Conference sparks conversation about mental health struggles

Sarah Parylak, Samantha Stephenson, Taylor Nolan, Jessica Hergert, Harish Appiakannah and Michelle Jimenez attend the Active Minds conference on Nov. 4.

By Jessica Hergert

Most people probably don’t know that a little club called Active Minds exists on Rider’s campus.

Active Minds is a nationally recognized non-profit organization aimed at normalizing the conversation surrounding mental illness. The goal is to minimize stigma by allowing college students to become mental health advocates themselves and provide their campuses with innovative ideas and resources.

Here at Rider, senior behavioral neuroscience major Samantha Stephenson, along with myself, co-founded and re-opened the Rider University Active Minds chapter in 2016.

As president and vice president, we have been recruiting members, planning events and learning from our mistakes to grow the club to what it is today.

Now nationally recognized and with a growing number of members, our executive board had the opportunity to attend the Active Minds National Conference in Washington D.C. for the weekend. Along with Dr. Jonathan Karp, our club advisor, we set out for the three-day event not knowing much of what was in store.

The conference was held in the Marvin Center at George Washington University, just a ten-minute walk from our hotel. The third and fourth floors were bustling with student leaders, speakers and sponsors from across the country – including California and Alaska – all with the same goals in mind.

At registration, you could pick up a button expressing your preferred pronouns, a simple movement aimed at the transgender community. I picked up my “she/her” button, put on my nametag and began perusing the tables filled with hard-hitting information and lots of free stuff.

After filling my bag with pamphlets, a mood ring and stress balls, our secretary, elementary education and biology major Sarah Parylak, and I went upstairs to attend a series of presentations. Each speaker gave an hour-long pitch about their innovative projects aimed at getting college students to talk about mental illness without stigma while giving those struggling the resources they need to seek help.

The presentations were eye-opening and after each one, we came out saying, “We need that at Rider.”

At lunch, the Active Minds Hero Award was presented to the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) for their work with mental health advocacy. In the NFL, every player was given a bracelet that shared the message “The World Needs You Here” for suicide awareness and prevention. Today, players are wearing their bracelets proudly showing that “everybody knows somebody who struggles” regardless of who you are.

As the first day began to wind down, Parylak and I, armed with pages of scribbled notes, met up with Dr. Karp, Stephenson, behavioral neuroscience major and treasurer Michelle Jimenez and new member, sophomore Harish Appiakannan, to debrief and plan the next day.

As the 7:30 a.m. alarm rang early Saturday morning, all six of us sleepily met for breakfast. Quickly, we woke up and got excited for the long day ahead.

After the buffet and an address from founder of Active Minds Alison Malmon – a household name in the advocacy of mental health world – we broke into groups based on school size to hear about what other Active Minds chapters are doing. In the “Medium, private school” session we attended, students from all over the country spoke on behalf of their chapters. Some, like Rider, were just starting out while others were established chapters hosting major events on their campuses.

The two-hour interactive workshop led into lunch where we reconvened with Dr. Karp who had been attending an advisor presentation. Once again, we broke into smaller groups to cover the most ground and allow everyone to attend sessions that they would benefit the most from.

Throughout the afternoon, there was the Creative Programming Expo going on where universities and organizations could spotlight a particular aspect of their fight against stigma. One university even gave out license plate covers saying “Active Minds” with the goal of “having one on the back of a car in every state.”

Following the expo was the first of two Keynote speaker presentations and the second recipient of an Active Minds Hero Award. Taylor Nolan is a mental health counselor made famous from starring on The Bachelor. In her presentation she spoke about her struggles with mental illness prior, during and after her time on the show and her plans to use her “celebrity” platform to advocate for mental health awareness.

“No one is perfect, even as therapists,” Nolan highlighted. “I realized I didn’t have to be just one thing, I didn’t have to fit into this box. This stigma around mental health is really real.”

On Sunday, after a restful extra hour of sleep due to daylight savings time, Rider’s six representatives were ready to give the final day all we had. We split up to attend the sessions we felt we’d get the most out of. For me, a quick trip to the Active Minds merchandise stand to purchase my own “The World Needs You Here Bracelets” and two presentations later, I reconnected with my group for the second Keynote speaker presentation and the closing address from Malmon.

The featured speaker was Kevin Briggs, an officer and sergeant from California who has been dubbed as “The Guardian of the Golden Gate Bridge” due to his tireless efforts to change the minds of those about to jump. Briggs told his own personal journey with mental illness from being a skeptic saying those struggling should “get over it” to becoming an advocate who claims depression was “the hardest thing he has had to overcome.”

With the final address, the conference was over. I can honestly say that the information I got there changed me not only in what I plan to bring to the chapter at Rider but in my own personal mental health journey.


Active Minds meets bi-weekly on Thursdays. For more information on how you can get involved with our chapter and our upcoming events, please contact Jessica Hergert at






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