In the opening overcast hours of Monday morning, hundreds of backpacks covered the Garden City Community College quad as if their owners had vanished.
In a way, they had.
From 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., the LiveWell Finney County Health Coalition had brought to campus Send Silence Packing, a national, traveling exhibit that represents college students family members and veterans and others, lost to suicide with scattered, lonely backpacks attached to testimonies from their friends and families.
This year, the Garden City stop is the exhibit’s only visit to Kansas. LiveWell partnered with the GCCC Student Government Association, Compass Behavioral Health, Genesis Family Health and St. Catherine Hospital.
Throughout the day, the opening to a busy finals week at GCCC, guests walked silently through the exhibit, bending over to read the survivors’ stories. One man said the tender scene looked and felt like a funeral, said Karen Canales, event organizer and LiveWell Navigator program coordinator. He’s not wrong.
The exhibit is meant to honor those lost, attempt to spread suicide awareness, break down the cultural stigma of mental health and, as Courtney Burke, tour coordinator for the Active Minds exhibit, said, to emphasize suicide’s universal impact.
“Every single person we speak to on the road has been affected by (suicide) to some extent," Burke said. "It may not be a best friend or an immediate family member, but it could be a professor, a student, a teammate, a coworker. Every single one of us has been affected by this. Every single one of us struggles with mental health at some point … and it’s OK to talk about it.”
Suicide rates are on the rise nationally and in Kansas — from 1999 to 2016, Kansas was one of 13 states to see a rise by more than 37 percent. Locally, Garden City Compass’ number of after-hours crisis calls and number of children and adolescents coming in to discuss suicidal thoughts has risen in recent years, said Compass Quality Improvement Manager Melissa Parker.
Last year, suicide took a student in Lakin and Garden City and at least seven in Dodge City. On the front table, a backpack emblazoned with the Garden City High School logo came to the exhibit for the first time, a recent donation by the family of the GCHS student.
Incidents like those affect more than close family and friends, but the community at large, said Alex Granados, a clinical therapist at Genesis in Dodge City who also serves on the city’s Suicide Prevention Coalition. He knows the pain the action can have firsthand — his brother died by suicide several years ago. Sometimes the instinct of those affected is to become silent, closed off, he said, but the best step forward is to have open, honest conversations about mental health and to check in those around you.
“The more that I can kind of spread the word, hopefully, there will be one less family that has to go through that turmoil and the long, never-ending adjustment to life,” Granados said.
Some of those conversations, or at least seeds of them, came to mind naturally for several visitors.
GCCC freshman Evelyn Ramirez walked through the exhibit with her friends, reading backpacks and stopping by St. Catherine, Compass and Genesis booths to discuss local resources. The three of them talked about their experiences with suicide, including a friend Ramirez lost in high school, she said. All the memories came back, she said.
Garden City resident Rodger Pister thought of his friend, an artist whose work became noticeably darker and erratic in the months before he died by suicide. He wished he had said something when he could. In the meantime, the messages left behind touched him personally, too. To him, those dark places did not seem uncommon.
“Myself, I think about it all the time. Everyone, when life gets too hard sometimes, and it gets overwhelming and the state of the world … and sometimes it feels like it’s not worth it. But you find something to keep going and bring yourself back and keep moving on…” Pister said. He turned back to the backpack messages. “It’s heartbreaking. I mean, you’ve felt the same feelings they’ve had.”
There were personal connections, too. GCCC sophomore Katherine Reed, a self-proclaimed defiant mental health activist, said she often tried to have conversations with her friends who casually misused mental health terms — “That sound gave me PTSD,” “I’m so OCD.” Talking about mental health and educating people on what those conditions actually are matters, she said. If they understand it, maybe they’d be a little more empathetic to those who have it.
Messages on backpacks showed smiling pictures of loved ones or blanket memorials from certain colleges. Testimonies recounted the subjects’ struggles and triumphs, the moment the author realized they were lost and why they would be missed. Touching memorials alongside messy questions, past tense and present.
As GCCC sophomore Oscar Caballero walked through the exhibit, he thought of himself and the depression and suicidal thoughts he still struggles with, but also the people he tries daily to help. He can sense fake smiles and pain from his friends and asks them if they want to talk about it. Listening to their problems helps him understand who they are, and he wants them to know they’re not alone.
“One day, one person told me, ‘If you don’t love yourself, no one will.’ Actually, that’s a lie,” Caballero said. He gestured to the backpacks. “Many people here who died never loved themselves. They hated themselves. But you can read their stories, how many people loved them.”
Those who are struggling may seek help.
Compass Behavioral Health offers 24/7 crisis services, including care for those having suicidal thoughts. Residents can call the local office at (620) 276-7689 at any time and immediately be connected with a mental health professional.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available for free at all hours at (800) 273-8255 (TALK).
Contact Amber Friend at firstname.lastname@example.org.