Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among college students and the third-leading cause of death among all youth 15 to 24 years old, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. More than 4,000 people in that age range commit suicide each year.
Eleven hundred of them are college students.
Eleven hundred backpacks being displayed on 14 different campuses over the course of this month represent each of those individuals. Some belonged to the students. Others display photos and messages from their friends or family members.
It’s a project called Send Silence Packing, and its goal is to start a student dialogue about suicide. The in-your-face approach is a far cry from the typical individualized prevention efforts that colleges make, such as screenings, intervention or assessment.
“People generally don’t want to talk about mental health, and so when you invite them into a room to discuss an issue like depression, you will probably get a small number of people who already care,” said Alison Malmon, founder and executive director of Active Minds, an organization that created Send Silence Packing and which advocates student awareness of mental health issues. “Our goal is to engage people who don’t think they care or don’t want to volunteer to go into that room, and really catch people where they are and put it in front of them so they can’t ignore it and can’t avoid it.”
Active Minds is a national organization headquartered in Washington, D.C., with 330 college chapters nationwide designed to involve students in discussions of mental health. Malmon hopes that Send Silence Packing encourages students to talk about suicide and ultimately deters tragedies by creating a more supportive environment. She created Active Minds in 2001 as a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, a year after her older brother, who had experienced depression and psychosis in college and returned home during his senior year, ended his life.
Suicide is just one of the many mental health challenges colleges face, as evidenced by recent conversations at the American College Personnel Association’s annual convention. Incoming freshmen this year reported record-low levels of emotional health, and most college counselors in a recent survey said the number of students on campus with “severe psychological problems” is increasing. But despite the prevalence of such issues, open conversation about suicide, depression, anxiety and other problems, particularly among students, “doesn’t really exist,” Malmon said.
That’s what Active Minds is trying to change. “A lot of our students don’t realize that we have free counseling, that we have a student health center that you can go to any time…. There’s just not really knowledge about it, and I don’t know if that is connected to the stigma of seeking out mental health resources,” said Annie Cressey, mental health educator and Active Minds chapter adviser at the University of Vermont, which hosted the backpacks earlier this week. They were spread in a prominent, hard-to-avoid location: on a large lawn between the student union and library. (The university generally has one death by suicide a year, a spokesman said; the most recent occurred in October.) “I think it has been a little universal – not only silence, but a really negative way of looking at it.”
With help from a campus suicide prevention grant, Cressey is chairing a committee examining the university’s efforts. The committee has been meeting with stakeholders including administrators, students, faculty and local police. Once it hears all their concerns, it will discuss how to proceed. The goal is a “comprehensive approach to suicide prevention,” in which everyone is equipped to help someone in need. “I think it is being able to have people be aware of what risk factors look like,” Cressey said. “It’s about us having a knowledge base that it’s happening, and not pretending that it’s not happening, because to ignore it is to keep us in silence.”
Suicide is a difficult topic to navigate on college campuses in part because there’s a fear of “contagion” in telling the stories of students who died, said Courtney Knowles, executive director of the Jed Foundation, an organization that aims to prevent suicide and reduce emotional distress among college students. Colleges have to be careful about communicating too much detail on such a sensitive issue. Representing the impact and loss of lives in an effective and safe way, Send Silence Packing stands out as a broad – and rare – effort to inspire action, Knowles said, distinct from the more common technique of targeting students who need help themselves (though, of course, both are important). “It gets campuses and students and families to realize the importance of understanding the issue,” he said. “It takes on its own prevention effort.”
College mental health advocates face a special challenge, Knowles said. “There are a lot of issues that are kind of hot-button issues, and mental health isn’t one of them,” he said. “Any opportunity to wake people up to the fact that this is a real problem that’s very prevalent among college students is a positive, because I think it can only create more awareness and more advocates for the issue.”
Abby Levinsohn, co-president of the Vermont chapter of Active Minds and an undergraduate at the university, has seen students embarrassed and afraid of talking about going to the counseling center. She referenced the motto of Active Minds: everyone has mental health. Students just have to start talking about it. “Putting a lot of resources and time into one big event that will get people talking in general is really important. And people can do that in different ways,” she said. “A lot of schools have made a huge impact in different ways.”