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Working to end suicide silence

BY ALEKSANDRA VUJICIC | APRIL 23, 2014 5:00 AM

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Book bags sitting on the Pentacrest typically hold notebooks, pens, and sandwich wrappers from the library café.

But Tuesday, the backpacks held a different meaning.

More than 1,000 backpacks decorated the lawn of the Old Capitol to represent the 1,100 college students who commit suicide every year.

The Send Silence Packing traveling exhibit included bags donated by friends or family members across the country who have been affected by suicide. Walkways were lined with pictures and stories of those who have died, and signs were posted with sayings including “Two-thirds of students who need help don’t seek it” and “Never be afraid to ask for help.”

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students. More than half of college students have had suicidal thoughts, and one in 10 consider attempting.

The University of Iowa Counseling Service estimates 300 UI students attempt suicide every year.

The exhibit was brought to campus by the mental-health advocacy group Active Minds as a part of its Midwest tour, visiting anywhere between 10 and 14 campuses. The UI Active Minds chapter is one of the 400 chapters nationwide, in addition to a national chapter.

“We’d like students to know that they’re not alone if they’re going through this,” President of the UI Active Minds chapter Kyra Wilson said. “Clearly, a lot of students have been through the same thing and struggle with this every year. One of the things depression does is it creates this feeling of just being alone and being separated from the rest of the world.”

Wilson said the group’s mission is to change the discussion on mental health, which includes decreasing the stigma associated with the illness and increasing awareness about stress, anxiety, depression, and suicide on college campuses.

Wilson and chapter Vice President Emily Roberts both have lost friends to suicide, which prompted them to take action and raise awareness about the issue.

Roberts initially joined the student organization as a way of coping with the grief she had after losing a friend to suicide her senior year of high school.

“My friend was very social,” Roberts said. “You never would have thought he was going through this and why he felt like he couldn’t tell someone. I’m sure he knew that resources existed, maybe he didn’t.”

Today, Roberts works with Wilson to encourage students to speak up and seek resources if they are caught in similar situations. She credits the help of other local organizations, including the Crisis Center and the University Counseling Service, for helping create a resourceful environment.

“This is a huge problem,” Wilson said. “It happens often, unfortunately. But one of the first steps is being able to build a strong supportive community.”

With events like this, Wilson said, she hopes to give students the tools to talk to their friends if they see any unusual behavior.

In an email statement, Director of University Counseling Service Sam Cochran said the exhibit is well-known in suicide-prevention circles. It was funded by a three-year suicide-prevention grant the university received in August 2013.

Brandon Doman, who is with the traveling road staff of the Active Minds national office, said one of the organization’s main goals is to provide a number of free resources that were available at the exhibit. 

“Some people that come through have no idea this is an issue, and for those people, we want them to know that something is happening and also it’s something that people can make a difference for,” he said.


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