Send Silence Packing display highlights mental health issues and suicide

Tuesday, October 10, 2017 - 12:23pm

A block M of backpacks is formed at the Send Silence Packing display on the Diag Tuesday.

A block M of backpacks is formed at the Send Silence Packing display on the Diag Tuesday. Buy this photo
Haley McLaughlin/Daily


According to Send Silence Packing — a campaign designed to raise awareness of student suicide and to connect students to mental health resources on university campuses — one of every two college students thinks about attempting suicide at some point. 

Tuesday, the Diag was covered by backpacks — each of them representing one of the 1,100 college students who take their own life every year.

LSA junior Summer LaPointe said this number surprised her.

“The number is lower than I thought, but I’m not exactly sure why,” she said. “As someone who struggles with suicidal ideation even still, I think it really impresses me that so many of us are able to continue living and not die, and it also makes me sad that as many as 1,100 have killed themselves and it doesn’t seem like ‘that much.’ ”

These backpacks were part of a travelling exhibition called Send Silence Packing. This campaign has been a central part of Active Minds, a nonprofit organization dedicated to destigmatizing and encouraging an open dialogue about mental health. The exhibit, though it has been to the University's campus years prior, is just one of many events organized by the University’s LSA Student Government as a part of its first mental health week, which LSA SG plans to hold yearly. 

LSA junior Bekah Cone, who helped organize the event, said she believes the visual element has a large impact.

“I think it’s cool to see the actual number, because it is one thing to have it in your head, but to see the number of backpacks of students each year — I think it is a noninvasive way of bringing awareness to mental health and suicide,” she said.

Send Silence Packing was modeled after the AIDS Memorial Quilt, a 54-ton quilt made to memorialize those who have died in the AIDS epidemic. Individual quilt panels are roughly the size of an average grave, and are stitched by the deceased’s love ones. Similarly, many of the backpacks in the Send Silence Packing exhibition were donated by families who lost a college student to suicide.

Many of the backpacks have personal stories of the deceased attached to them, written by their family members and friends. Powerful signs and phrases like, “Stigma is shame. Shame causes silence. Silence hurts us all” are scattered among the backpacks.

Send Silence Packing goes on two tours every year, traveling to 12 schools this time around. Active Minds is scheduled to visit Ohio State University and Iowa State University later this month.

The campaign visited the University previously in 2015. That year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded the highest rate of suicide among females ages 15 to 19, more than double the rate in 2007. In that same time, the suicide rate among males ages 15 to 19 rose from 10.8 to 14.2 per 100,000 people.

However, new statistics show the suicide rate in the state of Michigan is slightly higher than the national average. While, as a state, it statistically ranks toward the middle of the pack —sitting at 34 of 50 — the suicide rate has risen drastically every year in Michigan since 2000.

Looking at young people specifically, Michigan also ranks toward the middle when comparing state suicide rates of 15- to 24-year-olds. However, in 2016, Washtenaw County saw 17 suicides among 15- to 24-year-olds, the highest amount of suicides ever recorded from the age group in the country, which has been documented by medical examiners since 2004. These numbers do not include the many who attempt suicide, which the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention estimates to be 25 attempts for every one completed.

The severity of mental illness is especially prevalent on campus. The University of Michigan Counseling and Psychological Services reports that 35 percent of students have thought about or considered suicide. This number is continuously increasing, as CAPS sees 130 to 140 new students a week, according to CAPS director Todd Sevig. Additionally, a survey commissioned by a task force organized by former CSG President David Schafer found that over 91 percent of students and 75 percent of faculty members had dealt with some mental health concern. 

In response, the University has developed new programs to address mental health and suicide. The University’s Depression Center and its Transforming Research into Action to Improve the Lives of Students program has trained staff at 24 schools in 10 Michigan counties on ways to help students handle and cope with stress through cognitive behavioral therapy. The program recently received a grant, allowing them to begin expanding their program to 150 mental health care providers in Michigan. In addition, the University has increased the budget for CAPS by 66 percent over the past 10 years.

However, many students think the University could do more to help students with mental illness and promote awareness. LSA senior Lauren Quinlan, who participated in the mental health monologues last spring, said she believes that while the University needs to be more active, this responsibility lies with the students too.

“For many of those who suffer from mental illness, it is an all day, every day affair,” she said. “I think all people, not just big institutions, need to be more cognizant of the effects and tolls mental health takes on those who struggle with it. Awareness and unbiased education can start with the University, but we as individuals need to carry it forth with us every day.”