FLORENCE, Ala. – More than a thousand backpacks lay scattered across the lawn in front of the University of North Alabama’s Memorial Amphitheater, Thursday.
They were not discarded by students. Rather, each was reverently placed to represent the 1,100 college students who commit suicide annually.
“That’s really, really impactful to think of each backpack as a person,” says Dani Lukens.
Lukens is the outreach coordinator for the “Send Silence Packing” exhibit, an initiative of the non-profit national organization Active Minds. Active Minds encourages college students to talk more openly about mental health issues and seek help, if needed.
Many of the backpacks were donated by friends of family members of suicide victims and had personal stories attached.
UNA, hosting the exhibit for the first time since it debuted in Washington, D.C. in 2008, donated two backpacks to the project. One for a student who committed suicide in the last year. The other was for a faculty member.
“Even in small town Alabama, in our small town university, we still have students and even faculty members that are struggling and need to know that they have a support system here and their campus and community stands with them,” says Chloe Allen.
Allen is president of the UNA chapter of Active Minds. Now 21-years-old, she says she’s been taking advantage of UNA’s free student counseling services since her freshman year.
“If I ever bring it up…I usually get one of three responses. Either the person dismisses it because they feel uncomfortable…they’re interested and have more questions…or they get really excited and enthusiastic and say, ‘I’ve done that or I need that, too,'” she says.
She adds that those reactions show her the need for more conversation about mental health issues.
“The people that feel uncomfortable discussing it, that shows me we need to discuss it more..we need to get rid of the stigma surrounding mental illness. The people who are interested and have questions and don’t really understand it, we need to educate these people…the people that have just been dying for someone to ask them or talk to someone about it, we need to let them know that there is a group on campus and it is okay to talk to your friends about it and to reach out and let people know it’s something you struggle with.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) immediately. This is a 24-hour service available to anyone in need of help.
According to Active Minds, the following warning signs of suicide demand IMMEDIATE attention.
- Threats to hurt or kill oneself, or talking about wanting to hurt or kill oneself
- Talk or writing about suicide or death, when these actions are out of the ordinary for the person
- Obtaining or looking for ways to kill oneself by seeking access to firearms, available pills, or other means
- Giving away prized possessions and other personal things
If you have a friend who you are worried may be considering suicide or self-harm, you may find this information from Active Minds helpful.
Because WHNT News 19 takes the issue of youth suicide so seriously, we are partnering with Huntsville Hospital and others on the SPEAK project.
SPEAK – Suicide Prevention, Empowerment, Awareness, Knowledge – is multi-faceted and primarily targets middle and high school students in Huntsville City Schools, Madison City Schools and Madison County Schools.
It’s designed to raise awareness for teachers, parents, relatives, medical professionals and others who could play a role in noticing the signs of suicide and help stop it.
You can read more about the effort here.