Moving display of backpacks raises awareness of suicide on college campuses

Send Silence Packing display

Backpacks representing the 1,100 U.S. college students who take their own lives each year were displayed in the Wright State Student Union in an effort to raise awareness of mental health issues on campuses.

The backpacks sprawled out on the floor, hung from railings and carpeted the Pathfinder Lounge in the Student Union. They were dressed with photos, beads and personal messages.

The tributes were heartbreaking, piercing and poignant:

  • “She was funny and vibrant, beautiful and smart.”
  • “We called them Scooby Doo Saturdays because we wore yellow Scooby Doo headbands while we’d run around doing nothing in particular.”
  • “When I found out, I couldn’t stop crying or screaming.”
  • “He was 17. Not a day goes by anymore that I don’t think of him.”

On April 7, backpacks representing the 1,100 U.S. college students who take their lives each year were displayed at Wright State University.

“Some of them are personal donations from families who have lost their daughters and sons to suicide,” said co-organizer Jeevitha Kempegowda, president of the Wright State chapter of Active Minds, a student organization open to all students.

The traveling display of backpacks is part of “Send Silence Packing.” It was an event organized by the university chapter of Active Minds, whose mission is to eradicate the stigma associated with mental illness on college campuses.

Send Silence Packing backpacks

Many of the Send Silence Packing backpacks were dressed with photos, beads and personal messages.

The backpacks were displayed just outside the office of Michelle Streeter-Ferrari, director of the University Center for International Education.

“This is very moving,” she said. “It gives me goosebumps.”

Co-organizer Jason Weisman said the display is visually powerful.

“I think a lot of folks really haven’t seen something like this before; they tend to be a little shocked at first,” said Weisman. “And then they have some questions and want to talk a little bit about it. As we read some of the stories that are part of this display, I think we can see a piece of ourselves in quite a few of them.”

Active Minds was founded by Alison Malmon when she was a junior at the University of Pennsylvania following the suicide of her older brother, Brian.

Brian, also a college student, had experienced depression and psychosis for three years but had concealed his symptoms from everyone around him. On March 24, 2000, he ended his life.

Weisman, a student in the School of Professional Psychology, said college students have often grown up wrapped in the security blanket of their parents and friends and then are thrust onto a college campus far from home, where they face the pressure of academics, a job and trying to make new friends.

“That starts to create the perfect storm,” Weisman said. “As straws are continually added to that person’s back, it just becomes unbearable.”

The backpack event was designed to put a face on suicide and raise awareness about it.

“This could be you, this could be your friends, this could be your girlfriend or your boyfriend,” said Weisman. “We’re not doing this because we want to scare folks. But it would be wrong for us to have something so relevant and so dangerous go unnoticed and unchecked.”

The Wright State chapter of Active Minds was founded in 2012 and has previously sponsored events to raise awareness about eating disorders and the effects of stress. With about 15 active members, the group also has its own radio show on Wednesdays from noon to 1 p.m. on WWSU 106.9 FM.

The Wright State chapter incorporates diversity and multiculturism into its events, addressing the stigma in different cultures attached to mental illness.

Wright State is the only university in Ohio hosting “Send Silence Packing” this year.

Kempegowda, also a student in the School of Professional Psychology, said she hopes the event encourages students to speak more openly about mental health issues and seek help if they need it.

“There is all of this help,” she said. “We want to help.”

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