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From 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. on Wednesday, students traveling through the heart of Kenyon’s campus were confronted with hundreds of backpacks strewn across the lawn outside of Peirce Dining Hall.
The traveling exhibition, entitled “Send Silence Packing,” was advertised as a suicide prevention and awareness event. However, many students thought it fell short of its intended purpose. According to Chloe Hannah-Drullard ’20, its contents caused some students to experience depression and panic attacks, skip meals to avoid Peirce, or self-harm.
“We aim to enhance awareness about mental health on college/university campuses, increase conversation about suicide prevention, and communicate about mental health support resources available to Kenyon students,” wrote Director of Cox Health and Counseling Center Chris Smith in a student-info email sent the day before the exhibit arrived.
The next day, Caleigh Law ’22 drafted a student-info email of her own, intended for Smith. “You are bringing awareness, but awareness is not the problem on this campus,” she wrote. “The problem is [a] lack of resources.”
In wake of the loss of a friend to suicide last semester, Law was especially affected by the contents of the exhibit. “I knew Stella Simic [’22] very personally. She was one of the first people I met on campus. And I think that they’re not honoring her; they’re actually doing a disservice to their message and to everything she stood for,” she said.
Tour coordinator Eric Golembiewski described Send Silence Packing as a “student-led movement.” The exhibition began in 2008 and is sponsored by the national mental health organization Active Minds, which displays the backpacks at 30-40 schools and communities each year.
Although Smith said he could not disclose the cost of the exhibition, the all-inclusive price to host it for a day is $7,500, according to the Active Minds website.
While Smith was in the staff tent on Ascension Lawn, many students approached him to share their thoughts on the exhibition — “some good, some bad,” he said.
In his original email, Smith claimed that engagement with the exhibit was voluntary. “You may avoid traveling through the display by taking alternative paths and/or following the guidance of the volunteers who will be on site,” he wrote.
However, many students found this nearly impossible, including the Peer Counselors (PCs), who co-sponsored the event.
“Let’s be honest here,” wrote the PCs in a statement published to the Kenyon Thrill’s website. “Kenyon’s campus is small, and the position of the exhibit on Peirce Lawn is unavoidable.”
“As Peer Counselors, we want to express that … we do not directly have a say in the choices made by the Kenyon Counseling Center,” the statement continued. “As a group, we decided we wanted to participate in a suicide awareness campaign. But the PC’s did not necessarily want to be involved in this deeply hurtful event, and we ultimately did not make the final decision to put the display in front of Peirce.”
As a departmental organization, the PCs are a part of the Health and Counseling Center and answer to Smith. “We’re doing it with them, so we’re not diminishing them, and I think that’s what some people perceive. What we’re doing is empowering them in a different way,” he said. “We shared this with the PCs during our fall training, they were all on board. They liked the idea of bringing attention to this very important issue.”
Student Council President Delaney Barker ’20 hopes to get clarification from Smith on the Peer Counselors’ role in the event at the next Student Council meeting. She also expressed concern that some students did not see Smith’s email and were blindsided by the backpacks.
“People, rightfully so, filter their emails for trigger warnings. So the people that could be the most impacted didn’t get the notice,” Barker said.
Although Barker was able to avoid the exhibit, “even just the reactions of people have been difficult to handle,” she said.
Smith compared the mixed reactions to Send Silence Packing to student complaints about representation in last year’s “I Love Female Orgasm” presentation. “We’ll never have an event that people are going to all feel positive and cheery about,” he said.
Jewish Chaplain Marc Bragin said that “some people were really helped by [the exhibition], which, to me, makes it worth it. But for the folks that are upset by it, we want to understand how we can better move forward.”
Smith and staff psychologist Bradley Fox wondered whether the next step in the campus conversation might be a discussion of trigger management.
“We tried to prepare students for [the exhibit]. Maybe we didn’t prepare them the best. And we’re going to keep trying to bring programs here that are just like your academic programs, that are challenging you,” said Smith.
Meanwhile, Law believes that “a lot of the trust that the students have in the Health Center is gone.”
In a continuation of discussions about Send Silence Packing and mental health care on campus, Vice President for Student Affairs Meredith Harper Bonham ’92 will host a forum in the Gund Gallery’s Community Foundation Theater during Common Hour today facilitated by College Ombudsperson Carrie Knell.
The Counseling Center’s regular hours are 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. To get connected to ProtoCall, call Campus Safety at 740-427-5555 and ask to be connected. Other resources for students include the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or the Crisis Text Line, which can be reached by texting 4HOPE to 741741.
Evey Weisblat and Adam Schwager contributed reporting.