Backpack display raises awareness for widespread prevention

Hundreds of backpacks were scattered across North Plaza recently to reflect on growing suicide rates among college students. Mason’s Active Minds organization co-sponsored the Send Silence Packing event on Sept. 10, in which the backpacks represented the number of college students that commit suicide each year.

“[It] was shocking for sure,” said Megan Bergquist, a junior  who had passed the display on her way to lunch. “It was eye-opening to see the actual names and faces of lives that had been lost to mental illness. While some may have seen the exhibit as too harsh or in your face, I feel that the shock value helped to get the point across.”

The display featured a total of 1,100 donated backpacks and sheets of paper telling the stories of people affected by suicide.

“The purpose of Send Silence Packing was really to bring awareness to the Mason community about college mental health, suicide in particular,” said Leslie Geer, project director for Mason CARES, which co-sponsored the event.

“It’s part of a larger goal to de-stigmatize mental health. The more comfortable people feel talking about it, the less shame people will experience, and as a result, we’ll have a healthier community.”

Send Silence Packing belongs to a nation-wide tour conducted annually by the non-profit organization Active Minds, which seeks to educate college students about mental health issues.

“Over the past couple years, members have been asking about it because it’s one of the [Active Minds] campaigns that more people know about publicly,” said Alise Sams, a junior psychology major and president of Mason’s Active Minds chapter.

Screen shot 2014-09-29 at 2.40.22 PM “Over the summer, Rachelle [Thompson] from Mason CARES called and said they were interested in bringing it, so we basically just worked out the contracting and we split the cost.”

Send Silence Packing was a complicated event to organize, according to the Mason CARES staff and students in Active Minds. Besides completing Mason’s standard procedures, such as space reservation, they had to compete to host the exhibit in the first place.

“We had to fill out an online application with Active Minds, the national organization,” said Rachel Thompson, a graduate assistant for Mason CARES.

“We didn’t think we were going to get selected, but they actually called us and they were really excited that we had submitted [an application]. Their national office is just in D.C., so it was great networking with us because we’re so close to each other.”

Since Active Minds is a student organization, the contract to bring Send Silence Packing to Mason had to be approved by the university. The event also had to be coordinated with various departments in the university like Events Management and Parking. wait, why parking? To further engage the community, Mason CARES enlisted a few local organizations to appear at the event.

“We had presence from Wounded Warriors in northern Virginia, NAMI, which is the National Alliance of Mental Illness and then we also had another organization called National Foundation for Suicide Prevention,” Geer said. “We reached out to those organizations and asked them to be a part of our event, and then we also worked with Active Minds closely to coordinate volunteers.”

Despite long-standing interest from students, this was the first time Mason applied for Send Silence Packing.

“It’s a pretty expensive event,” Sams said. “It’s about $5000 just for that one day… We finally had enough financial support that we could bring it to campus.”

Send Silence Packing also provided an opportunity for Mason CARES and the university’s chapter of Active Minds, both relatively new and small programs, to generate more exposure, said Thompson. Mason CARES started in 2007 as an initiative to train students and faculty in suicide prevention and intervention. So far, about 800 people have been trained.

“We train peers, we train faculty and staff, to recognize students – people – who are in distress or crisis and then… refer them to the counseling center or another office on campus,” Geer said. “The point of that is to build a community of people who are familiar with mental health and know how to address it.”

Through the training, education and events like Send Silence Packing, members of Mason CARES and Active Minds hope to raise awareness about mental health issues and create a more tolerant, informed campus environment.

“Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among college students,” Thompson said, give some context as to why she’s qualified to tell me this. “In most cultures, the age range of 18-24 is really fragile because you’re… growing and learning how to be an adult, and that’s why I think it particularly affects college students. Engaging with college students to develop healthy coping strategies now is the best because… if we can develop those healthy habits, those will last when they leave college.”

According to a 2013 study by the American Psychological Association, the primary mental health issues college students deal with are anxiety and depression. Sams mentioned that eating disorders are also fairly common. Besides Counseling and Psychological Services, students and community members seeking help can go to Wellness, Alcohol, and Violence Education Services, Student Health and even the Office of Diversity, depending on the issue in question. However, because of the stigma attached to mental illness, many students are unaware that these resources exist or reluctant to take advantage of them, Sams said.

“It’s not really talked about a lot,” Sams said. “Sometimes people don’t want to go to CAPS because they don’t want people to think that they’re crazy or they have some sort of problem. So we basically try to open the dialogue around, why is this so common, but no one wants to talk about it?”

Sams and her colleagues consider Send Silence Packing a success in terms of starting a conversation.

“A lot of people at the event that day knew someone or had a personal experience with someone, so I think having that personal connection to different people can help to reduce the stigma,” Thompson said. “When you get to know someone, you don’t really hold biases against them anymore.”

Still, more needs to be done. Geer aspires to eventually have all Mason faculty and students trained in Mason CARES’s gatekeeper program so more people are equipped to help anyone experiencing mental health crises. “It’s important to discuss [mental health] in college because it’s happening,” Geer said.

“The more you talk about it, the more awareness is raised and the more you can become informed about it… It’s really important in college, and it’s important everywhere, for people to be able to talk about mental health.”

This story was originally published in the Sep, 29 issue of Fourth Estate. Photo Credits: Gopi Raghu