SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — Sacramento State President Robert Nelsen and his wife are talking about the day that changed their lives forever—the day their son Seth committed suicide.
Behind each of the backpacks is a story of someone who was loved—one of the 2,100 students who die from suicide in the United States every year.
"He had the biggest heart, he reached out. He was always the one that everyone went to," Robert Nelsen said.
April 8, 2001 is a day that Robert and Jody Nelsen will never forget. It was the day their 25-year-old son Seth committed suicide. It was the day the police knocked on the door.
"It was to tell me that they had found him, some people had seen him, he hung himself," he said.
Jody was on a business trip in Florida.
"He called me, it was late at night, and I was in the hotel room, and I just kept saying 'No, no, no.' that's all I could say," she said.
The Nelsens, like many people who lose a loved one to suicide, were shocked.
"Seth lived in the town next to us, had his own apartment, good job, seemed to be doing very well," she said.
He had bouts with depression, but the Nelsens say he was improving.
"Every indication we had was that while he had struggled as a teenager and had been hospitalized a couple of times, that he had moved on and was doing well," she said.
Seth had hobbies, friends and plans.
"These are when he got his black belt," she said. "He found structure in it."
But on that April day, Seth didn't give them the one thing they may have needed the most—he didn't leave a note or a reason why.
"I don't think it's something he planned," she said. "I think it was an impulse, and it just breaks my heart because I think he would have had a wonderful life."
Seth is not alone. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 117 people die by suicide every day. It's the third leading cause of death among young people aged 15 to 24.
"For me, it's been a struggle," Robert Nelsen said. "It's a struggle to accept that this is what happened and I feel like if I don't accept this because it was his choice, if I don't accept it, I don't honor him."
A struggle for each of them personally, and as a couple.
"It was hard. The statistics are that 60 to 80 percent of couples get a divorce. Jody has always been my best friend; it was hard," he said. "You look at each other, and you don't know how to talk. You don't know what to say, and you're both grieving and when there's that much grief in the house that's hard."
But they persevered, staying together and working through their daily grief. They then made a major life decision, leaving their Texas home for a new start in California 16 months ago at Sacramento State University.
"When people ask us, do we have any children, our answer is always 30,600 children," he said. "It's very personal, when at orientation when the parents come, I said 'Moms and Dads we'll take care of the, they are no longer yours, they are mine.'"
When the Nelsens came to campus, they made it a mission to protect the lives of the students there, taking an active role in suicide prevention and mental health counseling for their Hornet family.
Sacramento State holds a Take Back The Night event, a suicide prevention walk, and the Nelsens have established programs in Seth's name to help students through hardships.
"It's important to know that we have counselors that know how to take care of these things and do help all the time," he said. "We have faculty that really do care and will be there for you. We've got staff and student affairs; there's so many advisors that can help and will help you."
As they continue their mission, the Nelsens have a message for anyone who is struggling with suicidal thoughts.
"It might be hard now, and it might continue to be hard, but life is worth living," Jody Nelsen said. "You don't know what's out there for you and you're going to miss out on so much. Taking your own life will devastate the people that love you and you don't want to put them through that."
Behind each of the backpacks is a story, a story of someone who lose their life to suicide.
"A young man came up to me and hugged me, and I hugged him back," Robert Nelsen said. "He had lost his father two days before, but he wanted to come out and see the backpacks.
It's a story of someone who was loved, who is loved, and who will always be loved—something Nelsen doesn't want you to forget.
"There's someone out there that loves you," he said.
Mental health experts remind you to watch for the signs, changes in daily life, behavior, personal hygiene and eating habits.
If you see those signs, or you are feeling suicidal, get help immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255.
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