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A brother's suicide sparks a need to help

Story Highlights

•Alison Malmon's brother committed suicide in 2000
•She founded "Active Minds" to raise awareness of mental illnesses on colleges
•Virginia Tech shootings have amplified attention on mental health

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(CNN) -- On a Friday afternoon in March 2000, University of Pennsylvania freshman Alison Malmon came in from studying outdoors with friends, and her world crashed around her.

Her older brother, Brian, a senior on leave from Columbia University, had committed suicide at their mother's house in Potomac, Maryland.

"You don't really expect it to happen to a brilliant, outgoing, funny young adult who is in an Ivy League university," Malmon told CNN recently.

Although Brian had concealed his depression and psychosis for nearly three years with his quick wit and academic accomplishments, the family became aware that he was having difficulties about a year and a half before he took his life, Malmon said.

In November 1998, Brian had visited the counseling center at Columbia University. Professionals there had recommended that he take some time off from school. Once home, Brian began seeing a therapist, and also began taking medication to temper his mental illness.

"There was a year and a half that we knew ... what was going on," Malmon recalled. "The problem was [the] three years when he was on his own without getting the family support, the support from friends, without getting professional support.

"It just all happened in a blur."

Shaken by what she called her brother's fear of his mental illness, which she believes hindered his getting help, Malmon formed a student group called "Active Minds" about a year and a half after her brother's death.

Her intent was to increase awareness of mental illness on college campuses.

"I wanted to educate students... about the issues, about the signs and symptoms, and about where -- on campus and off campus and online -- you can get help," she said.

"And I wanted that to come from the students themselves, because I felt education coming from the clinicians, from professionals, is often more stigmatized and more intimidating, than it is coming from students who have their own stories."

The student group soon expanded to Georgetown University, and when Malmon graduated in 2003, she turned it into a nonprofit organization.

There are 65 chapters in 27 states, Malmon said.

The mental health statistics on college campuses are alarming. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students, according to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center. More than 40 percent of college students have felt so depressed they could not function, according to a 2006 American College Health Association report.

"Active Mind" chapters "get people talking about the issues," she said. "And [they] really work to de-stigmatize the issue, so that everybody who needs help gets it, as early as possible."

The April 16 shootings at Virginia Tech have highlighted the need for awareness among college students, Malmon said, adding that she hopes gunman Seung-Hui Cho's actions won't increase the stigma and shame that sometimes accompany mental illness.

"We can't make it uncomfortable for students to come forward with their stories," she said. "Because that's how we're going to...have more students graduate and go on to become productive members of society, [and] not feel so ashamed like my brother did."


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Alison Malmon founded "Active Minds" to increase awareness of mental illness on college campuses.

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