Suicide takes a heartbreaking toll on American college students each year, accounting for about 1,110 deaths annually and trailing only fatal accidents as a major cause of death in the college-age population.
An exhibit at California State University, Sacramento, on Monday was meant to call attention to that fact and encourage students to talk about suicide as a means of preventing it.
The “Send Silence Packing” exhibit displayed 1,100 backpacks on the library quad, each representing a student who committed suicide. Many had letters attached in which friends and family members wrote about their grief, shock and loss.
“My sweet son, Larry Weinberg, ended his life on the morning of his 18th birthday,” read one note.
Another described Zachary Brunt, a freshman at Yale University who was studying engineering and Russian and killed himself in April 2012 at the age of 19. The laminated sheet attached to his backpack showed a photograph of a handsome young man with lively eyes, a square jaw and a mane of curly brown hair.
“He was the last person anyone would ever associate with suicide because he was confident, engaged, curious, brilliant, handsome – the total package,” read a letter from one of his parents. “We miss our beautiful boy so much.”
The national exhibit by the Washington, D.C.-based group Active Minds is making its way to other campuses throughout the state this fall, including the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Fresno City College.
Sacramento State was its first stop in California, and university President Robert Nelsen and his wife visited the exhibit Monday morning. Their only child, Seth, took his own life at 25.
Organizers said they’re trying to remove the stigma of depression and mental illness and to encourage people to come forward. Hand-lettered signs posted at the exhibit said, “Pain is real but so is hope” and “It’s okay not to be okay.”
“We want to start a conversation,” said Andy Roberts, a staff member with Active Minds who helps tote the backpacks around the U.S. in a truck.
Ngoc Nguyen, 22, is a member of the Sacramento State chapter of Active Minds. She said she spiraled into depression after her father died and sought counseling on campus. Later she took classes that trained her to spot warning signs and help prevent others from committing suicide.
She said students are reluctant to talk about depression or anxiety because they don’t want to be seen as weak or unable to handle the stresses of college.
“It’s a subject that is very taboo,” she said. “We don’t talk about it.”
Sacramento State counselor Darren Smith said some suicidal individuals give warning signs, such as saying life is too difficult or they can’t go on. Others hide their feelings because they don’t want help, he said.
But most people who contemplate suicide are ambivalent and need to discuss their thoughts with someone understanding.
“Nurturing that part of them that wants to live can avoid disaster,” he said.