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UC Santa Barbara Display of 1,100 Backpacks Brings Attention to Suicide Prevention

‘Send Silence Packing’ exhibit comes to UC Santa Barbara to start dialogue about college students who commit suicide

The brown and tan backpack was donated by UCSB alum Sierra Tau Tau Pele for her high school friend Noah, who committed suicide more than a year ago.
The brown and tan backpack was donated by UCSB alum Sierra Tau Tau Pele for her high school friend Noah, who committed suicide more than a year ago.      (Gina Potthoff / Noozhawk photo)

Everyone remembers his or her first love.

Sierra Tau Tau Pele’s first love also happened to be her best friend from high school in Santa Cruz. Noah was his name.

“He was really brilliant,” the recent UC Santa Barbara graduate said, recalling his ability to play the guitar and to passionately debate any subject. “He was also really sensitive.”

They drifted apart when she went off to college, but no one — not even his family and close friends — knew Noah was contemplating suicide.

“It kind of blindsided all of us,” she said. “I still can’t believe it. It still hasn’t sunk in and it’s been a year.”

A smile crossed her face while recounting happier memories Monday on the lawn outside UCSB’s Student Resource Building, where 1,100 backpacks were scattered across the grass to symbolize the number of college students who take their own lives each year.

“Send Silence Packing” was the name of the display co-hosted by the national nonprofit Active Minds, its local chapter of UCSB students and Santa Barbara’s Mental Wellness Center.

Dads, sons, daughters and friends were mourned in personal stories or poems attached to each backpack, donated and written by their families and friends.

Pele hugged a brown and tan backpack to her chest, the one she donated for Noah after writing his name and drawing 22 hearts — the age Noah was when he took his own life.

“Mostly, I donated it to honor him, “ she said.

Some 1,100 backpacks lined the lawn outside the Student Resource Center at UCSB Monday for a “Send Silence Packing” display bringing attention to the issue of suicide. Each symbolized the number of college students who take their own lives every year. Click to view larger
Some 1,100 backpacks lined the lawn outside the Student Resource Center at UCSB Monday for a “Send Silence Packing” display bringing attention to the issue of suicide. Each symbolized the number of college students who take their own lives every year.    (Gina Potthoff / Noozhawk photo)

The Mental Wellness Center has been fundraising alongside Active Minds for three years to be able to bring the powerful all-day exhibit to UCSB in the hope of starting a healthy dialogue about mental health.

Active Minds, which has more than 400 student-led chapters at high schools, colleges and universities, has sent its backpack display to more than 70 cities across the U.S. since its inaugural exhibit on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in 2008.

“It’s definitely thought provoking and draws attention to a subject that needs more dialogue,” said Annmarie Cameron, CEO of the local, private mental wellness nonprofit.

“Mental illness is one of the most treatable illnesses.”

Located near the tunnel between UCSB and the adjacent Isla Vista community, Cameron said organizers expected to reach more than 2,000 students with the display, offering resources on site or an ear in the moment.

UCSB senior psychology major Melissa Boomer — also co-president of the university’s Active Minds group — said students applied for the exhibit with the May 23, 2014 tragedy in mind.

That day, six UCSB students were killed in a stabbing and shooting rampage carried out by a 22-year-old Isla Vista resident who authorities say was triggered by years of rejection from girls and his peers. He also took his own life.

“It’s about a topic we really don’t talk about that much,” Boomer said. “Speak up if you have any trouble.”

She said the UCSB chapter was hosting its first fall meeting Tuesday at 6 p.m. in the nearby multipurpose room.

Pele drove five hours down from Santa Cruz to see the exhibit, knowing that if Noah’s story could impact just one person, it would be worth the time.

“The stories deeply touch me,” she said. “In a lot of cases, it’s just people aren’t aware. By breaking the silence and speaking up, that’s the only way.”

Click here for free suicide prevention resources that are available 24 hours a day, or call 1.800.273.8255.

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

The “Send Silence Packing” display has 1,100 backpacks, each symbolizing the number of college students who take their own lives every year. Click to view larger
The “Send Silence Packing” display has 1,100 backpacks, each symbolizing the number of college students who take their own lives every year.          (Gina Potthoff / Noozhawk photo)
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