If you want to know what students think about mental health, ask Active Minds. The national network of student leaders is the go-to voice on the ground when it comes to college student emotional and behavioral health. And if you want to know why it matters, ask Laura Horne, Active Minds Chief Program Officer, who regularly reminds us that to improve the mental health of college students, we need to involve them in the process.
Horne is a member of the executive team at Active Minds, behind Alison Malmon, its founder and executive director, who started the organization seventeen years ago to reduce stigma and improve access to mental health services after her brother died by suicide while in college. Horne joined the organization seven years ago with a mixed background of marketing and public health that became the right skill match to propel the organization’s continued journey.
Active Minds students are like most members of a student club with tables at campus events and members who form a community. What brings these students together is a desire to change the way mental illness is perceived and talked about on college campuses so that more students can access the support they need. Their cause is to demystify mental illness, whether or not they have lived experience.
“We’re trying to change the culture, change social norms, so we’re empowering and equipping young adults in the context of a campus to bring that mental health conversation into the open,” said Horne. “I believe the best way to do that for students is through peers.”
Active Minds students are expected to engage with their counseling centers and other resources on campus. The national office of Active Minds, located in Washington, DC, provides context and resources for the students and for administrators and faculty who are provided guidance on addressing student mental health from the students’ perspective, something that Horne says doesn’t always happen.
“With the best of intentions, we often forget to make a seat at the table for students when we’re talking about their mental health, so we end up guessing what works as well as what the barriers are,” she said. Horne urges schools to engage students in mental health programming beyond the occasional focus group.
This bottoms-up/top-down strategy has made Active Minds a critical thought leader in the field of college student mental health and has made Horne an oft-quoted spokesperson in the media and at national symposia. An Active Minds April 2020 survey on student mental health at the onset of COVID-19 has been referenced hundreds of times in the press. A second, comparative survey released in October will no doubt receive similar coverage. (See sidebar)
Active Minds’ founding mission remains strong, with a presence on more than 800 campuses across the country that have changed the conversation on mental health and how to access resources while in college. Horne says that as stigma has gone down and awareness has risen, Active Minds can now play a larger role in advocating for student-centered policy change.
To understand where Active Minds is going, it helps to know where Laura Horne is coming from.
The mother of three young daughters and a native of Louisiana, Horne received both her undergraduate and graduate degrees in New Orleans (at Loyola University and Tulane, respectively). She began her career in social marketing and communications but, with the addition of a master’s degree in public health, she moved into community health, most recently as a program officer for the National Association of City and County Health Departments, where she was charged with creating coalitions of stakeholders in healthy community living.
Horne says this broad experience in public health may have been an advantage for an organization that was looking to move into mental health policy change.
“I often look at mental health as any other health issue and question why we aren’t usually approaching it in the same way,” she said. “You can’t simply teach people how to cook healthy meals if they don’t have access to a grocery store. In mental health, it’s not just about persuading people to seek services. It’s also about making sure those services are accessible to them.”
For these reasons, Horne hopes that students will lead the way in innovating college student mental health services. She believes the current model is outdated – good for some but not for all. Horne sees the new strategies coming from students who have the keys to understanding what works.
As an example, she says, “Our members ask their peers: ‘Why aren’t you accessing traditional services? Did you not know about them? Did you know about them but weren’t comfortable using them?’”
Innovation is playing a key role in a new policy challenge campaign Active Minds is launching this fall. With a stripped down, actionable format that acknowledges the limitations of a COVID-19 start to school, Active Minds is asking student leaders to do four things to change policy on their campuses: 1) Advocate for their counseling center to innovate their services; 2) Advocate for cultural competency for faculty staff and student leaders so they know how to talk about mental health issues without biases or microaggressions against students of color; 3) Ask their faculty and academic deans to intentionally share information on mental health services with students (professors may be the only link to resources for those studying remotely); and 4) Find their school’s strategic plan and see if it states that mental health and diversity and inclusion are priorities and whether or not they are being measured.
Despite the disruption of the pandemic, Horne is excited about the campaign’s potential impact. “I think we are going to see a wave of student-led policy change around these issues through Active Minds this semester,” she says.
In addition to strengthening their advocacy agenda, Active Minds is aiming to grow to even more campuses around the country, with a goal of getting to 1,000 campuses within two years. It has also started chapters in high schools and has been working with alumni to bring mental health conversations into the workplace.
“This is about culture change,” Horne said. “We don’t want to just talk about these issues on college campuses. We want to take what we’ve learned over the past 17 years and apply it to other places.”
When asked about the impact of COVID-19, Horne offered a concern and some hope. She worries that with students out of their view, administrators are less inclined to include them in campus decision-making. As for silver linings, Horne believes the forced changes to the student health model, particularly those involving technology, will continue to drive welcome changes to the campus mental health model. She also believes today’s students, so frequently described as lacking resilience, are rising to the occasion and may finally get the credit they deserve.
“Young people today are sometimes viewed as not as strong as previous generations, but I think we’re missing all of the large, social issues they are uniquely faced with,” she said. “Our students are actually very optimistic about the future; still plugging in, still engaging, despite all the challenges and disruption. To me, that is tremendously resilient.”