Eleven hundred backpacks, representing the approximate number of college students whose lives are lost to suicide each year, were displayed in the Science Center on Monday as part of Send Silence Packing, a traveling exhibit that aims to promote dialogue and decrease the incidence of student suicide.
Active Minds, Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness of mental health issues on college campuses and providing students with the resources to address them, runs the exhibit. The organization has established more than 300 student-run chapters, one of which was formed last year in Oberlin.
Members of the chapter, called Active Minds at Oberlin, were on hand at the exhibit. They talked with students and distributed flyers with information about mental health and student suicide.
According to Patrick Doherty, College Senior and president of Active Minds at Oberlin, hosting the display was a “fantastic opportunity” to stimulate discussion.
“Suicide is the second-leading cause of student death in the country,” he said. “It’s important to get people to think about this and realize it’s important.”
Each of the backpacks belonged to a student lost to suicide. They came in all shapes and sizes, from black JanSports to pink ones with Tinkerbell on them. Many displayed pictures of their former owners and stories written about them by friends or family.
“It just blows your mind, trying to visualize one person who had books in his backpack and walked around the campus,” said College senior Riva Bruenn.
By personalizing student suicide victims, those behind Send Silence Packing hope to bring home the tragedy of their loss and the devastating impact it has on those close to them.
“A lot of people hear about student suicide and dismiss it. Then these 1,100 backpacks are here, and they realize how big a number that is and how many college students’ lives are being lost every year,” said Nicole Pietrczak of Active Minds, Inc.
Pietrczak runs the exhibit for Active Minds. Their appearance at Oberlin is part of a three-month, nine-state tour of the Midwest and Northeast, including stops at 12 college campuses and two downtown city events.
The exhibit was scheduled to take place in Wilder Bowl but was moved to the Science Center because of rain. Although the move and the weather prevented many students from seeing the display, both Doman and Pietrczak report positive reactions from those they spoke with.
“People stopping by are like, ‘Thank you for doing this on our campus,’” said Pietrczak.
Increased awareness of the presence of suicide on campus will, Pietrczak hopes, reduce the stigma surrounding it and create space for productive dialogue.
“A lot of people feel they shouldn’t talk about suicidal thoughts,” she said.
A more open conversation about student suicide would also draw attention to the mental health issues that often prompt it, such as bipolar disorder and depression. While suicide is an important concern, college students should know “to get mental illnesses taken care of before they lead to suicide,” said Pietrczak.