The sun is beaming down on the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus on what is likely one of the last summer days of the season. The open space in front of the library is full of students and professors rushing to grab lunch before their next class.
Amidst the commotion, a few dozen people stop to stand in silence at the edge of the grass. They’re looking down at 1,100 backpacks placed carefully on the lawn. Some have letters, pictures, and patches attached. The backpacks are part of the Send Silence Packing campaign, an exhibit aimed at promoting mental health awareness on campus.
Each backpack represents a college student who took their own life.
Suicide isn’t an easy topic to read or write about. But that’s the point of the traveling exhibit: to get people talking about an issue that affects a lot of people. It’s the second leading cause of death for people ages 15-34. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for kids ages 10-14. The first for both age groups is unintentional injury.
In Michigan, 178 young people ages 15-24 died by suicide in 2013, the latest year for which data is available. This number is rising; back in 2009, it was 131. Michigan suicide attempts are not consistently tracked or measured, but we do know that the ratio of suicide attempts to suicide death in youth is estimated to be about 25:1.
If that ratio holds here in Michigan, it would mean roughly 4,450 young people ages 15-24 attempted suicide in 2013. According to Send Silence Packing, one in two college students think about attempting suicide at some point in their lives.
U of M student Marko Lubartic volunteered to set up the exhibit and pass out flyers at the event. “It's a really great visual representation of a serious problem,” says Lubartic. “A lot more people showed up than I expected.”
Sara Abelson is the vice president of Student Health and Wellness for Active Minds, the national organization behind the campaign. Abelson says they put a lot of focus on education efforts like Send Silence Packing, which visits about 30 campuses a year across the country.
“It’s a powerful way to start a conversation and see the magnitude of student suicide,” says Abelson. It's visiting Michigan State University, Eastern Michigan University, and Marquette University on this Midwest part of the tour in addition to U of M, where it was this week.
During each exhibit, Active Minds partners with local services and provides resources to students. One of the many resources highlighted is the Wolverine Support Network. The network is a support group on campus that offers peer to peer counseling and events aimed at improving mental health. "The network has been helpful for me since I deal with bipolar disorder,” said U of M senior Alex Gaggino. He said he doesn’t know if he would still be at U of M without these resources.
Struggling with mental health issues in college can be a huge barrier to students, both academically and socially. “It can be isolating,” says Gaggino. “It’s hard for people our age to talk about mental illness.” A common fear is that “people might think you’re different or treat you differently.”
The stigma surrounding mental illness prevents many students from seeking help, even when they need it most. A national survey of college counseling centers found that 86% of students who committed suicide had not sought counseling. Of those students, 70% were males, and 80% were undergraduates. The vast majority of students who did commit suicide, 77%, were white.
"The pressures on kids these days are a million times worse," says mother Diane Orley. She has personal experience with suicide in her immediate family and helped bring Send Silence Packing to Michigan. Social media doesn't help, she says. Her friend Linda Aiken agrees. "Social media can negatively impact student's lives," says Aiken. "Seeing everyone look happy when you're not only makes things worse."
Additional stressors that put students at increased risk of suicide include bullying, substance abuse issues, hard-to-reach academic requirements, and anxiety about work and internships. Veterans who are trying to readjust to civilian and academic life after deployment are also at increased risk.
Living in a low-income household makes dealing with mental health issues that much more difficult. Living paycheck to paycheck is a stressful experience, and we know stress has a negative effect on someone’s mental health. Furthermore, mental health services are expensive. Most college counseling centers offer free counseling, which is a plus, but most have some kind of time limit on the services they’re able to provide students.
These risk factors, when combined with limited availability and accessibility of mental health services, can have tragic consequences.
A strong support network can help prevent college students from attempting suicide. Regular interaction with family members, friends, co-workers, and classmates also lowers a person’s risk. Orley and Aiken have a few ideas of their own to bring down the rate of student suicide: "Make help affordable, have it covered by insurance, break the stigma, and treat it like a real disease," are among the first few that came to mind.
"And get people talking about it," which is exactly what Send Silence Packing is doing.