• On October 3, the new student group Active Minds at Caltech collected 120 signatures from students in support of National Day Without Stigma. The students pledged to do their part to fight stigma around mental health issues.
11/11/2011 08:00:00

Student Group Aims to Highlight the Importance of Mental Health

It's common knowledge that Caltech is home to active minds. Perhaps lesser known is a student group on campus called Active Minds at Caltech, which started this year with the goal of getting the word out about the importance of mental health.

"We really see ourselves as the student voice for the conversation about mental health on campus," says Gloria Sheng, the founding president of the club and a graduate student in chemistry at Caltech. "We want to make sure that people feel it's okay to talk about mental-health issues and that going to counseling or talking to a therapist can be a positive change in a person's life."

Active Minds is a national organization, started in 2001 by Alison Malmon, then a student at the University of Pennsylvania. Malmon founded the group after her older brother, Brian, took his own life. She wanted to change the culture on campus and to encourage students to talk about mental-health issues like those her brother had wrestled with.

At Caltech, Sheng teamed up with two of her friends, grad students Liz Jensen and Yun Elisabeth Wang, to start the new chapter. They've been supported by the Caltech Counseling Center as well as the Graduate Student Council and the Moore-Hufstedler Fund for Student Life.

"By getting students involved in a mental-health group and its associated activities, the negative images associated with mental health are more likely to decrease," says Jennifer Levin, a health educator at the Counseling Center and coadvisor of the club along with Kevin Austin, director of the Counseling Center. "We hope that Active Minds will help empower students to take control over their health and welfare."

In its first year, Active Minds at Caltech plans to host two major events. The first will actually be a string of events during Eating Disorder Awareness Week, from February 26 to March 3, 2012. Last year, 133 Active Minds chapters participated in the awareness week by organizing events to spread the word about the prevalence and impact of eating disorders amongst young adults and to provide resources for those needing help.

Eating Disorder Awareness Week events at Caltech will have two goals: to educate the campus about disordered eating and to talk about how to eat healthfully. "From experience on campus, I know that people are really interested in learning how to eat healthfully," Jensen says, "and they don't actually know how to at all." The club plans to host a couple of workshops and seminars and has budgeted to bring a local dietitian in for one-on-one sessions during the week. 

Active Minds at Caltech also plans to host a 5K race during the spring term to spread the message that exercise is an important component of health and, in particular, mental health. "We want to get people excited about exercising and to not fear the idea of running," Sheng says. "We have some offers from local fitness clubs to start training programs for people who want to get in shape enough to run the 5K. But we want to encourage participants at all levels to come out and get some exercise."

In the meantime, the club plans to do smaller projects such as bringing in masseuses for students before midterms and finals, and creating a website that will encourage dialogue about how people on campus are feeling.

"The student statistic that really stands out is that one in four college students has a mental disorder," Wang says. "Why aren't we talking about that more? Active Minds is our student stand against that."

Written by Kimm Fesenmaier