On both Sept. 9 and Sept. 10, Mississippi State University's Department of Health Promotion and Wellness is hosting their annual National Suicide Week Backpack Display on the Drill Field from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., where almost 1,100 backpacks are displayed to raise awareness for student suicide. 

Each backpack represents a college student who dies from suicide, totaling an estimated 1,100 each year, according to activeminds.org.

Representatives from MSU’s Department of Health Promotion and Wellness are present at the display to provide information and resources, according to Kim Kavalsky, the coordinator of Mental Health Outreach at MSU’s Student Counseling Services.

Kavalsky said suicide prevention handouts are available at the display, including Crisis Text Line cards, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline cards and magnets, information about Student Counseling Services and buttons with suicide prevention messages.

According to Kavalsky, the display also includes signs with supportive messages, encouraging those suffering to seek help. Other signs feature various suicide prevention hotlines, including those previously mentioned, as well as the Trevor Lifeline and Veterans Crisis Line.

“Many of the backpacks contain stories of those who have lost their lives to suicide, statistics, warning signs, suicide prevention resources and hopeful messages,” Kavalsky said.

MSU has hosted the National Suicide Prevention Week backpack display for around nine years, according to Kavalsky.

Health Promotion and Wellness Director Leah Pylate emphasized the importance of events that bring awareness to mental health and self-care. 

“We care about our students and providing outreach for awareness and support, including opportunities to share with students the importance of taking care of our self and others who may be hurting, is critical. Help is available, and support is here.”

Kavalsky said she believes National Suicide Prevention Week is important because suicide is an issue often left undiscussed until a well-known individual takes his or her own life. This silence only creates greater issues.

“The problem is the silence that exists,” Kavalsky said. “Raising awareness about this issue is vitally important in reminding those who are hurting that they are not alone, and help is available.”

Jazmine Kelley, a graduate student studying food science, nutrition and health programming, said events like the backpack display facilitate discussion of very real, yet still taboo topics.

“Suicide is a real issue that affects campuses across the nation, including MSU. Events like this allow students to freely discuss suicide,”  Kelley said. 

Kavalsky also said National Suicide Prevention Week encourages people to check in with their loved ones and look out for warning signs. She said she believes the backpack display inspires this action, and is astounded at the turnout each year.

“Each year I have been amazed at the number of students, faculty and staff who have talked to me about the impact suicide has had on their lives and how appreciative they are that this event happens each year,” Kavalsky said. “My hope is that this display can play a part in saving lives.”

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention WISQARS Leading Cause of Death Reports, suicide was the second leading cause of death in individuals aged 15-34 in 2017, and it has claimed the lives of over 47,000 people of all ages across the United States.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the prevalence of serious suicidal thoughts among all age groups was highest (10.5%) in adults aged 18-25. 

This age group also accounted for the highest prevalence of suicide attempts at 1.9%. In 2017, 10.6 million adults aged 18 or older reported having serious suicidal thoughts, and 1.4 million made a non-fatal suicide attempt, according to the survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. 

Mississippi’s suicide rate falls into the national average of between 14-23 per 100,000 people (15.01%) according to another study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to their website, MSU’s Student Counseling Services offers free, confidential counseling to MSU students in its office located in Hathorn Hall.

Kavalsky said starting this semester, students are encouraged to come in during the hours of 9:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Monday-Friday if they are interested in seeking services, instead of calling to make an appointment.

If a student is in crisis after hours, they can reach a counselor by calling (662) 325-2091.

The Department of Health Promotion and Wellness has several outreach events planned following the annual backpack display, Kavalsky said. 

As listed on MSU’s event page, Sept. 16 from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. in the Colvard Student Union Ballroom Section U, the department will be partnering with Student Counseling Services to provide an event called “Get a Checkup from the Neck Up.” 

This outreach provides students with the opportunity to take a mental health screening and have a clinician review their results. This annual event has consistently been well-received with students, according to Kavalsky.

Sept. 24 at 6:00 p.m. in the Colvard Student Union’s Foster Ballroom, suicide attempt survivor Erika Kendrick will share her story in “Who Moved My Happy.” 

“Erika will share her experience as a suicide attempt survivor and her journey with mental illness,” Kavalsky said. “She hopes students will walk away with a blueprint on how to live a happier, healthier life.”

MSU has campus-wide resources available to those struggling with mental illness and suicidal thoughts. For more information, contact Student Counseling Services (662) 325-2091.

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