Sixteen years ago, Alison Malmon was a college freshman when her older brother, a successful Dean’s List student at Columbia University who betrayed no signs of mental illness until his last year of life, killed himself. Malmon responded by forming Active Minds, a nonprofit that has sprouted 440 chapters nationwide. The group trains high school and college students to function as “peer counselors,” seeking out those with psychological troubles and referring them to help.

Malmon was in town Tuesday, preaching the gospel of peer counseling at Santa Barbara City College. Her ticket west was paid for out of a $90,000 grant secured by the county’s Department of Behavioral Wellness, which is now in the second year of peer-counseling efforts at City College. Proceeds of that grant have helped train and pay for five peer counselors, students who have experienced mental-health issues themselves and who are on the lookout for “first episode psychosis,” also known in the lingo of mental-health officials as “FEP.” The strategy is for the counselors to make themselves available to people who need to talk. Then it’s to get them help. Every City College student, it turns out, is entitled to six free sessions, a service that comes out of their registration fee.

The SBCC program started shortly after former City College student and Isla Vista resident Elliot Rodger went on his now infamous rampage that left seven dead and 14 wounded. Countywide, the number of suicides has jumped from 39 in 2005 to 73 last year. Suicide ranks as the second-highest cause of death for young adults. Of the 73, nine were 24 years old or younger. Malmon’s organization tries to help students cope with stress in simple ways such as bringing puppies to pet or bubble wrap to pop. Both, she said, have proved to be extremely popular. Her organization also organizes the “1,100 backpack” traveling memorial that represents the number of college students who commit suicide each year.


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