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Laying Backpacks to Fight Silence, Stigma

Laying Backpacks to Fight Silence, Stigma
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Suicide prevention exhibit comes to Fordham

On a chilly spring day, Fordham University’s Edward's Parade usually lies empty. But it was filled Monday with 1100 empty backpacks—one each for the number of college students who die by suicide every year.

It was the "Send Silence Packing" exhibit, traveling from school to school to get people talking about mental health and suicide.

Volunteers pass out flyers to those walking past. On the field, students walk among the bags, many of them donated by families who lost a loved one to suicide. Some decorated with notes to the dead.

Fordham freshman Madeline Sariol strolled through the exhibit, reading the names that adorn some backpacks, but not pausing to read the longer notes and stories.

"As I was reading the names, I was getting sad and I was just like 'ok, let me just keep walking,'” she said. “Because, truly, reading the stories would just probably make somebody weep."

The bags were laid down by students in Active Minds club, the local chapter of the national mental health advocacy organization. Active Minds first introduced “Send Silence Packing” in 2008. Fordham is the first stop on this year’s spring tour. The exhibit will visit another 10 colleges across the Northeast in the next month.

The backpacks are laid in a pattern, seeming to emanate out from a circle in the middle of the field, creating paths for visitors to pass through.

Fordham freshman Andrew Hunt found symbolism in the pattern.

“That resonated with me,” he said, “…because I saw that there's a pattern, that could mean that there are certain characteristics we could identify to help prevent something like this. So I think that the symbolism is very well done."

Hunt has been hospitalized for depression and anxiety in the past. He says exhibits like this are “pivotal.”

“One of the key beliefs that I have is that you need to be vulnerable about what experiences you underwent,” he said. “The only way to decrease stigma is to increase normalcy. You have to be able to talk about in order to feel less stigmatized."

Despite the exhibit’s goal to get people talking, most visitors appeared to remain silent, reflecting on the symbolism of the bags.

This didn’t bother Fordham senior Princess Chukwuneke, who helped organize the exhibit.

"For now, yes. It's okay for now to be silent, but then to take what they've gotten from here outside and to talk about it, that's the point," she said.