The exhibit is sponsored by the Active Minds nonprofit, which has a chapter on campus.
Sophomore Kristen Witkemper, the programming chairperson at Active Minds of Carolina, said society tends to project a lot of shame, and this exhibit attempts to discredit that idea.
“Most mental health conditions are highly stigmatized,” Witkemper said. “We don’t talk about it, so adding a voice to mental illness can help break that stigma and get people the professional help they need.”
There were a total of 1,100 backpacks spread throughout Polk Place, which symbolized the 1,100 students who die by suicide every year, more than 300 of which have personal stories, photos and messages attached.
Send Silence Packing was started by Active Minds in 2008 and was first displayed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Now, each year collegiate chapters can apply to be selected as a host school for the exhibit. After selecting the school, Active Minds provides the backpacks, informational materials and project management.
Pam McKeta, spokesperson for Active Minds, said the exhibit is traditionally placed at a central location on campus. She said the visual display is emotionally powerful and allows passersby to be connected to resources on campus.
“Often movies, TV shows, even current events will give the impression that anyone and everyone with a mental illness is a danger — when this is rarely ever the case,” McKeta said.
Active Minds set up tables that had information about resources found on- and off-campus. Some resources were targeted to specific groups including minority groups, student athletes and veterans.
On-campus resources include Counseling and Psychological Counseling Services, The Women’s Center and the LGBTQ Center. The Women’s Center has programming for survivors of sexual assault, and the LGBTQ Center has a program titled “Trans Talks Tuesdays,” both of which are focused on mental health.
“It’s so easy for people to think that suicide isn’t real and is only something they see on the news, not something that truly affects them,” said Shruti Patel, co-president of Active Minds at Carolina.
Send Silence Packing first came to UNC in the fall of 2012. This year, the exhibit came to UNC halfway through its spring 2016 tour. The tour has 12 stops, mainly located in the South.
“There needs to be a change in our community and our language to talk about mental health the same way we talk about diabetes, cancer or anything else that can be treated,” McKeta said.