News from Active Minds

2009 National Mental Health on Campus Conference Recap

Students Gather to Change the Conversation About Mental Health

More than three hundred and fifty college students, staff and experts assembled at George Washington University, November 13th and 14th, for Active Minds’ sixth National Mental Health on Campus Conference. 

“As the first decade of the new millennium draws quickly to a close, it’s striking that our society still has a backward, stigmatizing way of looking at mental health and mental illness,” said Alison Malmon, founder and executive director of Active Minds, Inc. “Far too often all we see is the worst possible portrayal, but at our conference I was privileged to see the best. More than 95 schools were represented. Students, staff, and supporters traveled miles upon miles to George Washington University in Washington, DC, for the simple purpose of reflecting on where we’ve been, discussing where we are now and planning where we are headed.” 

The conference opened with a tour of Capitol Hill, and for many attendees for whom this was their first time in DC, they were able to steep themselves in the nation’s history before going off to make some of their own. 

Attendees had the opportunity to witness Active Minds, Inc’s signature program Send Silence Packing. Many were moved to tears by the powerful display of 1,100 backpacks symbolizing the 1,100 college students lost to suicide each year. They paused at the backpacks that featured stories of those lost to suicide, reflecting on the life of a brother, a sister, a son, a daughter or a friend. 

Malmon said that she was struck with a sense of how far the organization has come in the six years since she started Active Minds. From one chapter at University of Pennsylvania to more than 230 across North America, the numbers have grown greatly. She said she is confident that in time the number of backpacks will decrease as Active Minds chapters shed light on issues of mental health and mental illness. 

In addition to the tour and display, Active Minds chapter members also had the unique privilege of taking part in a leadership institute facilitated by representatives from the renowned Wellstone Action Network. 

“Wellstone typically trains up-and-coming politicians and campaign staffers,” said Sara Abelson, Active Minds’ program director and conference coordinator. “They have taken part in our conference for the past three years because they realize that mental health is an issue that affects us all. They know, like I know, that Active Minds students are some of the best and brightest of a new generation of mental health advocates.” 

This fact was made even more evident by the fact that Active Minds chapter members were not idle participants in the conference. Many Active Minds students were among the featured presenters: 

  • Active Minds at Oregon State University and Active Minds at Muhlenberg College addressed the gender divide in mental health.
  • Students from Active Minds at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University joined with students from Active Minds at Mississippi State University to teach their peers about effective outreach strategies in the African-American community.
  • Sessions on campus programming and key strategies for success were led by 20 students from 12 schools.


It was an incredible testament to the leadership and innovation of our student leaders that they were paired with experts in online organizing, communications and campus mental health to educate their peers on ways they can reach more students in new and different ways, said Abelson. The organization also took the opportunity to recognize exemplary work done by chapters in the previous school year with the Active Minds awards. 

“It thrills me that so much of our conference, like our organization, is by students, for students,” Abelson said. 

While student-focused, the conference also featured outside speakers interested in dialoguing with student activists. Award-winning author Joshua Wolf Shenk gave a presentation on how Abraham Lincoln battled melancholy throughout his life and how he still found humor in life, guided by friends in times of need, and successfully ran a nation during a historic conflict. 

Attendees also heard a moving speech from keynote speaker and accomplished actress Heather Matarazzo who talked about her personal mental health trials and presented students with a story of hope. 

“I loved how she was able to truly spark emotion in the room as she talked about finding something you can hold on to in the darkest of days,” said Vicki Chan, a student at University of California at Irvine and an intern at the Active Minds national office. “She made it crystal clear that it doesn’t matter who you are, everyone goes through times when they struggle. I know a lot of attendees walked away inspired.” 

About Active Minds, Inc.: Active Minds is the leading voice in college student mental health. On over 235 campuses, with thousands of student leaders and advocates working diligently to raise awareness and promote mental health, Active Minds is reaching students through the implementation of programming that decreases stigma, brings about awareness, and ultimately creates a positive and accepting environment for the discussion of mental health issues.