One thousand one hundred backpacks were scattered across the Green Hall lawn, impossible to miss for students walking to and from classes on Tuesday, April 28. The backpacks, some of which bore personal stories, represented the 1,100 college students who die by suicide each year in the United States.
Send Silence Packing, a powerful traveling public education display hosted nationally by Active Minds, aims to raise awareness about mental health issues, remove mental health stigmas and lower suicide statistics by using donated backpacks to give a face to the students lost to suicide each year.
“We want to work to start a conversation about mental health,” said Mimi Tohill, a road trip staffer for Active Minds. “At most colleges we go to, a student will come forward and ask if they can contribute a story about a loved one they lost to suicide.”
According to Tohill, about a third of the backpacks were accompanied with stories written by parents, siblings, friends and significant others of students around the country who have committed suicide. Many of the stories included photos of the students who lost their lives to suicide and personal memorabilia, such as college pendants.
“I just want you to know that you were a beautifully fantastic person,” one story read. “We all loved you and you never let me down.”
Besides the overwhelming backpack display, signs around the lawn shared statistics and motivational messages, such as “50 percent of college students report suicidal ideation at sometime in their life” and “seeking help shows strength.”
“I’ve had a lot of mental health issues,” said president of the College’s chapter of Active Minds Sarah Perry, who didn’t hesitate to share her history of struggles with mental health. “It’s about starting a conversation and offering a safe space for students, so I’m not afraid to admit it.”
According to resources available at the exhibit, suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students. With three students from the College committing suicide in the past two years — senior Paige Aiello in May 2013, freshman Michael Menakis in April 2014 and freshman Sarah Sutherland in October 2014 — the demonstration was approved to appear at the College with the hopes of reaching students who are struggling with mental health disorders.
“We haven’t received any negative feedback yet,” Perry said. “For some students who have dealt with or are currently dealing with issues like depression or suicide, the display may act as a trigger and bring up a lot of emotions.”
In order to assist students who are triggered by the display, volunteers from TCNJ Clinic were available to talk near a table in front of the wall on the Green Hall lawn. The table contained a plethora of resources for students who may be struggling with depression.
“We have pocket guides to mental health, pamphlets on how to help a friend, magnets with local resources and hotlines and more,” Tohill said.
There were also crisis intervention resources for particular demographics, including LGBTQ individuals, blacks, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, student-athletes and veterans.
“Instead of it being seen as a weakness, we want students to know that reaching out for help is a strength,” Tohill said. “There is a space to talk about how you’re feeling.”
Members of the College’s chapter of Active Minds walked up and down the diagonal paths that crisscross the Green Hall lawn, handing out informational flyers and letting students know that they are not the only ones struggling.
“We may often suffer in silence,” one of the more prominent signs of the day read, “but we do not suffer alone.”
*This story was originally published in The Signal.