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Backpack Exhibit Shines Light on Suicide Among College Kids

Students may soon start applying to college at age 14 1:13

Katrina Tagget was a senior at Michigan State University when she took her own life in 2008.

Set to return home to Maryland to complete an internship, Tagget, 21, who went by Kara, had just 11 credits left to graduate. Despite having dyslexia and ADD, she maintained a 4.0 GPA. In school, she was driven and determined, and with her friends she was devoted: She would ring up acquaintances just to check in if she hadn’t heard from them in a bit.

Her death was one of a staggering 1,100 suicides among college students that happen each year — and her legacy is now part of a traveling art project that aims to reduce that number.

Tagget's mom Sara learned about the Send Silence Packing project after Tagget's death, when she joined an art therapy group. Organized by Active Minds, a group dedicated to college suicide prevention, the project creates installations on college campuses, displaying 1,100 backpacks in public places.

Image: A backpack in memory of Kara Tagget is part of an exhibit called Send Silence Packing
Kara Tagget, a student at Michigan State University, killed herself in 2008. A backpack in her memory is now among 1,100 that are part of an exhibit called Send Silence Packing, which represents the number of college students killed by suicide each year. Courtesy of the Tagget family

“They showed me a completed backpack of someone who had done one, and the person had put stuff in it and decorated it,” Sara Tagget said.

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Though she’s “a crafty person,” she was too overwhelmed with grief to pay tribute to Kara with the donated backpack she got from the group, which sat in a corner of her house. But on the one-year anniversary of Kara’s death, friends and family pitched in and decorated the bag. They wrapped it in a T-shirt and spelled out with beads around the neck words that reminded them of Kara: “Funny,” “smile,” “great friend,” “sad.”

Today, the backpack travels the country as part of the Send Silence Packing project. The exhibit, which wrapped up for the season on Thursday, runs twice a year. Each backpack is decorated with a photo and bio of a student who has taken his or her own life.

Every year, Sara Tagget updates Kara’s backpack. One year, she decided she was ready to let go of some of Kara’s snowboarding gear, so the bag got gloves and goggles. Another year, she found some of her daughter’s pill bottles — Kara self-medicated for insomnia and headaches, though her mother says she also had an undiagnosed mood disorder — and filled the bag with those.

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“It is a living and breathing thing for me,” Tagget said. “I think of this as remembering my daughter, and showing these other kids that this person was a real person. This person could have been like you.”

Founded in 2003 by Alison Malmon, a then-junior at the University of Pennsylvania who lost her brother to suicide, Active Minds has 400 chapters, led by students, in high schools and colleges across the country. The installation traveled to 12 schools this fall, closing at the University of California, Riverside.

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The Send Silence Packing project continues to accept donated backpacks, and anyone whose life has been touched by suicide is encouraged to send their story to www.activeminds.org/shareyourstory.

Involvement in the project has helped Sara Tagget keep her daughter’s memory alive, but the pain will never ease.

“I was just really looking forward to the bond that I always wanted with my mother, where we’re always mother and daughter, but there’s this friendship, this deep friendship that kind of goes alongside being a parent,” she said. "I had that with her and I looked forward to so many more years, and you just don’t get that.”

If you are in crisis, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text BRAVE to 741-741. Visit Active Minds here and here for more resources and to get help.