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Driving Dialogue for Mental Health panel raises awareness, breaks down stigmas at THE PLAYERS Championship

6 Min Read


    Written by Doug Milne @PGATOUR

    As a college student at the University of Pennsylvania, Alison Malmon had exciting prospects on her wide-open future’s radar, both personally and professionally. But, when her older brother and only sibling, Brian, took his own life, all that changed for the college junior.

    “When our founder lost her brother to suicide, what she found was that her brother didn’t get the resources he needed,” said Laura Cikara, VP, School Mental Health, Active Minds. “When he died, she also came to realize she didn’t have the resources she needed. So, she started Active Minds to try and destigmatize the conversation about mental health.”

    Rather than things potentially escalating, Cikara explained that Active Minds would help people know where to go for everyday conversation about mental health. In addition, should someone experience a mental health crisis, they could get the resources and support they needed.

    Active Minds is a nonprofit organization helping families and individuals with mental health for more than two decades now. Its focus is on the higher education space, working to provide resources and leadership opportunities for young adults to lead and change the conversation about mental health.

    That coverage, though, is expanding.

    “We’re taking what we know and what we’re good at in the peer-to-peer approach at the college level, and working to scale it into the middle school and high school levels,” Cikara said. “For about five years, we have been in the high school realm, and are about to branch that out into the middle school realm.”

    As Optum’s selected Charity of the Day at THE PLAYERS Championship this year, Active Minds has the opportunity to work with like-minded organizations in Optum and the United Health Foundation.

    Each year, about 1 in 5 U.S. adults have some type of mental illness and about 1 in 20 have symptoms that make it hard to live their life. The United Health Foundation, the philanthropic foundation of UnitedHealth Group and Optum, is making a $3 million commitment to address the youth mental health crisis. This is in partnership with Active Minds.

    “It’s exciting to me that we have so many people now talking about (mental health),” said Trip Hofer, CEO of Optum Behavioral Health Solutions. “That’s the first thing – can we make sure that people are willing to talk about it, and have that discussion. This is a great opportunity to share ideas, come together, coalesce and hear from each other.”

    On the Friday prior to tournament week, Active Minds was one of several organizations which came together for a Driving Dialogue for Mental Health panel discussion. Hosted by THE PLAYERS and presented by Optum, Proud Partner of THE PLAYERS, the event served as an opportunity for local and national leaders to discuss ways to raise awareness, break down stigmas and create greater access to mental health resources in the greater Jacksonville community.

    “This is the first opportunity for us to work with the PGA TOUR, Optum and the other local organizations, but we do these kind of panel discussions all over the country,” said Cikara. “It’s a combination of things for PLAYERS Championship week. For one, we covered why we have to talk about mental health, and why we have to support middle school and high school students and their mental health.

    The discussion, Cikara said, was an opportunity to get everyone around the table to share local, state and national resources to help strengthen positive mental health.

    “We’ve always done a really good job talking about our physical health quite normally,” she said. “Our goal is to the same with conversations about mental health.”

    When Sheryl Johnson’s son, Alex, was 22 in 2017, he was in throes of a battle with depression and anxiety.

    “Ultimately, when we went out of town, he had become really frustrated with how poorly he was feeling,” Johnson said. “He bought pills on the street that ended up being laced with fentanyl.”

    The year following Alex’s fatal occurrence on August 12, 2017, Johnson created Hearts 4 Minds in her adopted hometown of Jacksonville.

    “There were a lot of things in the healthcare ecosystem at the time that kept us from getting information on how to get him access to providers, despite the fact that we had insurance,” said Johnson. “What my organization does primarily is spend a lot of time educating the community and working within the community to provide information to anyone about early symptoms of mental illness.”

    Hearts 4 Minds is an organization designed to eradicate the stigmas associated with mental illness and change the way society as a whole looks at it. By becoming a valued resource on mental health, Hearts 4 Minds has made it its mission to improve care for the mentally ill by way of connecting those in need to providers, as well as by providing financial assistance to those who may need it.

    Johnson was on hand at Driving Dialogue for Mental Health, determined like the other panelists and attendees to unite with heads and hearts together.

    “The focus of the panel was to share information about what each organization is doing to change the mental healthcare ecosystem,” Johnson said. “That could involve talking about how to destigmatize mental illness by starting to talk about it and providing information to various demographics, like Active Minds, who primarily focus on students.”

    “We all have mental health,” Cikara said. “Active Minds efforts to highlight not only why this conversation is important, but to also provide middle school and high school students the resources to then lead the conversation and learn about mental health in a very non-clinical way.”

    The shared drive among everyone on the panel, according to Johnson, was to help foster unapologetic conversations about mental illnesses the way other diseases are talked about. The biggest push is for early identification and facilitation.

    “We get all kinds of information about mammograms or prostate cancer or how to respond if someone around you suffers a stroke,” Johnson said. “We are given all that information, but nobody talks about mental illness, which unintentionally stigmatizes it. That’s just wrong. We cannot control it. No one wants to have a mental illness.”

    On the Hearts 4 Minds website is a picture of Johnson’s late son, taken when he was about five years old. At the tip of his nose on his smiling face rests a dragonfly. To this day, a dragonfly pin serves as a reminder of who Hearts 4 Minds is and what their goals are. To date, more than 25,000 dragonfly pins are out there in the world doing just that.

    As opposed to providing services, Johnson’s drive with Hearts 4 Minds remains an impassioned effort to get information out there, drive research and drive connections to that research. And, at Friday’s Driving Dialogue for Mental Health panel at TPC Sawgrass, Johnson, Cikara and the other panelists made encouraging strides of exactly that.

    “He was so sweet that a dragonfly landed on his nose,” Johnson wrote below the picture of Alex on the Hearts 4 Minds website. “Over the years, I have been showered with dragonfly sightings on airport floors, lamps in bars, garden pictures, visits on a golf course and even emblems hanging in an Uber. And every time we see a dragonfly, we remember Alex and remember our mission.”

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