This past Monday, the large lawn in front of Olin Library was covered with 1,100 backpacks, many with personal stories attached, as a way to represent the lives of the 1,100 students who are lost to suicide each year. This traveling educational exhibit, called “Send Silence Packing,” is the largest national program from Active Minds Inc., a nonprofit organization in the U.S. with a mission to change the conversation about mental health across college campuses. The “Send Silence Packing” event began on March 29 at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, PA, and is now traveling to 13 cities in five states.
The University began its own chapter of Active Minds this past fall with the effort of Jenn Pollan ’13 and Molly Foxworth ’12, who are now the chapter’s co-presidents. “Send Silence Packing” was the group’s major event for this spring semester, and the members oversaw the program from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. A discussion was held in Usdan 108 after the event ended, during which Active Minds members, students, and staff were encouraged to discuss their reactions to the event, as well as plans for future action.
Active Minds functions separately from Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), though the two often work in conjunction to accomplish like-minded goals.
“We’re so excited that they started [Active Minds],” said Director of CAPS Jennifer D’Andrea. “They seek to destigmatize the idea of emotional health struggles, to start dialogues about it, and that’s something CAPS wants to do, too.”
Pollan said that her ultimate aim in bringing “Send Silence Packing” to the University was to promote awareness among students about the prevalence of mental illness. One of the backpacks in the display was dedicated to Nora Miller ’12, who took her own life last year.
“There is this false sense of security because we’ve only had one suicide in 15 years,” Pollan said. “People don’t know that there are attempts [on campus] and a lot of depression.”
D’Andrea said that since she took office this past June, suicide prevention has been CAPS’s major initiative. She stated that although CAPS helped the Active Minds group plan “Send Silence Packing,” the success of the event was a result of the hard work of the Active Minds members.
“Jenn and Molly did such an amazing job,” D’Andrea said. “They initiated it. They did all the communication with the organizers. They really did everything.”
Pollan added that she was happy with the outcome of the program, and she hopes students have a better understanding of how suicide can affect anyone.
“A lot of time [suicide occurs when] people aren’t seeking treatment or aren’t talking to a friend,” Pollan said. “It’s those little things that make such a difference. If we’re not going to use the word suicide and pretend it doesn’t exist, that’s when people feel isolated and that’s when it happens….Suicide prevention is obviously a complex issue, but we shouldn’t throw our hands up.”
Pollan stated that she wants to capitalize on the energy generated from “Send Silence Packing,” and is interested in gathering feedback from students and perhaps sending out a link to a website where students can anonymously post their feelings about the event.
“Another thing that has really impressed me about Active Minds is that they’re very, very open to hearing feedback from students,” D’Andrea said. “That’s impressive, because when you put so much work into something and it means so much to you, it is hard to open yourself up to criticism.”
At the evening meeting on Monday, D’Andrea and Pollan spoke openly about plans for the rest of this semester, which include an outreach educational program with a church in Glastonbury. Pollan added that Active Minds will pass out tips on stress relief during finals period and hold an event like the one they hosted during finals last semester.
In the fall, CAPS and Active Minds will start a program at the University called “Student Support Network,” which was originally developed out of Worcester Polytechnic Institute. The program, which requires a commitment to attend six one-hour sessions, will essentially train students on campus to be mental health advisers for other students. The goal will be to encourage students who are struggling with mental health issues and do not feel comfortable seeking help from CAPS or from 8-to-8 to utilize their peers as a new resource.