The lounge area of the HUB-Robeson Cultural Center is usually filled with students: draped over chairs, studying, eating, catching a quick nap between classes, chatting with friends, living.
On Wednesday, the scene was very different.
Instead of students, the space was packed with backpacks. There were 1,100 of them, each one representing a college student lost to suicide. This was “Send Silence Packing,” a project of Active Minds, meant to bring attention to the sometimes silent suffering some students endure until it is too late to reach them.
The backpacks were arranged in rows, lined up in sections, artfully stacked and piled and hooked over backs of chairs pushed to the edges of the room. They were marked by laminated pages with pictures, names and stories.
There is the story of Liz, a swimmer who took her own life in 2004 after a fight at home.
There was Anthony, who committed suicide days before his 20th birthday in 2009.
“I had no idea he was suffering inside, he hid it well,” his parent wrote.
Isaiah posted “about to die” before following through on his attempt in 2009.
“I lost my best friend and his family lost an amazing person as well,” wrote the kid who had been his buddy since they were both 11.
The stories are everywhere on backpacks just like the ones students carry all over campus.
“We are here to tell people it is OK to be dealing with things and we want you to get help,” said Casey O’Neill, a senior political science major. He is part of Penn State’s chapter of Active Minds.
“It gets people talking. You see how many people we lose every year,” he said.
Penn State is no stranger to student suicide. In August, Boalsburg native Jack Crean, 18, died in a fall from a crane not far from where the backpacks are laid out. A Penn State Altoona student, Marquise Braham, jumped from a Long Island hotel amid reports he had been hazed. According to O’Neill, 19 students died from 2007 to 2011.
“It’s important to raise the visibility of this issue, since it impacts many many people directly and indirectly,” Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said in an email. “By letting students and community members know there is help available and they are not alone if they are struggling with the death of a loved one — or struggling themselves with thoughts of suicide — we hope to prevent more suffering. Visual displays such as the one in the HUB are hard to ignore and are an opportunity for everyone to learn.”
Near the backpacks, there was information on statistics and spreading the word, but next to it was another table, where the Center for Counseling and Psychological Services was on hand to offer any help it could. Students handed out information about the CAPS services, offered info on crisis response and were even prepared to get immediate help for anyone who might need it.
Students like junior Yixuan Li were moved by the event.
“I think I have friends who have depression and suicide issues. At some point, everyone probably does,” she said. “It’s such a powerful visual. It’s really touching.”
O’Neill said that reaction has been common.
“I’ve really been surprised. So many people have stopped,” he said.