When I was reading through the journal entries of thoughts and comments added at Smith College, I came across one that said “Stopped me in my tracks today. Thank you for bringing awareness.” Another mentioned that reading the stories on the backpacks was just what they needed after a particularly difficult and stressful week leading up to the end of the semester. Send Silence Packing has this wonderful ability to be accessible to anyone whether they are just becoming aware of the issue or if they’re well aware of it and eager to continue spreading the message.
We’ve been lucky to be a part of the team that has brought this program to both coasts and dozens of places in between, and no matter where we go, there’s hundreds of people ready to either begin or continue talking about mental health. For the people just learning about the issue it usually starts with a question like “what’s with all the bags?” There are a lot of times when that same person will end up mentioning a connection they have with the subject after we explain the display.
Mental health is interesting in the sense that it is so ubiquitous—every person has it—but not everyone is comfortable talking about it (yet). Everywhere we go, however, we can see this changing. More and more people are becoming aware that it’s not only okay to be aware of and talk about mental health, but that it’s essential—both for yourself and for those around you. Later in the afternoon I spoke with a visitor that told me she never really knew that it was “ok” to talk about this kind of stuff. After a short conversation she went off to class, only to bring back other friends later in the day so they could see it for themselves. This is just one example of the simple actions we can all take to help continue with this forward momentum.
Send Silence Packing frequently gets comments and thoughts from people passing by during the display. There are people from all different walks of life who have had so many different experiences. We get comments of support as well as many people that share their personal history with mental illness and suicide. There is a supportive environment created at the display that makes people comfortable enough to share what they have gone through.
We noticed at Worcester, as well as our other stops, that the traveling journal has also been a remarkable space for people to share their thoughts and comments. For those that have not been to a display, we have a journal that travels with us to each event. Chapters decorate a page and visitors have a chance to write their thoughts and feelings throughout the day. There have been many different types of reflections left and they are all an important and meaningful piece to making the journal so special.
Here are a few of the messages left from Worcester Polytechnic Institute:
“This display is so moving and powerful. It made me realize how happy I am that I pushed through the darkness and stopped the silence. Thank you.”
“The number of families and friends affected by college student suicides every year is astounding. This display emphatically gets that message across. My thoughts and prayers go out to all those who have lost loved ones.”
“This display has really helped me, as well as my treatment, to realize that if you are thinking of suicide – talk to someone ASAP. It really does make a difference if you talk to the right person.”
There is something profound about the impact that the journal has had on people. There have been notes to loved ones lost to suicide, messages of promise, statements of thanks, and stories shared in its pages. It is an amazing way to connect the campuses and cities with each other. There is something about a blank space on paper that encourages people to leave their messages to others. Reading these words inspires people to continue sharing their thoughts and gives a voice of hope and support, even if you will never meet the person who wrote it.
When we do the Send Silence Packing display, whether it is on a college campus or not, there are always people that ask why we choose college students as our focus. It is important to remember that mental health is a huge importance at any stage in life. But college is a time of transition, bringing a whole lot of change for young adults. This is the first time that many people are leaving home – which comes with a list of new responsibilities. Not only do they have to learn how to live independently, they have to learn healthy ways of taking care of themselves and a lot of times, nobody tells them how to but expects them to know.
College is seen as the ‘time of your life’ and people always say that you should take advantage of it while you’re still at a university. People are trying new things, making new friends, discovering who they are. This seems like a period where people are always happy and always adventuring. Students are expected to know what they want and how to get it. A lot of times we don’t think to take a step back and make sure we are taking care of ourselves. College is a stressful time for a student that is not struggling with mental health issues, but when something seems off knowing where to turn is extremely important.
While we were at Syracuse, there were a lot of campus tours coming through the display of perspective students. There were campus administrators, professors, and parents that were interested in the display. Some thought it was a great idea, others weren’t such fans. But when we got the chance to explain to speculators, they understood the importance of reaching out to students before they start college. Some parents admitted that they hadn’t thought about the importance of mental health once their child goes to college and that Send Silence Packing was a great opportunity for them to remind their kids to find ways to take care of themselves while they are away from home.
During a conversation with one of the campus administrators, I was asked why I thought doing Send Silence Packing was necessary, especially with student tours coming through. She said that she was hesitant for them to see the display. I replied that her hesitance was one of the reasons for us to be on campus that day. The fact that adults are still choosing not to talk about mental health and are, to an extent, ignoring its importance is the reason we NEED to be on campuses. It is so important for Active Minds chapters to be at colleges and universities all over the United States: to reach out to students and help them to speak up.
It can be hard to deal with mental health issues while going through college because it seems like everyone else doesn’t feel the way you feel. Students are expected to be happy about being in college, and to appreciate that opportunity without complaints. This makes it harder for students to understand that they are not alone in their struggles. But nobody is alone. There are so many resources and friends that you can reach out to. Active Minds is here to teach people how to be a support to others that are having a hard time and to feel comfortable reaching out when they need help.
The Active Minds chapter at Syracuse did an amazing job showing their support for their fellow classmates. They are yet another group of students dedicated to changing the conversation about mental health.
We talk a lot about the conversations we have during the displays. Everywhere we go we hear stories and questions as visitors read the backpacks and explore the event. We hear from people that live close to this issue every day and from people that are just now beginning their journey in learning about mental health. We experience thousands of these interactions and we try to share them with you, but something that happened at this display reminded me of something we haven’t given as much attention to.Towards the end of the display two volunteers approached us. “We thought you should see this,” they said as they handed a post-it note over to us, “someone left this on the table over there.” We had no idea what to expect. The note read:
“I have been contemplating suicide for awhile now. After reading these stories, I made an appointment with Creekside Counseling. Thank you.”
There are so many different ways to begin breaking the silence about mental health, and they don’t have to be huge leaps when you’re just getting started. The subject matter at Send Silence Packing is a very strong and emotional topic, and not everyone can be expected to interact with it the same way. For every person we speak to, there are others that experience the display on their own level, and that is just as important. We never had a chance to personally interact with the visitor that left this note, but they were able to experience it at their own speed and take something incredible away from it.Breaking the silence is a sign of strength, whether it’s immediately opening up to those around you or taking small and steady steps through storytelling, interaction, or learning. This visitor chose to seek the help they needed while not directly interacting with anyone else. Others choose to tell us about their upcoming journey as soon as they start. Some take information to learn at their own pace before taking further action. All of these are fantastic paths, and there’s is no “right way” to begin, or continue, mental health education and awareness. Taking the steps that feel comfortable to you is what is more important—as long as you’re making that choice to move forward.