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.
‘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.
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.
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.
After a Veterans Day filled with thanks, the veterans coordinator at UW-Whitewater asks that people turn those words into action.
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.