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Backpack exhibit at UW-Whitewater aims to end silence about suicide


Taking a few steps outside UW-Whitewater’s University Center on Wednesday, students saw about 25 backpacks on the grass.

Each backpack had its story, representing a life lost to suicide.

There was a pink backpack for Kelsey, who was smart and funny but struggled with depression after her boyfriend died by suicide. She died in 2014. She was 27.

There was a backpack for Kati, who liked scary movies and had a bubbly personality. She died in 2012. She was 14.

As students kept walking on the cloudless afternoon next to a running fountain, they saw about a dozen more backpacks. Closer to Hyland Hall were scores of backpacks.

UW-W officials estimated about 250 backpacks were in the exhibit, displayed where campus foot traffic was at its peak.

As the exhibit titled “Send Silence Packing” travels across the country, it sometimes displays more than 1,000 backpacks—all to reach college students and encourage them to destigmatize mental illness and seek help when they need it.

UW-W’s chapter of Active Minds and University Health and Counseling Services partnered to put on the exhibit Wednesday, said Erica Fischer, wellness coordinator at UW-W.

She said the event also gave the university a chance to connect students, staff and faculty with mental health services on campus.

More UW-W students are attending crisis counseling appointments—190 in 2018-19 compared to 147 in 2013-14, according to university data from the last six school years.

And more students at those appointments are sharing suicidal thoughts and urges—135 in 2018-19 and 88 in 2013-14. The figure dropped to 59 in 2014-15 but has risen every year since.

“So this is just a one-time event, but we hope it helps spark further conversation, break down the stigma and ignite additional action throughout the year and years to come,” Fischer said.

Anthony Wahl 

Hannah Chart stops to read one of the more than 250 backpacks placed on the grass during the ‘Send Silence Packing’ exhibit at UW-Whitewater on Tuesday. ‘Send Silence Packing’ spreads awareness about mental health by visually representing the number of college students who die by suicide each year.

‘You are strong’

A sign on the grass surrounded by backpacks said, “Your story isn’t over yet.”

Written in chalk on the sidewalk on Wyman Mall were messages such as “You are strong” and “You are beautiful.” Sidewalk messages also included the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the crisis text line.

Fischer said she hopes the event normalizes discussions about mental health and encourages people to advocate for themselves.

As part of the daylong exhibit, Patty Slatter, board president for NAMI of Rock County, shared her personal struggles with mental illness, which she said included 12 suicide attempts and more than 50 hospitalizations.

Anthony Wahl 

A student stops to take in the exhibit of about 250 backpacks at the ‘Send Silence Packing’ event on the UW-Whitewater campus on Tuesday.

While she heads the nonprofit that advocates for those affected by mental illness, her work on dealing with her own struggles continues.

“My journey is not over,” she said.

Aruna Jha, an assistant social work professor who was a clinical social worker with the Veterans Health Administration for six years, spoke on how to talk about the “elephant in the room” and ways to deal with harmful thoughts.

Fischer said a campus training session will be offered on identifying suicidal indicators and how to help someone in crisis. The goal is to prepare people so they can help connect someone with professional support services.

The QPR training (short for question, persuade and refer) is set for 12:30 to 2 p.m. Friday, Oct. 18.

Fischer said she wants more people to know it’s OK to not be OK.

“Ultimately, we just want to shift the dialogue from one of ignorance and misunderstanding to one of compassion and tolerance,” she said.

Anthony Wahl 

This backpack in the ‘Send Silence Packing’ exhibit recognizes student veterans and UW-Parkside student Army Sgt. Michael Burke, who died by suicide.

Suicide and veterans on campus

The backpacks that “Send Silence Packing” uses were donated during stops on the tour, Fischer said.

At UW-Whitewater, Richard Harris donated a backpack on behalf of Army Sgt. Michael Burke, a student veteran at UW-Parkside who “fell through the cracks” of treatment and died by suicide in August 2018.

On the camouflage backpack sitting outside the University Center, a note says the suicide rate for veterans is 1.5 times the rate for nonveteran adults.

Harris, coordinator of veterans and military services at UW-W, shared research about veterans on college campuses. Between 7% and 8% of them have reported a past suicide attempt, and 14% to 35% reported having thoughts of suicide with a plan—rates that this research said were higher than the general campus population.

Harris estimated that he sees suicidal indicators in student veterans a couple of times per semester. He said he and colleagues have played a role in preventing four or five suicides that he knows of.

He hopes universities commit more resources to understanding military culture so they have the tools to provide services and treatment for those with military backgrounds. He said veterans have expressed concern about seeking treatment from professionals who might not understand veterans’ issues.

