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National exhibit makes local impact

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SHARING STORIES: Active Minds, a nonprofit organization supporting mental health awareness and education for students, has made stops at primarily college and university campuses in the country for 11 years now.
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REMOVING STIGMA:Seventh graders from Clinton Central Junior-Senior High School read some of the stories attached to backpacks Tuesday at the Clinton County Fairgrounds.
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VISUAL IMPACT: Backpacks were placed around the grounds of the Clinton County Fairgrounds as part of the Send Silence Packing exhibit on Tuesday at Frankfort. Each backpack held the story of an individual who was lost to suicide, and many of the backpacks were donated by parents who lost a child to suicide.

By AARON KENNEDY - akennedy@ftimes.com

Clinton County students were bused in to walk through the Send the Silence Packing exhibit during its 22nd and final stop of its spring tour Tuesday on the Clinton County Fairgrounds in Frankfort.

The traveling exhibit, which has made more than 250 stops and is in its 11th year, was brought to Clinton County through a proposal written by the Healthy Communities of Clinton County.

“I heard of this event through Active Minds – a partner organization that we work with quite a bit,” said Kathy Martin, director of operations for HCCC. “You have to write a proposal for it to even come to your area. Healthy Communities wrote the proposal, and it was a four-step process to get them to say 'Yes.' They just stopped in Kansas, and now we are the last stop for them.”

The exhibit is comprised of more than a thousand backpacks spread across the ground, each representing an individual who was lost to suicide.

“Each backpack represents a student that we lose to suicide,” said Erica Hoffman, tour coordinator for the exhibit. “As a whole, it is a representation of the students that we lose to suicide each year on college campuses around the country. A lot of backpacks have personal stories attached to them which have been donated by family members, friends or loved ones.

“We are here to raise awareness for mental health and suicide prevention, and to start talking about it,” Hoffman added. “We want to make sure everyone knows that it is OK to be experiencing problems with their mental health, to seek help for their mental health and that you are not alone in experiencing problems.”

Erin Simon, another one of Send Silence Packing's tour coordinators, says they have found that someone will usually speak to a friend about their mental health struggles long before they reach out for professional help.

“Part of what we are doing at Active Minds is giving peers the resources to have those conversations with their friends,” Simon said. “So, if someone does come to them and says, 'Hey, I am going through something. I am struggling,' then their peer may be better equipped to then actually have a conversation with them, see what is going on and then refer them to a professional who could help them in that way.”

Simon's message to those who may be struggling with depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts or all of the above is that they are not alone. And that they need to know that they are not going to be judged. They need to reach out.

“It is tough,” Simon said. “I think that fear is always going to be there, but part of what we are trying to do out here is to get people talking about it – really normalize the conversation around it and get rid of that stigma that surrounds mental health. Breaking the silence is a really important first step and getting people to realize this is a conversation that we all need to have. Parents need to have it with their kids, friends need to have it with their friends.

“It is just as important as our physical health,” she added. “We get our yearly checkups. We get our yearly physicals, so what about our mental health? I think it is important to start creating a culture around these conversations where it is normal and we check in on each others mental health the same way we ask 'Hey, how are you. How's your family.'”

Erica Echelbarger, a guidance counselor at Clinton Central Junior-Senior High School, read many of the stories as she watched her students do the same.

“Reading some of the stories myself, I think it almost normalizes depression, anxiety and mental illness,” Echelbarger said. “Kids who are maybe suffering and thinking that they are alone or the only one who deals with that – a lot of these stories mention long battles that these people have had. For the kids to be able to feel more normal about it and that they are not the only one, that help is out there and that it is possible to get help and feel better – I think that is the message I have seen conveyed on a lot of these backpacks.”

Among the many backpacks in the exhibit were two from Clinton County – those of Neal Lewis Chumley and Brayton Cooper.

“These backpacks have personal stories from people who have lost a loved ones to suicide,” Martin said. “So, it's to bring awareness. It is to bring prevention. It is to show that you matter, your story is not over yet, and you make a difference.

“If there is someone who is struggling with mental health or suicide, we encourage them to reach out. You can call the national suicide hotline number. There are also texting numbers. There is SAFE3TALK through IU and different organizations. You can go on the web, you can text, you can call. It gives people a lot of different options if somebody is in need, and those are 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year.”

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1 (800) 628-9454 or, en Espanol, 1 (800) 628-9454. Or, you can text “SAFE2TALK” to (765) 742-0244. The National Alliance on Mental Illness can be reached by calling 1 (800) 950-6264.