USD group spreading suicide awareness

D.J. Smith knows that high school and college are not carefree days for many students.

University of South Dakota sophomores Erik Muckey (left) and D.J. Smith helped create the national, non-profit organization Lost and Found and its USD chapter. Smith serves as president and Muckey as treasurer for the group. (Photo by David Lias)

The University of South Dakota sophomore has seen the hopelessness felt by peers who have suffered depression or have attempted suicide.

I knew people who were hurting, who felt they had no place to go, he said. I helped them get out of a dark place in their lives.

Smith saw such episodes of depression and suicide while attending Mitchell High School. He saw more cases this past year as a USD freshman.

Smith did more than just lend an ear. He offered a helping hand that didnt stop with one person. His effort has grown from a Facebook page to a national, non-profit organization.

He founded the awareness group Lost and Found two years ago, while in high school. The organization grew out of his Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA) project that won first place at the state and national conventions.

In 2009, I got the idea of helping people who were struggling with suicide, he said. Originally we had 50 fans on Facebook. Then it jumped to 500 overnight. It seemed to happen randomly, and we werent sure why. We thought it had to be because of the FCCLA activity.

Lost and Found has received national FCCLA support as well as aid from Smiths USD fraternity, Phi Delta Theta. Smith has received requests to speak before students, including one school in Oklahoma.

The attention hasnt stopped, as news of Lost and Found has spread from coast to coast and even overseas.

Our number of Facebook friends jumped to about 3,600 by last February, he said. We even have Facebook friends in Great Britain who are following us.

Lost and Found doesnt pass religious or moral judgments regarding depression and suicide, Smith said. The organization offers support and creates awareness that people may be suffering from mental illness or a physical condition such as a chemical imbalance, he said.

Lost and Found receives donations and other funding, which provides free counseling and medication for those who are suffering from depression or considering suicide.

We also help with the expense of funerals for those who commit suicide and medical attention for those who attempted it, he said. More recently, I had a friends uncle who attempted suicide. Our organization helped with the medical expenses (resulting from the attempt).

Lost and Found reached a milestone when it became a non-profit corporation last fall. Smith received valuable assistance from his father, Mitchell attorney Patrick Smith, who helped the group draft its by-laws and articles of incorporation. The national organization actually came into existence before the USD chapter, which was formed during the past school year.

The organizations next step is a achieving 501(c)3 status so donations are tax deductible, D.J. Smith said. Thats especially important for people who want to donate large amounts, he said, expressing hope of receiving major contributions.

The needs are great across the nation, he said. Nationally, there are about 30,000 suicides annually. Someone commits suicide every 17 minutes, he said.

South Dakota is not immune from depression and suicide. In fact, studies show South Dakota is among a group of western states with a consistently higher suicide rate than the rest of the country.

Statistics show about 107 people die of suicide in South Dakota every year, calculating to one suicide every three or four days. Of that figure, about 12 teenagers one a month die of suicide in South Dakota.

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death in South Dakota for people 15-34, regardless of sex or race. The death rate of people ages 15-24 is twice as high in South Dakota as it is on average throughout the United States.

Lost and Found national treasurer Erik Muckey, a USD sophomore from Corsica, said college is not the popular image of a carefree life and endless parties. He has seen and experienced the pressure felt in a college atmosphere.

I saw a lot of freshmen who lacked experience in dealing with college. They had problems with everyday life. Even at a smaller university, you felt like you were on your own, he said.

People were worried about classes, their grades, jobs, social connections and peer pressure. Some had problems with drugs and alcohol or other underlying issues. And then it became even more stressful during finals week.

Besides the USD chapter, Lost and Found has received contacts from Nebraska, Michigan and New York schools interested in starting similar programs. Chapters could be started for both high schools and colleges.

Lost and Found works with the USD counseling center and advisor Tiffany Kashas, Muckey said. We are trying to get the word out that we are on campus and there are places to go for help, he said.

Often, students dont think they can admit their depression or suicidal thoughts, Muckey said.

People think its shameful, but its not shameful, he said. Its a fact of life people get depressed.

Nikkis Fund

As part of its mission, Lost and Found works with Nikkis Fund, a campus-based organization that supports suicide prevention programs and medication needs for USD students.

Nikkis Fund was founded in memory of Nicole Vallie Harris, who committed suicide in 2005. She is the daughter of Janine Harris, manager of the Al Neuharth Media Center on the USD campus.

Janine Harris said she welcomes the formation of Lost and Found and its rapid growth.

These young people are fantastic. Sometimes, students relate better to their peers, she said. I just want, in any way we can, to get the message out and offer support to people who are struggling. Its not something that people want to talk about.

Young people arent the only ones struggling with the topic of suicide, Harris said.

There was a woman I met whose father committed suicide in the 1980s, and she still wasnt able to talk about it, she said. The poor woman has a lot to carry, a lot of anger.

Smith, the Lost and Found president, has attended Nikkis Fund meetings, Harris said.

We are separate organizations, but we have the same mission and share the same goals. We support each other, she said. I think Lost and Found is wonderful. Im so glad to see anything you can do to prevent or reduce suicide or let students know where they can go to get help.

In her position with the Freedom Forum Diversity Institute, Harris works with American Indians in journalism. She sees the high suicide rate among Indians, particularly on the reservations.

Studies show young Indian males die of suicide at four to five times the rate, on average, of young white males in South Dakota.

Harris has scheduled a Sept. 7 campus visit by Eric Marcus, author of the book, Why Suicide? She is also attempting to organize a panel discussion featuring Marcus, suicide survivors and family members who are left behind after a suicide.

Harris welcomes working with Lost and Found as well as churches and community organizations.

Were not here to judge, she said. People are opening up, and the Vermillion community has shown its support. Its overwhelming.

Charting The Future

In many ways, Smith said he welcomes the summer break. He spent 40 hours a week during the school year on Lost and Found on top of his classes and his student government and fraternity activities.

Smith and the other Lost and Found members are using the summer to plan the organizations future. Should Smith remain national president, he plans to give up the USD position.

But some things wont change. The USD chapter wants to continue holding weekly meetings, which have drawn 20 to 30 students. The board wants to work more with churches and community resources.

And Lost and Found will stick with its three main themes: pay it forward, others are struggling and youre not alone, and help is possible.

Both Smith and Muckey said Lost and Found has changed their lives. However, Smith said he feels mixed emotions.

I am frustrated because there is so much more to do, and we have only so many hands to do it, he said. I am determined to get there (and reach our goal). I am proud that there are so many people who have come together. And Im a little scared.

A political science and English double major, Smith said he doesnt fit the stereotypical psychology or sociology major working with depression and suicide. However, he feels a calling to Lost and Found as his lifes work.

I have been driven to tears by the stories I have seen. Its a matter of pay it forward, he said. I want this to be the rest of my life, to grow and help people who want to change the world.

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