“They have got to make that commitment, or we’re not going to succeed in servicing our veterans effectively,” he said.

He said he doesn’t have a veterans-specific budget. Instead, he said he pulls from existing funds in the continuing education department. He wants to study what kind of veterans budget he would need to service the more than 400 students under his purview.

About five years ago, Harris implemented an assessment for student veterans who are having suicidal thoughts. After asking them some questions, he makes sure they are connected with a professional.

Anthony Wahl 

Students walk past the backpack exhibit during the ‘Send Silence Packing’ event on the UW-Whitewater campus on Tuesday.

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Developer unveils details of planned River Flats apartments in downtown Janesville


If it gets approved and built as planned, a 93-unit “affordable” apartment complex known as River Flats would rise five floors above the downtown intersection of Franklin Street and Laurel Avenue and offer rents its developer said would be tailor-made for a segment of the population with “low to moderate” income.

During a neighborhood meeting Tuesday, Daniel Kroetz, vice president of development for Commonwealth Companies, said renters, depending on their income, could typically expect to pay between $385 and $975 a month for an 850-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment.

At that price, Kroetz said, the apartments’ renters could expect an onsite management office, a fitness facility, a laundry room and about 89 parking spaces, Kroetz said. Many of the parking spaces would be underground in the sloped ground floor of the building.

Renderings of the L-shaped, red-and-tan brick apartment building on display Tuesday showed some upper units with balconies. Kroetz and city planning officials also answered questions from residents, adjacent apartment property managers, and members of the city’s Community Development Authority and plan commission, which has yet to vote on the proposal.

If there are no delays in the approval process, the apartment complex could break ground next spring and could be ready for occupancy by mid-2021, Kroetz said.

Commonwealth Companies would operate River Flats with the help of a federal tax credit the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority awarded the developer earlier this year. The program would require residents to earn no more than 30% to 80% of the local median salary in Rock County.

The tax credit rules require the apartments to operate as affordable housing for at least 30 years, Kroetz said.

Under the program, some of the units would be rented for less than $400 a month for a segment of the working population that earns up to 30% of the median local income.

The application process would include screening applicants based on income. The tax credit program is designed to require that the average single person who rents at River Flats has an income no greater than $32,000 a year—about 60% of the median for Rock County.

While the apartment’s management would work with local nonprofits and agencies that pair residents in need with affordable housing, Kroetz said the apartments wouldn’t accept federal Section 8 housing vouchers.

“The affordable housing program sometimes carries a stigma that it doesn’t deserve,” Kroetz said. “We want this to be a workforce housing deal and we want it to hit a number of income strata.”

Duane Cherek, the city’s planning director, said the project must face public hearings and review by the plan commission for a “conditional use.” The commission must also review the plans under the current zoning standards for downtown multifamily housing.

Cherek called such reviews “fairly routine” but said that the city and developer are in talks over one facet of the project that might require special consideration—parking.

Under zoning rules for downtown apartments, the city requires about 1½ parking spaces per apartment unit downtown. For the 93 planned units, that would require about 140 parking spaces. The current plans for River Flats include just 89 on-site spaces, well short of the city’s requirement, Cherek said.

That shortfall concerned some residents at the meeting. One woman who characterized herself as a nearby resident asked Kroetz why Commonwealth didn’t plan a smaller complex.

Commonwealth initially floated a 60-unit building to be built mainly on land the city was selling the developer for $1, but the company said it increased to 93 units because the smaller project wouldn’t have been financially workable under the state’s affordable housing tax program.

Resident Ty Bollerud asked if the city would reconfigure parking along Laurel Avenue, a side street that would be adjacent to River Flats. Bollerud said that might prevent residents and visitors at River Flats from clogging up spots throughout downtown’s west side, where he said parking is already in short supply.

Cherek said the city was examining such ideas. He said on-site parking capacity is one of many zoning standards the project must meet, but he suggested the plan commission has the authority to make concessions on parking standards.

City council member Sue Conley said “it doesn’t really bother me” that River Flats’ plan fails to meet city parking standards.

Conley said the standards don’t factor in a trend toward fewer car owners in the future and said that makes the standards “maybe not as realistic as they were 15 or 20 years ago.”

Angela Major 

Brodhead’s Katie Goecks (4), right, reaches for the ball as Edgerton players try to push it over the net Tuesday, October 8, 2019, at Brodhead High School.

Obituaries and death notices for Oct. 9, 2019

Barbara B. (Brunsell) Adamany

Terry L. Dohs

Marylyn N. Gasch

Kathleen K. Hadrich

Fayette Gordon Hensley

William “Bill” Rolseth

Robert W. Scharnke

Virginia “Ginger” Skaife