Active Minds: Empowering Students and Changing the Conversation about Mental Health on 300 Campuses

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Active Minds: Empowering Students and Changing the Conversation about Mental Health on 300 Campuses

United StatesUnited States
Organization type: 
nonprofit/ngo/citizen sector
$250,000 - $500,000
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 we address mental health, Active Minds seeks to create and support student-run chapters of mental health awareness groups on every college campus.  By 2010, it seeks to have 300 chapters across the United States.

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.
About You
Active Minds
Section 1: About You
First Name


Last Name


Section 2: About Your Organization
Organization Name

Active Minds

Organization Phone


Organization Address

2647 Connecticut Ave, NW #200; Washington, DC 20008

Organization Country
Your idea
Country your work focuses on
What makes your idea unique?

Active Minds is the leading student voice in 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 – the ones their friends are listening to – to truly rethink and engage in mental health, in order to support their own peer-based community.

Mental health is about story telling. Once one of us tells our story, we find that almost everyone around us has a story too. But when we don’t talk about our experiences, we find ourselves feeling extremely isolated. In order to truly improve our community’s wellbeing, we must promote an active and enlightened dialogue around mental health. Until that happens, mental health will continue to be the lonely, quiet issue that leaves too many of us without hope.

While youth-based programs in mental health are plentiful, too often they teach educators, staff, and faculty about issues that students may be facing. Rarely if ever do they actively engage students themselves, who know firsthand what the issues may be that need to be addressed, and are the first ones to know when a friend may be in need. A recent study in Texas showed that 67% of students who were suicidal told a friend before they told anyone else. Students must be a main target audience for mental health programming. And they must be the ones to tell their own stories.

The idea to expand and support Active Minds chapters across the United States will do all of the above, and will guarantee that there is a next generation of mental health advocates and professionals who WILL be the change agents we need to truly rethink and reapproach mental health.

Do you have a patent for this idea?

What impact have you had?

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, eight years after that first chapter began and six years into the nonprofit organization’s existence, Active Minds has 216 campus chapters and grows daily. 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 six years, with those numbers growing every day. We have reached campuses in 40 US States, Washington, DC, Canada, and in Australia. We have been recognized for our work from the Campaign for Menta; 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.


Active Minds works diligently every day to create programming and communication tools to foster the development and support of its campus chapters. In order to reach 300 chapters, we will work to reach students at colleges and universities to make them aware of the national program; continue to educate counseling center staff about our mission to ensure their support for their campus chapters; and develop innovative and effective programming materials to ensure that developing a chapter is barrier-free, and sustaining it during the year is as simple as can be.

In addition, in order to support an additional 80+ chapters, we will need to hire a 4th Chapter Coordinator at the national office to be the 24/7 resource for those new and existing chapters, so we are working hard to raise the funding to make that happen.


Through our outreach efforts, Active Minds expects that students will continue to seek information about starting an Active Minds chapter on their campus, and staff will continue to learn more about the program. We expect to garner interest in approximately one hundred new campuses in the next year which, on top of our existing 216 chapters, will allow us to have at least 300 chapters of Active Minds by 2010.

Through new communication and programming tools, we expect that Active Minds chapters will be better connected with each other and equipped to run programming on campus. Through chapter evaluations, we expect to learn that our chapters have engaged in more programming in future years than they have in the past, and report having worked with students and chapters from other campuses more so than in the past.

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

In order to reach 300 chapters by 2010, we will need to outreach to potential new chapters through contact with like-minded students (found through letters to the editor and other articles in school newspapers), ads on Facebook, and continued speaking engagements by staff and students. In this first year, we will also need to hire a 4th Chapter Coordinator at the national office to support this outreach work and serve as a 24/7 resource for these new chapters.

In year two, our project will require continued financial support of our Chapter Coordinators, including funding for a 5th coordinator, and increased connectivity between the chapters through an enhanced web strategy and presence. In year 2, 300 successful Active Minds chapters will also require an expanded Leadership Institute for chapter members, including workshops on speaking publicly about mental health.

And in year 3, to truly support all 300 existing chapters, Active Minds will focus on programming so that it has ten turn-key, evaluated, complete national programs that it makes available to its chapters so that each chapter can run solely nationally-created programming, lessoning the burden on chapters that don’t want to create their own initiatives.

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 who are interested in starting chapters 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 having 300 chapters of Active Minds by 2010 is in having the capacity at our national headquarters to support the great work of our chapters, including creating ways for them to better connect with each other. 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. Without this increased capacity, we will not be able to have 300 successful campus-based chapters, and the students who really need it will not get this most vital form of education.

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?
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 have a presence on campus. 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. Truly, without these partnerships, our innovative program and approach would not exist.

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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