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Exhibit at UMD brings attention to suicide

Students and others look over 1,100 backpacks laid out in Kirby Ballroom at UMD on Monday afternoon during the “Send Silence Packing” exhibit. The backpacks represent the number of college students lost to suicide. Each was donated and tells the personal story of someone who lost their life to suicide. ( Bob King / 1 / 2
Kathy Robbins of Cold Spring, Minn., is helped by her husband, Curt, as she places one of her penguin earrings into the backpack of their son, Jonathon, who committed suicide when he was 22. “Penguins were his favorite animals,” Robbins said. This was the first time the couple had attended the “Send Silence Packing” exhibit. (Bob King / / 2

After her best friend, and University of Minnesota Duluth roommate, got a call from her dad who told her that her brother had killed himself, Deanna Draz saw the impact of suicide firsthand.

“I had never seen her cry, never in our lives,” said Draz, a sophomore. “To see her go from never crying to hysterical was hard.”

That day, Draz became a student whose life was affected by suicide.  

A growing number of college and high school students know somebody who has died by his or her own hand. Often, the friends and loved ones of the victims don’t see it coming.

To help combat the silence associated with suicidal distress, Draz joined Active Minds, a group of volunteers, in UMD’s Kirby Ballroom on Monday for the touring exhibit, “Send Silence Packing.” The exhibit featured 1,100 backpacks displayed across the ballroom floor. The backpacks represented the number of college students lost to suicide annually. Some of the backpacks belonged to the students who perished. Some backpacks told stories on laminated placards of once-vibrant people lost too soon. One backpack told the story of a college freshman who desired to be a structural engineer.

He died at 17.   

The powerful exhibit drew onlookers throughout the day, both interested parties and passersby. Freshman Nadhi Woliye was among those who took in the touring exhibit, which has traveled to 70 cities since 2008.  

“I see a lot of sadness,” he said, “people who went through a lot of difficulty.”

Eric Anfinson is one of the charter members of UMD’s Active Minds club. The club “tables” often around campus, trying to spread the word to stressed-out or mentally ailing students that help is just a conversation away. Anfinson said he didn’t necessarily see 1,100 backpacks on the floor.

“If you look and see 1,100 students on the floor,” he said, “it’s not just a statistic. It could be a classmate or a friend.”

Anfinson said he tapped into his wellspring of empathy when his parents split, and he found himself listening to both his mother’s and his sister’s anguish.

“Just listening,” he said. “When someone shares with you, you feel honored to have someone letting you in.”

Since coming to UMD in 2011, he’s continued along an empathetic path into human services. He helped build its Active Minds club into the group it is today. He was one of four original members. On Monday, more than 30 members helped to set up the exhibit.

“It’s definitely had an impact,” said Michele Hatcher, the UMD faculty adviser for the group. “We’ve learned it takes a lot of us — everyone we can get — to help people understand they’re not alone.”

If the Active Minds group is a beacon for students in trouble, then the UMD Health Services staff is the place where students struggling with mental health can be linked with the professional help they require. Michelle Stronach is a counselor at UMD. She’s said she is troubled that almost any college student one asks these days knows someone who has committed suicide.

Depression or anxiety can be largely to blame, but Stronach also posits not every student who commits suicide is wrestling with a mental illness. Rather, it can be a perfect storm of other factors. She said developmentally the young student’s brain hasn’t fully realized its capacity for impulse control.  

“At 14-24 years old, students still have a lot of creativity and impulsivity,” she said. “Impulse control develops last.”

Couple that with a student who is striving for independence for the first time, and it can lead a young person to react to an academic crisis or a relationship conflict in devastating fashion by doing so quietly and terminally.  

She said groups like Active Minds offer a practical answer to the puzzling question: “If you don’t know someone is suicidal, how do you reach them?”

“It’s such a tough subject that not a lot of people talk about it,” said the Active Minds member Draz, “but we do.”