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After teen's suicide, new clubs at Temple, Drexel aim to get students talking

After Bryn Mawr couple lost their son to suicide in 2013, they started DMAX Foundation to encourage safe conversation about mental health. Now, their focus is creating clubs on college campuses where mental health issues are becoming more prevalent.

Heather DeSalvo and Michael Nghe, both 19 and sophomores, are two of the founding officers of the Temple University DMAX Club.
Heather DeSalvo and Michael Nghe, both 19 and sophomores, are two of the founding officers of the Temple University DMAX Club.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

After Laurie Burstein-Maxwell and her husband, Lee Maxwell, lost son Dan, 18, to suicide in 2013, they wanted to help others dealing with mental illness.

Dan, a three-sport athlete and National Honor Society student at Radnor High School, excelled in school even though he was struggling emotionally. The family was aware of Dan's mental health issues, including depression, for which he was being treated. But he didn't talk to his friends about how he was feeling, Burstein-Maxwell said.

The Maxwells didn't want to see others suffer in silence. Five years ago, the Bryn Mawr couple started the DMAX Foundation to encourage safe conversation about mental health issues.

Now, their focus is creating clubs on college campuses, where mental health issues are becoming more prevalent, Burstein-Maxwell said.

This school year, Drexel, Temple and Pennsylvania State Universities have all started DMAX clubs, student-led organizations focused on addressing and destigmatizing mental health issues.

For Michael Nghe, 19, president of Temple's club, it is all about helping others.

"I want to make a change in one person's life, hopefully a positive change," Nghe said. He hopes that a year from now, people will look at the DMAX club and be proud that Temple has a place students can go to talk about their feelings.

A transitional time

In 2017, the American College Health Association found that 67 percent of college students surveyed reported feeling sad within the last 12 months. About 39 percent felt so depressed it was difficult to function, 62 percent felt lonely and 87 percent felt overwhelmed by all they had to do.

Alarmingly, 10 percent of those surveyed said they seriously considered suicide; 1.5 percent said they had attempted suicide.

College is a transitional time between childhood and adulthood that can be difficult for some students , said Matthew Wintersteen, a clinical psychologist and associate professor in the department of psychiatry and human behavior at Thomas Jefferson University.

There are the challenges of living away from their families, organizing and maintaining their own schedules, and the social opportunities that can be connected with drug and alcohol issues as well as violence. Add to that the financial burden of ever-increasing tuition and the worry associated with being able to get a job that will pay enough to get out of debt, Wintersteen said.

It is important for college students to recognize that as difficult as things are, there is help available, he said.

"There are more students reaching out for support than in the past," he said. The DMAX program is one example.

A safe space on campus

Heather DeSalvo, a Temple sophomore from Chesapeake, Va., had struggled with anxiety and depression since she was a freshman in high school.  So she jumped at the chance to help establish a club on campus where students could talk openly about their personal struggles, without judgment.

"Listening is sometimes more important than giving advice," said DeSalvo, a neuroscience major.

The group does not provide therapy, but members are aware of professional resources and are trained to support students should they need more help.

Temple's DMAX Club is planning an April 13 event to help students de-stress before finals, complete with therapy dogs and free food.

At Penn State, the club is just getting up and running.

"We are focused on getting everything on its feet and having a solid foundation for next year," said Anibal Rodriguez, 19, club president and a freshman from Vernon, N.J. The club already elected officers, created a constitution and set up social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter. Club members are planning for a "fruit smash" – with melons and hammers – to work off stress regarding final exams.

"Our club is to provide space to talk about what is impacting their lives and stressing them out," Rodriguez said. Students feel they need to be super human all the time, she said.

"Essentially, we are creating a safe, relaxed environment," Rodriguez said.

On April 4, the DMAX Foundation will hold its annual spring event at the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr. The focus this year will be on athletes, who often feel like they need to be tough and win all the time.

One of the featured speakers is Brady Kramer, a former hockey player for the Montreal Canadiens, who walked away from the game – and a lucrative contract – in his rookie season.

"At the time, I told people I didn't want to play," said Kramer, now 44 and a travel director in the corporate events industry. "The reality was, I was depressed and anxious, and I didn't want to tell anyone."

Kramer, who grew up on the Main Line, said depression among athletes is common.

"DMAX is focusing on ending the stigma and getting kids to talk about it," he said.