Editorial: Breaking the silence about suicide


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Backpacks serve many uses. Among books, pens, lunches, and laptops, nothing is more emblematic of a college student’s gear than the bags they seem to carry everywhere. They hold the weight of a day in a compact form.

But on the Pentacrest Tuesday, more than 1,000 backpacks carried a different sort of weight.

Send Silence Packing, a campus-traveling exhibition of backpacks meant to represent the 1,100 students who commit suicide each year, is a powerful display. The backpacks have been donated by the families of these students, and they include personal stories to put an identity to each memorial.

Taken as a whole, the exhibition shows a staggering amount of scale. When you consider that each backpack represents a lost life, the numbers are easier to imagine. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students. One in 10 college students have seriously considered suicide, and more than half have had suicidal thoughts. At the UI, an estimated 300 students attempt suicide every year, according to the University of Iowa Counseling Service.

Nationwide, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death, with 38,364 suicides reported in 2010 according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That means someone died from suicide every 14 minutes. Though no complete data on suicide attempts has been published, 464,995 people visited a hospital in 2010 for injuries because of self-harm behavior.

Send Silence Packing, ultimately hopes to end the stereotypes and stigma associated with depression and suicide. Mental health is often seen as a taboo subject to discuss, especially when it concerns someone you know. Those suffering from depression or considering suicide may rather keep quiet than risk opening up and having others think there’s something wrong with them. When telling someone about suicidal thoughts can fundamentally change the relationship, it’s easier to maintain a fa├žade of happiness.

As time goes by, putting on a mask to the world takes its toll. In the past year, 44 percent of college students reported feeling so depressed that it was difficult to function. And two-thirds of students who need help don’t get it. It’s not that the resources aren’t there. At the UI, the University Counseling Service offers help to students, and in the greater city area, the Johnson County Crisis Center maintains a 24/7 help line.

So we’re left with a troubling question: When the help is professional and confidential, why are so many afraid to seek it?

In order to seek help, people first have to admit they need it, and therein lies much of the problem.

Taking the step to admit to yourself that you need outside help for your mental health is a difficult one to make. In public, people seem well-adjusted and mentally healthy. They don’t look depressed.

It creates a mental trap for those who are struggling: If these people have it all figured out, why can’t I?

But the reality is that most people do struggle with their mental health at one time or another. This is especially true on college campuses. The average age of onset for most mental-health disorders is 18-24. It’s important to keep in mind all of these facts. As Send Silence Packing, reminds us, mental illness can happen to anyone. We need to shun the stigma that says otherwise.

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