Honors students bring awareness to mental health
April 1, 2019

In late March 2019, the VCU Chapter of Active Minds, led by honors students Quinnie Phan (GDENT, Biology), Gopika Hari (GMED, Biology, Latin American Studies), Haley Zielinski (Social Work), Leena Penumalee (GMED, Biology), and Tiannie Phan (GDENT, Biology), attended the national conference for Active Minds.

Founded as a 501c nonprofit organization in 2003 by Alison Malmon, in response to losing her older brother to suicide three years earlier, Active Minds at VCU Co-President Quinnie Phan explains that the Active Minds organization has a “mission of raising mental health awareness among college students, specifically on the peer level through student-led chapters on over 400 college campuses.” Since then, Active Minds at VCU has become “the only mental health advocacy organization with national ties on the VCU campus.”

At the conference, these ambitious honors students had the opportunity to listen to speakers such as Cynthia Bissett Germanotta (President and co-founder of the Born This Way Foundation, and mother to fellow co-founder Lady Gaga) and Ben Nemtin (#1 New York Times bestselling author of What Do You Want to Do Before You Die?). One such presentation they attended was Supporting the Mental Health of Academically High-Achieving Students, and Quinnie shares that they even held their own group presentation on “eating disorder awareness programming and healthy eating habits.” Quinnie and Gopika also had the privilege to give a presentation titled Student Mental Health Leadership.

With the desire to work in medicine and public health, Leena Penumalee was inspired by her own cultural background to fight against the stigmas surrounding mental health and to advocate for mental health awareness in the college community. She now serves as the education co-chair for Active Minds at VCU and was “able to really see the impact that Active Minds is having on a national level.” Leena was even more encouraged after learning at the conference that “a recent peer-reviewed study by the RAND Corporation found that Active Minds has increased knowledge and positive attitudes about mental health on campuses across the U.S.”

Some of the educational programming that Leena has helped to set up at VCU include a mental health awareness tee-shirt decorating event in early April, which was designed to “bring awareness to the issue of violence against men, women, and children” and after which the decorated shirts were displayed in Cabell Library; and a Mental Health Carnival, co-hosted by Golden Rams and featuring a dunk tank and bracelet making.

For Haley, who hopes to work in a mental health rehabilitation center after receiving her Master of Social Work degree, shares that her “biggest takeaways from the conference were the amazing keynote speakers and the information they had to offer on their journey of success in the field of mental health.” Haley goes on to explain “many of their implications were tactics that can be brought back to VCU's campus to make mass change in the coming years.” At present, she serves as the Public Relations chair for Active Minds at VCU and was originally encouraged to join the Chapter by Quinnie.

A younger sister to Quinnie, Tiannie Phan also joined Active Minds at VCU thanks to her sister. However, her reasons for doing so were different than some of her co-leaders’. “Coming from out of state,” shares Tiannie, “I recognized the toll starting college and being so far away from home and friends was doing to my mental health [when] I began developing anxiety. Following that,” she continues, “I developed a passion for the importance of mental health and mental health advocacy, especially the importance of it on a college campus.”

Tiannie and Gopika, as well as the rest of the Active Minds leadership board, agree that the most important lesson gained from the conference was a reinforced commitment to their work on campus combatting the stigmas against mental illness and fighting as mental health advocates.

Aptly put by Quinnie, “I have learned about the power of conversation. Simply talking about mental health and the resources that are available to students can make all the difference. Not everyone has a mental illness, but we all have mental health. This is a topic that affects everyone.”

The Honors College is proud of the hard work these students put forth in the field of mental heath awareness. For more information about Active Minds at VCU or to get involved, please e-mail activeminds4vcu@gmail.com.