Purple Flags on Miller Lawn: Colby Commemorates Suicide Prevention Month

By Lutie Brown

Peter Brown | The Colby Echo

This past week, Colby’s Active Minds club placed 1,100 purple flags around Miller Lawn to symbolize the number of self-inflicted deaths recorded each year across U.S. college campuses. Active Minds began the project last September to raise awareness for Suicide Prevention Month, after then-Presidents Vanessa Warshaw ’18 and Maddie Taylor ’19 first came up with the idea. “We thought that the display was extremely powerful, so we repeated the event this year in hopes of continuing an open conversation about the reality of suicide prevalence among college students,” Kaitlin McManus ’20 said in a recent interview with the Echo.

Club members put the flags up last Monday evening and took them down midday Friday. The entire month of September is Suicide Prevention Month, but Taylor explained to the Echo that she chose to put the flags up near the end of the month to ensure that new members could be involved in the planning and installing process. Taylor elected to only leave them up for a few days “Because we feel that is enough time to ensure that most members of campus have had the opportunity to see the display.” She also wanted to leave the shared space of Miller lawn open to the community for rest and recreation.

Taylor explained in an email that, according to a 2016 CDC statistic, more than 41,000 lives are lost to suicide each year in the United States, up more than 30% from the rate in 1999.

“According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the month is a time to ‘share stories and resources in an effort to shed light on a highly taboo and stigmatized topic’” Taylor said. “We support the campaign with the hopes of sparking conversations about mental health on campus and encouraging students staff faculty and other members of our community to check in with themselves and their friends/loved ones to ensure that people aren’t struggling alone and that they are connected with the proper resources when they need them.”

Active Minds members set up a table in the Spa last Thursday and Friday, Sept. 27 and 28, to provide community members with resource sheets put together by the national non-profit Active Minds Organization. They distributed information regarding suicide both on campuses and in the entire country, as well as information on warning signs of suicidal thoughts and depression and ways to de-stress.

The club also provided supplies for writing cards, letters, and notes of appreciation to friends and loved ones. “Even something as small as that improves connection and lets other people know that you are here for them if they are struggling. We’re hoping that small gestures and events like this will begin to break down the stigma surrounding talking about mental health and reaching out to others and being connected and vulnerable about these issues,” Taylor said.

Fellow members echoed this sentiment. “During this month of suicide awareness, we really just wanted students to know that they are not alone,” McManus said.

However, Taylor still believes that there is much left to be done regarding mental well-being on campus. “I think that mental health is currently not being addressed well enough at Colby,” Taylor said. “In my last three years here, I’ve seen so many friends and others struggle silently with and feel alienated and ashamed of mental health issues.”

Taylor feels that there is not enough conversation about the topic among the student body, and hopes that students and staff members continue to receive training on facilitating conversation, recognizing basic warning signs, and knowing how to reach out to others for both yourself and those you care about. Despite this, Taylor commends the many people leading initiatives through Active Minds and Student Health On Campus (SHOC) to improve the climate around mental health. Active Minds also looks forward to collaborating with a new club on campus, Hope Happens Here, which works on promoting mental health awareness among student-athletes.

Active Minds has already partnered with the Counseling Center and the Student Athletics Advisory Committee (SAAC) to provide mental health training to athletes on campus. A few years ago, Counseling Services implemented a program called “Notice and Connect”–a peer-facilitated program led by a member of Counseling Services and a student peer-leader. the program provides Colby community members with the skills needed to notice when peers may be struggling with a mental health concern, and teaches them how to reach out and connect the person with resources, Taylor said.

Taylor is the sole student peer-leader facilitating the “Notice and Connect” conversations as of now, but hopes that interested students reach out to her via email. “The sessions have been going well so far, and are a means of starting conversations around mental health and providing students with the skills, resources, and confidence they need to notice and connect with others around mental health issues.”

Further, Taylor says that as a member of the Student Government Association (SGA) Executive Board, “I have been able to see the sincere desire of members of administration to improve the climate surrounding mental health.” Taylor will also head a working group regarding general student health in the near future: “I hope to get some kind of mental health training incorporated into freshman orientation or the first few weeks of freshman fall, potentially having the ‘Notice and Connect’ training become a first year requirement in the way that sexual violence prevention training is.”

McManus explained that Active Minds meets and holds events around once a month as they work to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health disorders through raising awareness and normalizing conversation about the topic. The club’s next project will be tabling in the Spa with Hope Happens Here from Oct. 7–13 for Mental Health Awareness Week.

Active Minds also brings in a speaker each spring to address mental health, hosts regular tabling during National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, and delivers student written cards with encouraging and optimistic words to teen inpatients in a psychiatric hospital.

The club additionally hopes to have a month-long project to promote de-stressing. “I like to go for a run, drink tea, or call my mom to destress. For other people, it might look like going for a walk, doing something artistic, listening to music, or doing yoga or meditation. It’s up to individuals to decide what works best for them,” Taylor said.

McManus and Taylor encourage students to email krmcma20@colby.edu, mataylor@colby.edu, or hjahrl21@ colby.edu if interested in joining Active Minds.

Active Minds hopes that community members “take the time to check in with yourself and others,” and provides the following resources:

Garrison-Foster Counseling Services: 207–859–4490

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1–800–273–8255