about those kids who we know are struggling with their mental health, this is about supporting mental health at the school as a whole. So, this is about having mental health programming throughout the year so that at the moment a kid does start struggling, or the moment a friend starts noticing something in their friend, they know this is something we talk about here at this school, or they've learned the signs, or they start paying attention to what's going on. This is not just about having one program at one time and trying to catch everybody who's falling through. This is a holistic approach, a public health approach that we have to take to mental health. But number two, we have to recognize that our students are not gonna be successful academically unless they are well emotionally. And so, we have to start talking about mental health as it relates to food security and attachments at home and support systems at home and housing security, as well as biological factors. Are there family members with histories of alcohol use or bipolar disorder or whatnot? All of that is gonna come to a head for youth and young adults. We have to normalize for them that struggling is okay, but also that they don't need to struggle alone, that we are here for support, and seeking help is a sign of strength.
So, for our K12 to engage students in programming brings students along to say, "Hey, these are the programs we need here at the school." We need to involve curriculum, peer-to-peer curriculum so that students can teach other students about mental health and can have that open conversation because just like Brian needed to hear it from his friend, you better believe that 15-year-olds need to hear it from other 15-year-olds, or even better, a freshman needs to hear it from a sophomore this idea that I can still be okay next year even if I'm struggling. So, that peer-to-peer interaction is critical in the K12 system. And even one of the questions you raised earlier was around the crisis and how far people are struggling. We need to create an environment where our youth are getting the help they need as soon as they need it. And so, that's about the early identification, the early intervention, and also the promotion of positive mental health to talk about this even when somebody isn't struggling because we all struggle. We may not have diagnosable mental illnesses, but we all struggle. And in that struggle, you deserve to get help and support. And when we get that help and support, especially for youth and young adults, it doesn't have to get to a point where people are falling through the cracks or struggling with really, really severe issues.
Kevin: The incomparable Alison Malmon. Initials AM, Active Minds. Thank you for joining us on "What I Want to Know."
Alison: Such a pleasure to be here. Thank you again so much for inviting me along.
Kevin: Thanks for joining "What I Want to Know." Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. And don't forget to write a review too. Explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #WIWTK on social media. That's #WIWTK on social media. For more information on Stride, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining What I Want to Know."
Alison Malmon is the founder and executive director of Active Minds, an organization devoted to supporting students' mental health awareness and education. Alison formed the organization in 2003 as a 21-year-old, following the suicide of her brother and only sibling, Brian. Wanting to end the silence that caused her brother to suffer alone, Alison created a group at the University of Pennsylvania to promote an open dialogue around mental health. Since then, Active Minds has grown into the country's foremost mental health organization for students and young adults, with award-winning programs and a vibrant network of chapters located at more than 600 colleges, universities, and high schools nationwide.
Join the email list
Sign up and get notifications on new What I Want to Know podcast episodes.
Thanks for subscribing!
Check your email to confirm your subscription.
What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.