Active Minds: Empowering Students and Changing the Conversation about Mental Health on College Campuses

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Active Minds: Empowering Students and Changing the Conversation about Mental Health on College Campuses

United States
Organization type: 
nonprofit/ngo/citizen sector
$500,000 - $1 million
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

In order to ensure a drastic change in the way young adults experience mental health and mental health disorders, Active Minds seeks to empower students to use their voices to learn, understand, share their stories, and educate their peers about the mental health issues that affect them most.

About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Young adults of college age are at the most vulnerable time to be facing mental health issues. For both biological and social reasons, young adults aged 18-25 have THE HIGHEST rate of mental illness of the entire population, at 27%. Sadly, nearly half of all students report having felt so depressed in the past year it was difficult to function, and suicide is taking the lives of over 1,100 college students each year, making it the second leading cause of death for students. However, little is being done. Students are facing depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and other mental health issues while in college, often for the first time – away from home, away from childhood friends, and away from typical support systems. But they are not being taught about the symptoms of issues they may be facing, they are not learning about the help that is available to them, and they are sadly, not learning that there is HOPE. Active Minds will create an environment on every campus that promotes an enlightened dialogue that helps students know what they are experiencing, that they are not alone, and that help is available.

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

Active Minds is the leading voice in young adult mental health awareness, empowering college and university students to tell their stories, educate their peers, and work closely with clinical services to break the unnecessary stigma that surrounds mental health. As the only organization that is reaching students through students, we are engaging the next generation of advocates – to truly rethink and engage in mental health, in order to support their own peer-based community. Too often we refer to individuals with mental health disorders as "those people." We talk about them, we talk over them. Too rarely do we talk with them and empower them as individuals to take care of themselves, watch out for friends about whom they are worried, and recognize that having a mental health disorder isn't a life sentence. But it is the case that the majority of mental illnesses first present at the high school and college age. Young adults who are creating their self-identity, wanting to fit in with the crowd but also dream as big as they can. But then all of the sudden they start experiencing thoughts and emotions that are different and maybe scary to them, but they've never been taught about them. They've never learned that these are real signs of real disorders, that help is available, and that there is hope. Active Minds seeks to change that. Active Minds seeks to create an environment whereby students learn about mental health and mental health disorders, understand what symptoms to look out for in themselves and friends, know where professional help is available, and feel comfortable seeking that help. Through student-run chapters on college and university campuses nationwide, Active Minds is the only organization that uses students as the driving force to change the perception about mental health on college campuses.
Impact: How does it Work

Example: Walk us through a specific example(s) of how this solution makes a difference; include its primary activities.

Active Minds started as a student group in 2001 when I was a junior at the University of Pennsylvania. After the suicide of my older brother Brian the year before, I was determined that the conditions that existed that allowed him to suffer in silence at his school, and ultimately lose all hope and his life, had no place on my college campus. After searching unsuccessfully for national programs that I could bring to my campus, I created my own. Now, nine years after that first chapter began and seven years into the nonprofit organization’s existence, Active Minds has 271 campus chapters and grows daily; we are looking to reach 300 chapters this school year. The true testament to the impact we are having is in the incredible pace of growth we’ve seen, and through the thousands of students and their staff advisors who have become involved in this new movement of student-based mental health advocacy. Through our small staff’s efforts in our national office, and our incredible student and staff volunteers nationwide, Active Minds has engaged more than 3,000 student advocates and reached more than 2.5 million students with our programming in the past seven years, with those numbers growing every day. We have reached campuses in 44 US States, Washington, DC, Canada, and in Australia. We have been recognized for our work from the Campaign for Mental Health Reform, American Association of University Women, and by national media such as CNN, New York Times, Washington Post, Newsweek, NPR, and others. Active Minds has emerged as the leading voice in student mental health advocacy.
About You
Active Minds
Section 1: You
First Name


Last Name



Active Minds

Section 2: Your Organization
Organization Name

Active Minds

Organization Phone
Organization Address
Organization Country
Your idea
Country and state your work focuses on

, DC, Washington

Do you have a patent for this idea?


Active Minds works diligently every day to create programming and communication tools to foster the development and support of its campus chapters. Through these campus chapters and our national programs, we are empowering young adults to be players in their own mental health care - to watch out for changes in themselves and their friends, and to seek help as soon as it is needed. Through branded programs such as National Day Without Stigma, which brings counselors out of the counseling center to assure students that mental health professionals are real, good people too, and The Heard, the only young adult mental health speakers bureau which is housed at Active Minds, we are working to change the conversation about mental health to one that is enlightened and empowers students to get the care they need as soon as it is needed.


Through education, awareness, and advocacy, we expect to change the culture around mental health to one that helps make young adults understand that they are not alone and that they deserve professional help - and professional help can help them feel better. By developing student-run chapters on college and university campuses, and national programs that support the work of the chapters, we are striving to create the culture on hundreds of campuses nationwide that encourages help seeking as soon as it is needed, and lets students that it is as okay to talk about their mental health difficulties as their physical health difficulties.

What will it take for your project to be successful over the next three years? Please address each year separately, if possible.

