Brian Malmon was the quintessential big brother. Perhaps it was a combination of his sharp wit, dry humor, intelligence, and "laid back" demeanor that made him the apple of his younger sister’s eye.
As a high school student in Maryland, he was a sports reporter for the community newspaper, and as an undergraduate at Columbia University, he was president of his a cappella group Uptown Vocal and sports editor of Columbia’s newspaper. He was an avid fan of the TV show "The Simpsons" and the music of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He starred in a theatrical production one year and managed to stay on the dean’s list most of the time—all despite the fact that in his freshman year, he had begun to experience symptoms of schizoaffective disorder.
"He kept his illness a complete secret until his senior year," his younger sister Alison told Psychiatric News.
Brian took a leave of absence in 1998 and returned to Maryland to receive treatment, which included a number of different combinations of medicines and intensive therapy. "He essentially tried everything possible at some point during the year and a half that he was home," Malmon said. Some of the medicines didn’t seem to have much effect on her brother’s illness, she said, while others started working but then stopped.
In March 2000 Brian committed suicide at home. "Brian and I had been through a lot together, including our parents’ divorce," Malmon said. "We were the only ones who could truly understand one another in many respects. When he died, I felt like I lost my other half."
At the time, Malmon was a student at the University of Pennsylvania. "As a freshman, I reflected on the culture surrounding mental illness at Penn and realized no one was talking about mental health issues," Malmon said.
To raise awareness about mental illness and provide her fellow students with information about where to go for help, she founded a student-run organization, Open Minds, in 2001. "My motivation for starting the group was the two and a half years my brother spent at school, sick and isolated," she said.
With the support of the university’s administration and Counseling and Psychological Services office, she began recruiting members and developed a mission statement.
Malmon even received a $10,000 grant from the university administration to sponsor activities, including seminars with guest speakers such as Ross Szabo, a mental health advocate who talks to young audiences about his experiences with bipolar disorder; panel discussions on mental health issues; and an annual race on campus in which the runners are clad in T-shirts listing various facts about mental illness in adolescents.
The group also hosted an event at a fraternity on campus at which bands played and vendors donated refreshments. Students paid a nominal fee for the evening’s entertainment, and the proceeds went to the adolescent unit of a local psychiatric hospital, Malmon said.
The group also distributes flyers on campus, including one listing famous people with mental illness and another with symptoms and prevalence rates of a number of mental illnesses. There are also brochures with information about Open Minds listing contact information for the Counseling and Psychological Services on campus, which, Malmon said, tends to be understaffed and overburdened. "We do their outreach," she said.
Student reaction to Open Minds has been positive, Malmon said, and events have been well attended. During certain events, Malmon said she shares the story of her brother’s suicide with her peers. "If I’m trying to destigmatize mental illness, I can’t keep anything secret," she explained. The students, she said, respond with gratitude and some with their own disclosures about mental illness in their families.
Malmon graduated from Penn in May and now serves as a consultant to the students running the program. In addition, she is looking for ways to bring Open Minds to other colleges and universities.
Last year, Katie Hard, a close high school friend of Malmon’s, started a chapter of Open Minds at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where she is a senior. The group sponsors activities similar to those at Penn to "create conversation around the topic of mental illness" and direct people to help resources, she explained.
Before Open Minds began reaching out to Georgetown students, Hard said, some students in need of mental health services didn’t know that Georgetown’s counseling center even existed. Leaders of the student-run organization, she added, are approached by friends or roommates of people who are experiencing the symptoms of mental illness and "don’t know what to do, who to talk to, or where to go—we direct them."
Hard said she has received administrative support from the Health Education Services and School of Nursing and Health Studies, which has funded some activities on campus.
"When Alison’s brother committed suicide, it really affected our group of friends," Hard said. "If we can help just one student on campus, all the better."
Anthony Rostain, M.D., director of education at the University of Pennsylvania’s department of psychiatry and an associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics, worked with Malmon when he chaired the university’s Mental Health Outreach Task Force.
The university’s provost convened the group during the 2001-02 academic year after three student suicides in order to assess the state of mental health outreach efforts and resources available to students.
Rostain also advised Malmon on her senior thesis project, in which she surveyed 100 Penn students on their knowledge and attitudes surrounding mental illness.
He described Malmon as a "talented student leader who has been able to mobilize a creative group of students to address issues of mental health and destigmatize mental illness in a dynamic way."
The university’s administration and faculty, he added, have been appreciative of the group’s accomplishments. "We feel the group’s presence on campus has made it easier to get the message across to students that asking for help is not a sign of weakness and that mental disorders are as real as physical disorders," he said.
More information about Open Minds is posted on the Web at http://dolphin.upenn.edu/~openmind. ▪