Traveling suicide prevention exhibit arrives at UI

Send Silence Packing covered the Pentacrest with 1,200 backpacks on Wednesday to commemorate students who have committed suicide.


Megan Nagorzanski

Backpacks are displayed as part of the nationwide Send Silence Packing exhibit on Oct. 10, 2018. The exhibit aims to end the silence that surrounds mental illness and suicide and connect individuals to mental-health resources.

Caleb McCullough, News Reporter

More than 1,000 backpacks sat scattered across the Pentacrest under gray skies and sporadic sprinkles of rain, a somber memorial to college students who have committed suicide.

Attached to many of the backpacks were personal stories about the students to whom they had belonged, providing background about their lives and battles with mental illness.

The exhibit, called Send Silence Packing, was brought to campus Wednesday by Active Minds, a national organization that focuses on mental-health awareness and preventing suicide in college students. The organization was founded by University of Pennsylvania student Alison Malmon in 2003 after losing her brother to suicide.

“Their goal is to decrease the stigma about mental illness and suicide prevention among college students specifically,” said Sammy Stoll, the president of the University of Iowa chapter of Active Minds.

University Counseling Service Director Barry Schreier noted the effect that the exhibit has on students.

The number of backpacks represents the 1,000 to 1,200 college students who commit suicide every year, Schreier said.

“It’s a very moving, stark, dramatic suicide-prevention initiative that really is quite unforgettable,” he said.

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Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students. Schreier said the university takes serious measures to address mental health and prevent suicide.

One of the most dangerous things about mental-health issues is the stigma and secrecy surrounding it, he said. The point of programs such as this one is to put it out in the open so people start talking about it.

“That’s the purpose of [this event], to do away with the secrecy that is one of the most lethal aspects of suicide,” he said.

The data on whether the suicide rate is increasing aren’t totally clear, Schreier said. He referenced a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that showed suicide rates are now the highest they’ve ever been. However, he said, a report from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, an organization that hosts the largest database on campus-mental health, showed suicide rates on campuses decreasing.

Schreier said one thing that is certain about suicide prevention is the effect of local efforts.

“When the community doesn’t do anything, rates skyrocket,” he said. “When we act locally, suicide rates go down.”

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A number of representatives from the UI and local programs were also present at the event, providing information on mental-health resources for students. University Counseling Service, the Crisis Center of Johnson County, and Student Health & Wellness were among the organizations handing out fliers, information, and resources.

Stoll said one of the major goals of the event was to get information about these programs out to students.

“I feel like there are a lot of students that don’t know what their resources are,” she said.

Students throughout the day stopped by the exhibit to read the stories left on the backpacks and talk to representatives from different organizations.

UI sophomore Rebecca Pogue said the backpacks provided a personal connection she found moving.

“Seeing a piece of them really makes it feel personal,” she said. “Reading the emotion in the writings people have left about the people who have passed away is really powerful.”