Over the next three years, Active Minds seeks to drastically increase our chapter base - from now 270 chapters to more than 300 well-supported, active chapters, reaching up to 3 million college students each and every year. We also strive to expand upon our national programming, and make it available to more young adults than ever. In year 1, success will be defined if we are able to reach 300 Active Minds chapter, host a successful National Day without Stigma, and at least 50 speaking engagements by members of The Heard. Year 2 will be a success if there are at least 75 speaking engagements by The Heard and two displays of our suicide awareness program, Send Silence Packing. Year 3 will be deemed a success if more than 80% of our chapters are active, effective change-agents on campus - determined by a new evaluation system truly measuring chapter impact on campus.

What would prevent your project from being a success?

Active Minds is filling a need that has never been addressed in our society – giving students a voice in mental health, to truly ensure that no student feels alone, all students know where help is available, and our rising generation of leaders has more understanding and support for mental health issues than any generation in history. Because we are filling such a needed role in both mental health and young adult leadership, we do not believe that finding the students to be change-agents on campus will be difficult for us. Our difficulty lies in supporting those who want to be effective student change agents on campus. Our biggest barrier to successfully changing the conversation about mental health on college campuses is in having the capacity at our national headquarters to support the great work of our chapters. We truly need to build the staff and technological capacity of our organization to be able to better predict and respond to our students’ needs.

How many people will your project serve annually?

More than 10,000

What is the average monthly household income in your target community, in US Dollars?

Less than $50

Does your project seek to have an impact on public policy?

What stage is your project in?

Operating for more than 5 years

In what country?

, DC, Washington

Is your initiative connected to an established organization?


If yes, provide organization name.

Active Minds, Inc.

How long has this organization been operating?

More than 5 years

Does your organization have a Board of Directors or an Advisory Board?


Does your organization have any non-monetary partnerships with NGOs?


Does your organization have any non-monetary partnerships with businesses?


Does your organization have any non-monetary partnerships with government?


Please tell us more about how these partnerships are critical to the success of your innovation.

Active Minds would not be able to truly serve as the young adult voice in mental health without the strategic partnerships we have with other nonprofit organizations and governmental agencies. Through these partnerships, we are able to make mental health programming materials targeting students available to our students - and really give students a voice in the general mental health community. In addition, we are able to make popular leadership programs normally reserved for student government members (through the Wellstone Action Network, etc) available to student mental health advocates, to ensure the most knowledgeable next generation of leaders in mental health. And through partnerships with the National Institutes of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration, we are able to ensure that the young adult voice is heard and presence is felt in their strategic planning and projects. And finally, through our partnership with the Association of University and College Counseling Center Directors, we are promoting a student voice among practitioners that hasn't existed before.

What are the three most important actions needed to grow your initiative or organization?

The three most important actions needed to grow our organization include staff capacity building at the national headquarters, technological capacity building at the headquarters and through our chapters, and increased linkages between our chapters both virtually and physically.

The Story
What was the defining moment that led you to this innovation?

I was a freshman in college, a young 18-year old, when my world turned upside down. My older brother Brian, my only sibling, took his own life on March 24, 2000.

I became terrified, because I learned after his death that Brian had been experiencing signs of a mental health disorder since his freshman year of college, but only sought help for the issue in his senior year, and took his life just a year later. I also learned that although he was able to maintain a 3.8 GPA throughout his time on his Ivy League campus and become the president of the numerous activities in which he was involved, Brian's friends had indeed noticed changes in him through the years. But, not knowing what they were seeing, not knowing what to say, and truly not thinking it was their place to say anything, they didn't.

And Brian, we learned after the fact, also didn't understand what he was dealing with, that it wasn't his fault, that help was available and the earlier he sought help the more likely he would be to recover and, truly, that there was hope. So he tried to mask everything and "pull himself out of it" through his three and a half years on campus, during which we're all told is supposed to be the best time of our lives.

Thinking that life couldn't get any worse, Brian finally did seek help from his campus counseling center and took a voluntary leave of absence from school, which was the first time that my family learned anything about his struggles. But by then, Brian had truly lost hope - and, just after the four year anniversary of his first "break" and thinking that he would never regain the life he once imagined for himself, he took his own life.

It was Brian's experiences on campus, his friends' ignorance about their role in helping him, his lonliness and lack of understanding, and my recognition that Brian was definitely not the only student dealing in this way that led to my developing Active Minds on my campus in 2001. And it was the fast realization that students across the country were feeling the same pain, isolation, and implications of our society's stigma around mental health that led to the development of the nonprofit organization in 2003.

Tell us about the social innovator behind this idea.

As the founder and Executive Director of Active Minds, I am technically the social innovator behind this idea - but it is because of the incredible dedication, creativity, and ingenuity of my staff and our student volunteers that this idea has been so successful so quickly.

I majored in psychology and sociology in college, struggling to figure out what I could do with my degrees other than continue to graduate school. It wasn't until I graduated Phi Beta Kappa, just three years after my brother took his life, that I realized that I could make my passion and the program I had devoted my time to at Penn, my work. Upon graduating I spent a few months weighing the options for Active Minds, and decided to turn down the opportunities to make Active Minds a program within larger organizations, and instead keep it an independent organization so that the student voice in mental health truly was never lost. I have dedicated all of my time since graduation to Active Minds, and it has been my full time job since. Though it started in my bedroom in my shared apartment, and I had no salary for the organization's first year, I knew it would be a success. Just six years later, I am so proud of the work Active Minds has achieved, so thankful of the support we continue to garner, and so inspired by the dedication and intelligence of my staff and our volunteers. Though I wish every day that Brian was still with me, I cannot imagine doing anything else with my life.

How did you first hear about Changemakers?

Email from Changemakers

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