By Leigh Cesanek
Students throughout campus came together to talk about suicide awareness and prevention in a series of events from Monday, April 27 through Friday, May 1 in the first ever TCNJ Cares Week. The week was an opportunity for students to participate in conversations about mental health and the importance of giving mental health issues priority in the everyday lives of students.
The College hosted its first TCNJ Cares Week with events that included spreading messages of hope throughout campus on flowerpots and in the Student Center, public speakers, a campus walk, an exhibit and small group discussions.
“The one thing that I wanted to achieve this week was to get the campus community talking,” said Stephanie Menakis, a senior management and psychology double major and a member of the TCNJ Cares Team. “I think that’s the first step in making a true difference in our community.”
Menakis lost her brother, Michael Menakis, a freshman on the College’s basketball team, who tragically took his own life last year in April 2014.
The Lions’ Walk for Hope on Friday, May 1, became the largest ever walk for suicide awareness to take place on a college campus, according to the TCNJ Cares Team. The Walk for Hope concluded the week with a procession around the loop on campus and a balloon release.
The previous record for a suicide awareness walk for on a college campus had been below 500 people, and on Friday, the Care Team ran out of 500 balloons to hand out to all the students in attendance.
Menakis began the Walk for Hope with a speech about her personal involvement with the mental health cause by sharing a story about her brother, Michael.
“In the past year, I learned a few things,” Menakis explained about suicide and mental health. “People tend to generalize someone who is suicidal,” she said, when in reality, it can be anyone.
“People also don’t know how to talk about suicide,” Menakis said. “I wasn’t prepared for the ignorance that also exists.”
She emphasized how important it is to be someone to turn to and to be someone for others to confide in.
“Seeking help shows strength,” Menakis said. “I urge you all to be an ally.” Following the walk around campus, balloons were released in honor of those who were lost to suicide. The display also honored those who personally struggle and those who show support and act as an ally to the cause.
On Tuesday, April 28, Active Minds put on the Send Silence Packing exhibit as part of TCNJ Cares Week. The display featured 1,100 backpacks strewn across the Green Hall Lawn, representing college students who commit suicide every year. Some backpacks had small biographies or messages from loved ones.
Students stopped by to read and digest the display, according to Sarah Perry, president of Active Minds and a junior psychology major.
“At least 1,000 people stopped by today,” she said. Perry also said that many students commented on the display’s impact.
TCNJ Cares Week kicked off on Monday, April 27, with “What Do You Care About?” sponsored by To Write Love on Arms TCNJ UChapter, where students wrote inspiring quotes and messages, such as “You are beautiful!” that were displayed on the Path of Hope in the Student Center.
On Monday night, Jordan Burnham, a public speaker and mental health advocate shared his experiences with depression and suicide to stimulate the conversation within the college community.
As Burnham recounted his suicide attempt in detail and his eventual decision to share his story with news organizations, he remembered thinking: “I never want anyone to be in the position I’m in now.”
His purpose now in speaking and advocating, Burnham explained, is to motivate others to have a healthy emotional balance, develop healthy coping mechanisms and to “continue the conversation, making mental health relevant on your campus.”
Deborah Wu, a senior accounting major who attended the speech, said, “It’s important so that the people who are struggling know that they aren’t going through it alone.”
Justin Shaffer, a senior biology major, who was also in attendance, explained the importance of speaking out,
“The people out there who are trying to get the point across publicly make it OK for people on a private level to talk about it,” Shaffer said.
The Wellness League put on a peer-led discussion called TCNJ Connect Tuesday night. The League’s co-founder and leader Derek Giannone, a psychology major with a clinical counseling specialization, opened up the event by explaining that the organization’s purpose is to “make TCNJ a more emotionally involved place.”
Personal conversations took place among students who had never known each other previously. Students discussed ideas to make the College a better community as well as ways to prevent suicide on campus.
On Wednesday, April 29, students dressed in purple and yellow, showing support for suicide awareness, and posted selfies to Instagram with #ICareTCNJ, tagging friends they care about.
Counseling and Psychological Services’ Peer Educators set up a table in Alumni Grove for students to decorate flower pots with messages of hope to “Plant Positivity” on Thursday, April 30.
The TCNJ Cares Team included: Menakis, Shap Bahary, Ryan Molicki, Rebecca Morrissey, Mariagrazia Buttitta, Kelsey Capestro, Dane West, Ryan Cleary, Angela Lauer Chong, Elizabeth Gallus and Kelly Hennessey.
TCNJ Cares Week touched many people on campus.
“I was blown away by the number of emails, Facebook messages or just people stopping me this week to thank the TCNJ Cares Team for organizing this week of events — how much it personally meant to them and how much it has the potential to affect the community,” Menakis said. “Our team always said if we impact one person by the end of the week then we accomplished our goal and I would love to believe that we did just that.”