Suicide continues to take the lives of South Dakota teens and young adults at an alarming rate, but mental health advocates are mobilizing communities to put an end to the epidemic.

D.J. Smith and Erik Muckey are two advocates who have been on a mission to raise awareness for mental health and suicide prevention over the past decade, particularly among the state’s teenagers and young adults.

That is because suicide is the second-leading cause of death among South Dakotans in between the ages of 15 and 34. The South Dakota natives share a passion to help students and young adults find effective ways to overcome depression, anxiety and other mental health problems, which inspired them to create a nonprofit organization that's impacting the lives of many young adults known as Lost&Found. What was once a small Facebook group has now become an organization that's raising awareness toward suicide and mental illness.

It’s fitting the Lost&Found organization celebrated its 10th year anniversary in early September, which is National Suicide and Prevention Month. The organization is made up of a team of mental health advocates who help college students overcome depression or other mental health issues. Lost&Found has student-led chapters at five college campuses in the state, including University of South Dakota, South Dakota State University, University of Sioux Falls, Dakota Wesleyan University and Augustana University.

“We started as a group of teenagers who wanted to make a difference and try to find ways to provide resources for teens and young adults who were struggling with mental health. And it really has evolved now to the point of focusing on resilience and recognizing everyone has these struggles, but it is being resilient in the face of them that creates a big impact,” Smith said.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

The youth aren’t the only demographic affected by suicide at an increased rate, as South Dakota has seen about a 33% increase in total suicides from 2010 to 2019, according to the state’s Department of Health. In 2018, there were a total of 168 suicide deaths in the state, which increased to 185 in 2019. In the past decade stretching from 2010 to 2019, the state saw more than 1,500 suicides across all age groups.

The Lost&Found organization has grown significantly in the past decade, reaching over 500,000 young adults through their social media page, which Muckey emphasized is confidential for those seeking help. Muckey said destigmatizing mental health and bringing more people to the discussion table about the severity of suicide are some of the biggest challenges

Smith founded the organization through a project for Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA) while the Mitchell native was in high school. That’s also how he met Muckey, who is now CEO of Lost&Found. Although Smith is no longer leading the organization, he is proud of the growth Muckey has facilitated in the past few years.

Muckey, a Corsica native, can attest to personal experience with depression and anxiety. But he found out seeking the right help and resources was unfamiliar territory. That’s what Muckey has been striving to address with Lost&Found.

“What is troublesome in places like home in South Dakota is the experience of seeking help just isn't a common experience,” Muckey said. “I think it’s something we just haven’t learned. When I was going to school in Corsica, I didn’t know where to go for help.”

Breaking through to students

At DWU, Anne Kelly has witnessed the impact of Lost&Found’s campus chapter, which has been in existence for a year. As a behavioral sciences and psychology professor at DWU, Kelly said the campus chapter has engaged students in the importance of mental health.

“Lost&Found offers something truly unique, and the presence of chapters on campus combined with the research we conduct allows us to get a feel for the campus climate of mental health,” said Kelly, who also serves as the board president for DWU’s chapter. “Our student organizations become evidence-based organizations. It allows us to ensure the programming we’re doing truly meets the needs of the students we serve on campus.”

So what’s the root cause of South Dakota’s high suicide rate among teens and young adults? Kelly said the rural nature of the state, paired with a lack of resources, plays a big role in the state’s suicide rate, especially among younger males.

“There is a cultural stigma, and a statewide stigma around mental health. When we look at the rural environments, the stigma around mental health is much bigger and more powerful than the stigma we see in urban environments,” Kelly said. “In urban environments, seeking help is something people are taught to do, and they also have more access to mental health resources than people in rural, isolated areas.”

Smith pointed to gender norms that have been woven into society as a crippling barrier that keeps many men from opening up about any internal struggles they may be facing. Males accounted for 78% of the suicides in South Dakota from 2010 to 2019. Throughout the same time span, the suicide rate for Native Americans was 2.5 times higher than all ethnicities.

“It can be tough to be able to open up and talk about that when we live in a society where men don’t really talk about their emotions because that’s just the way things are,” Smith said.

“I struggled a lot myself with mental health, and I had really bad anxiety. I think the stigma that comes with mental health is a big preventer from people getting the help they need. Getting people to realize that having feelings does not make someone weak is important,” Smith said.

COVID-19 affecting mental health, suicidal thoughts

Roswitha Konz is one of several local counselors who has been on the front lines of the mental health crisis in the midst of COVID-19, and she’s responded to several suicide-related emergency calls as a result of the pandemic. Konz, clinical director of Dakota Counseling in Mitchell, said the team of counselors have responded to 184 after hour emergency mental health evaluations as of mid-September.

“We’ve certainly had clients that had to be hospitalized for increased suicidal ideation,” Konz said. “The virus has increased the demand for our services all the way around such as alcohol and drug use as well.”

Although South Dakota’s coronavirus response has been less restrictive than most states, the economic hardships that have resulted from the pandemic have hit the area. Konz said a majority of the suicide-related calls stem from job losses and social isolation, which have both been devastating consequences of the virus.

“We have seen people losing income, and maybe a delay of getting unemployment insurance, which delay can push people over the edge,” Konz said of the economic stressors. “The social disconnectedness is really affecting people. People aren’t able to just drop in and see a friend like they were used to, which has also affected our younger generation. When you have these stressors coming from both sides, economic and social, at some point they reach a boiling point.”