Merrimack student group Active Minds has been working with students, faculty and staff for years to address the stigma surrounding mental health issues.
During the COVID-19 pandemic this past year, when social isolation and loneliness skyrocketed, the group ramped up its efforts to bring mental health awareness to the Merrimack community. It led a number of events, including a Suicide Prevention Walk, a mental health social media campaign and a public display about college suicide rates. These efforts were recognized in April when Active Minds won Student Organization of the Year at the 2021 Lead Awards Ceremony.
“It was a big shock to win,” said Kaerys Parry, a sophomore at Merrimack and secretary of Active Minds. “I think with a situation like COVID-19, we always had to work with what we could and work together. The recognition at the end of the day felt really good.”
Annie Snyder, president of Active Minds, helped lead the group during COVID-19 and said the executive board knew mental health awareness was even more important during the unpredictable trials of the pandemic. She said her team had to get creative and stay flexible in their planning efforts.
“This year we knew that there were a lot more people struggling because of quarantine and feeling isolated and not being able to see friends and loved ones,” Snyder said. “We wanted to find ways to still bring that community together.”
To bring the community together while maintaining social distancing, Active Minds adapted its programming to include on-campus and remote members of the community. Members participated in a number of events like the “Crane of Hope,” a fall 2020 exhibit. Participants created 1,100 paper cranes by hand and placed them on the lawn outside of McQuade Library. The number’s significance, Snyder said, was linked to the number of college students who die by suicide each year.
“You can see that number on a piece of paper and think it’s not that high, or it’s not that big of a deal,” Snyder said. “We wanted to make sure that we could actually show the enormity of college suicides, and the display had a really big impact. It kind of gave us a name on campus.”
Another initiative Active Minds brought to campus was the “Trying My Best” campaign. Students and community members, regardless of location, were invited to write their name and what they struggle with on a whiteboard or a sheet of paper and share their photo online with the hashtag #TryingMyBest. The campaign culminated in a slideshow set to music, which Active Minds shared on its social media accounts. The video was also recognized by the national chapter of Active Minds.
Lauren Nixdorf, a junior at Merrimack and the vice president of Active Minds, said another successful event was the “Suicide Prevention Walk,” which took place on campus last fall.
“Throughout the route, we had chalk drawings with inspirational quotes,” Nixdorf said. “The amount of people we saw stopping and taking pictures of them was really great. Because of the gathering restrictions, there were a lot of different aspects that went into getting that message across on campus and it really resonated with people.”
Leaders in Active Minds also said they benefitted as much as others from the events.
“I think a lot more people were willing to be vulnerable this year,” Snyder said. “And that included us on the executive board. When we were really stressed, it was great to have that support system in one another.”
The Active Minds team said they are looking forward to creating even bigger events in the future and welcoming new leadership into the group in a post-pandemic environment.
“Even though the pandemic has been a terrible thing to happen to all of us, I feel like I have seen more people talking about mental health,” Nixdorf said. “At the end of the day, I feel like we did a good job this year and worked with what we had. As long as we were helping some people and seeing that impact, it was all worth it.”