More than 1,000 backpacks sat on the Cathedral of Learning’s lawn on Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Some were new, some were used, some were plain and some had ribbons tied onto them. Many had once belonged to a college student who died by suicide.
The backpacks were part of Send Silence Packing — a traveling exhibit run by Active Minds, a national mental health awareness and advocacy organization. The exhibit consists of backpacks representing individuals who died by suicide and is meant to raise awareness and promote conversation about mental health and suicide. The exhibit’s next stop will be at Duquesne University on Tuesday.
Many passersby, including Pitt students and professors, stepped onto the lawn to take a closer look at the exhibit. Hanna Amanuel, a member of Pitt’s Active Minds chapter, said she was grateful for the turnout.
“We have had a huge turnout which has been really nice, and everyone seems to be really glad it is here,” Amanuel said. “It is really impactful, you really have to sit and look at [the exhibit] for a second.”
Aaron Holme was a 21-year-old college student when he lost his life to suicide in 2016. Attached to the laminated biography page pinned to Holme’s backpack was a note to passersby from his family.
“As you make your way through your busy day on campus, I encourage you to take time to reflect on the small things that can be life changing for you and the people around you,” the letter read. “Take the time to reach out for help when life starts to get ahead of you and you can’t catch up. You don’t have to have all the answers, you just need to know someone cares and they do. If you need help, let someone know —- just make the call.”
Placards provided by Active Minds — placed along the walkways between the Cathedral and Heinz Chapel — encouraged students to seek mental health treatment. Their messages read “Your story isn’t over yet,” “Stigma is shame. Shame causes silence. Silence hurts us all” and “Treatment is EFFECTIVE and can HELP.”
The backpacks created a visual of the vast impact suicide has on the college-aged demographic. According to Active Minds, three quarters of all mental health issues develop by the age of 24. Many of the bags also had biographies of their former owners pinned to them, as well as pictures or messages from families and friends.
Kati Kuuseoks, an employee of the national Active Minds organization, came to Friday’s event. Kuuseoks said she was glad that by noon, a majority of the 2,000 flyers detailing ways that individuals could actively notice and prevent suicidal behavior had already been distributed to attendees.
At the Active Minds information booth stationed at the event was a backpack with the Pitt Script logo that had been donated by the University Counseling Center Staff. Attached to the zipper was a note that read “In loving memory of all of the Pitt students who lost their lives to suicide.”
Julia Lam, the president of Active Minds at Pitt, said the event was designed to connect students to the Counseling Center and other mental health resources at Pitt. The exhibit’s visibility was key, she said.
“Pitt also plays a role as a big school in the heart of Pittsburgh, as a very visible location for a suicide awareness display that can reach not only students but anyone passing through the Oakland area,” Lam said in an email.
Albert Tanjaya, a senior computer science major, said that the exhibit stopped him in his tracks.
When he turned the corner onto the Cathedral lawn, he was overwhelmed by the volume of backpacks.
“The moment you turned the corner and saw all of the backpacks and banners it was like you stepped into a different atmosphere. My friend and I both stopped talking,” Tanjaya said.