At Providence College, Student-Led Mental-Health Group Battles Stigma Of Mental Illness

By G. Wayne Miller
The Providence Journal, R.I.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Colleen Andersen and Cassandra Caggiano, two students at Providence College, have joined the battle against the stigma surrounding mental illness. As leaders of the PC chapter of “Active Minds”, a national organization devoted to raising awareness of mental health, they sponsor educational events and speakers on campus.


When she enrolled at Providence College in 2014, Cassandra Caggiano was eager to share many things about herself with her new acquaintances.

That she had intimate experience with obsessive-compulsive disorder was not one of them.

“When you move in freshman year, you don’t go up to your roommate and say ‘Hey I’m Cassandra, I live with OCD and anxiety,’ you know what I mean?”

Her good friend Colleen Andersen knows what she means.

“Mental illness can be a taboo topic for some people to talk about,” Andersen says. “They don’t really understand what it means and the reality of what it is.”

The women speak truth. Despite progress since the era of shackles and chains, stigma and ignorance continue to impede acceptance of mental illnesses as what they are: illnesses. Such impediments can thwart treatment and care — and, in some cases, foster discrimination or worse.

Andersen, a senior, and Caggiano, a junior, have joined the battle against all this. As leaders of the PC chapter of Active Minds, a national organization devoted to raising awareness of mental health, they sponsor educational events and speakers on campus and serve as informed public voices, all with the encouragement of the college’s administration.

“Our goal is to educate and advocate for students on our campus,” says Caggiano. Also, to guide classmates to mental-health resources at the college and in the community.

“Active Minds stresses that we’re not a support group,” she says, “but we are here to give you everything else that you need to succeed and combat mental illness or get help for a friend.”

Says Andersen: “The tag line for Active Minds is ‘changing the conversation’ about mental illness. Even if just one person learns about mental illness and they didn’t know about it before, that’s important. That makes a difference.”

It is the kind of difference that the late Carrie Fisher, who lived with bipolar disorder, made with her openness and advocacy.

Active Minds has nearly 450 chapters, including at Brown University, Rhode Island College and Roger Williams University. Its roots lie in the March 2000 suicide of 22-year-old college student Brian Malmon, diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. The young man’s sister, Alison Malmon, a student at the University of Pennsylvania, was moved to transform a campus culture that denigrated mental illness.

“She wanted to combat the stigma of mental illness, encourage students who needed help to seek it early, and prevent future tragedies like the one that took her brother’s life,” the organization states. “After searching unsuccessfully for existing groups that she could simply bring to her campus, Alison created her own model and formed what was then known as Open Minds.”
In 2003, Active Minds, was incorporated as a nonprofit organization. It has grown steadily since then — and drawn the praise and partnership of larger groups, including the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

“I’ve seen firsthand the power of Active Minds on the college campus,” says Cindy Elder, executive director of NAMI’s Rhode Island chapter. “Colleen and Cassandra have volunteered for us for the last year, and in that time I’ve watched them evolve into vocal advocates for their peers.”

Jeff Sparr, artist and co-founder of PeaceLove Studios and someone who lives with obsessive-compulsive disorder, is another admirer.

“At the end of the day, we all have something that we are struggling with,” he says. “We just don’t live in a world where it’s OK to talk about it. Unfortunately, this couldn’t have more of an impact than on our college campuses across the country, where so many suffer in silence. This shouldn’t have to be — and the efforts of organizations like Active Minds are playing an important role in helping facilitate that needed change.”

Says Elder: “Given that one in five Americans is living with mental illness, it’s clear that just about everyone knows someone who is trying to cope with these challenging conditions. We don’t ask people with cancer or diabetes to hide their illness behind closed doors. We need to provide the same openness and acceptance for people who are coping with mental illness and provide them with paths toward hope and recovery.”

Caggiano’s and Andersen’s involvement with Active Minds dates to 2015, when a chapter was established at PC.

“I learned about it through a class I was taking,” says Andersen, 21, a psychology major who is minoring in public and community service studies.

“I literally just got an email about it,” says Caggiano, 20, a political science major.

The chapter had administrative support from the start.

“Students tell us, and data supports, that stigmas about mental health often prevent people from getting the help they need to flourish,” said Kristine Goodwin, Providence College vice president for student affairs. The college has a Personal Counseling Center and a partnership with NAMI — and now, with the group Andersen and Caggiano lead.

“When student leaders suggested forming an Active Minds group on campus, we were glad to support them,” Goodwin says. “Working with campus partners and with organizations like Active Minds is the best way to fight stigmas and engage students in facilitating their own well-being.”

What advice do the students have for fellow students — and everyone?

“I would encourage people to not be afraid to speak up,” says Andersen. “A willingness to be vulnerable and a willingness to share your story is what fights stigma the most. When people are willing to talk about their experiences, that’s when something becomes more than just OCD. You realize that person is so much more than their mental illness.”

Says Caggiano: “My biggest message is never give up and you’re not alone. One in four college students in America live with mental illness. That’s huge. People don’t realize it until you say it. Don’t be afraid to talk about it. About who you are.”

What: Active Minds, a nonprofit organization
Mission: ‘Changing the conversation about mental health’
Founded: 2003
Founder: College student Alison Malmon
Motivation: The suicide of Malmon’s mentally ill brother, also a college student
National chapters today: More than 450
Rhode Island chapters: Brown University, Providence College, Rhode Island College, Roger Williams University
PC chapter heads: Colleen Andersen and Cassandra Caggiano
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