“Send Silence Packing” unpacks mental illness stigma
Last Thursday morning, as I was walking up the steps of the College of Fine Arts, there was a row of backpacks lining the walkway in front of the building. Each of these backpacks had a piece of paper attached to the top of it, and these papers had pictures of college students and stories about their lives. There were backpacks of all different colors and brands, with logos from many universities across the United States, but the common factor between all these bags is that each one of them represented the life of a college student who had committed suicide.
I looked down the row of backpacks, unsure if I wanted to cry or throw up as I began to realize what they were. I then looked across the lawn and saw huge blue bags being unloaded from a truck and a team of students pulling backpacks out of these bags and placing them on the grass. There were hundreds and hundreds of backpacks, the stories of hundreds and hundreds of lives cut short being laid on the lawn in hopes of preventing another life, another backpack from joining those facing skywards on the grass.
This display was a touring exhibition known as “Send Silence Packing.” The exhibition is made up of 1,100 donated backpacks and has been displayed in over 100 cities in the United States since the project’s inception in 2008. Each year approximately 1,100 college students die as a result of suicide, and the backpacks represent the lives of these students. The backpacks are displayed on college campuses to raise awareness about mental health and “the incidence and impact of suicide.”
The program was brought to Carnegie Mellon by Active Minds, the campus chapter of the national organization which strives to diminish the stigma surrounding mental illness and health and spread awareness of these issues.
I am so grateful that this program was brought to our campus. Mental health is a taboo on this campus no matter how much people would like to deny it. Many students who need help don’t seek it out for a plethora of reasons, but one of the biggest is that they are afraid of admitting they need help in the first place. The fact that there is a stigma around mental illness is not the fault of any one person, organization, or corporation, but is a dangerous ideology that has become a part of our society, and one that is particularly prominent on college campuses.
Carnegie Mellon is a place where students will push themselves to their own personal limits and beyond to achieve success. Sleepless nights and course overloads with no lunch break are not uncommon. In fact, there is almost an unspoken expectation that you will be doing these things somewhere along the way. Although these circumstances are not necessarily the cause of mental illness, they certainly do not help the situation. It is easy to feel inadequate when you look around at all the amazing things your peers are doing. When students begin to feel inferior, overwhelmed, and under appreciated, matters are only made worse by the fact that stigmas surrounding mental health result in feelings of helplessness and loneliness. Suicide has become the number two cause of death of college students nationwide. The idea of putting one’s head in the sand and hoping a problem goes away has never been one that has worked, and taking this approach to mental illness puts human life in danger.
It is clear that students on this campus are trying to start a conversation about mental health. What is vital at this point is to join in that conversation. It is an issue that should be important to every single students because mental health is something every person struggles with in their own way.
“Send Silence Packing” is a heartbreaking exhibition with the intent of breaking down the walls that we have created surrounding the topic of mental health. Each life represented by a backpack on the lawn is a cry to remember the lives that have been lost and a reminder to take care of yourself and those around you.