EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the latest in a series of stories related to National Mental Health Awareness Month.
SIOUX FALLS — In May 2014, Erik Muckey seemed to have it all as a graduate student at the University of South Dakota at Vermillion.
He arrived on campus as a freshman with an almost full scholarship. He became very involved in high-level professional and student organizations, and he served as student body president.
Additionally, he co-founded a student mental health organization known as Lost&Found, which works to prevent suicide among young adults between the ages of 15 and 34. A group of five USD friends formed the group, which later became a non-profit organization.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself to succeed and be a part of a lot of things,” he told Press & Dakotan, noting that he didn’t realize the burnout and social anxiety that he was experiencing. were accompanying.
Muckey did not see himself as someone who would suffer from anxiety and depression, leading to suicidal thoughts. He considered himself blessed with his supportive family and friends as well as many professional connections.
But at graduation, Muckey felt an incredible darkness and a sense of loss. He had no job, he was leaving the formal academic setting and success he had known, and his friends were spreading across the country.
He began to wonder what his life meant – and if it was even worth living.
He suffered from depression and anxiety, as well as thoughts of suicide almost daily. He never planned or attempted suicide, but realized he needed support from two sources: his diary and his work with Lost&Found.
Dennis “DJ” Smith of Mitchell was one of the USD students who formed Lost&Found in 2010. “DJ had lost a friend to suicide while in high school, and he wanted to do something to make a difference. “Muckey said.
Smith had worked on the subject as part of an FCCLA project in high school, and he wanted to take it to the next level at USD. Muckey joined the effort under the encouragement of his friend.
Muckey didn’t realize his own exhaustion and unresolved grief over the deaths of loved ones, he told the Lost & Found website. He didn’t see himself dealing with mental health issues, as the subject rarely arose while he was growing up in his small hometown.
“Things just kept going downhill, it seemed, and I couldn’t imagine living with that kind of pain anymore,” he said. “I didn’t create a plan or attempt suicide, but I kept a diary of how I felt. When I read what I was writing, something snapped inside me for a moment.
In his Lost&Found post, Muckey described that feeling.
“After spending the last four years on the Lost&Found first team and supporting families who had lost loved ones to suicide, I realized how bad I was and knew immediately that I needed help,” he said. “For a moment of lucidity, I couldn’t imagine the pain I would have caused my family and friends if I hadn’t received the help I needed.
Muckey sought professional help starting in the summer of 2014, calling it a “godsend” that brought him great advantage in reclaiming his life. He moved to the Twin Cities and earned his graduate degrees at the University of Minnesota.
Also in 2014, Smith stepped down from his Lost & Found leadership role and Muckey took over as chairman of the organization’s board of directors.
While in college, Muckey enjoyed city life and found success in the Twin Cities. However, he felt drawn to South Dakota and moved to Sioux Falls for personal and professional reasons.
Fast forward to today, where Muckey is executive director of Lost&Found. The nonprofit has grown far beyond its beginnings at USD and South Dakota State University in Brookings.
“We serve 13 post-secondary institutions from the Twin Cities to the Wyoming border,” he said. “We have expanded our services a lot, especially during the pandemic.”
The organization’s footprint isn’t the only thing that has grown since its founding in 2010, Muckey said. He highlighted the successes of tackling what was often an unknown or taboo subject.
“I think the biggest change that has happened in the last 12 years is the awareness of the need to invest in mental health. There’s a growing awareness that it’s a good thing (to fix it),” he said.
“There is a lot more acceptance to talk about it. The subject is there, for better or for worse, and there has never been so much concentration and discovery.
Challenges remain at all levels, but some groups are experiencing even greater difficulties, Muckey said. Lost&Found discovered a disproportionate suicide rate among Native Americans and LGBTQ communities.
“Native American communities face decades, if not centuries, of historical trauma in addition to their current economic and social challenges,” he said. “And the LGBT community, especially transgender people, face a lot of public policy efforts directed at them, giving them the message that they’re not wanted or valued.”
The pandemic has also seen an acceleration in addiction, social media use (including bullying) and other challenges, he said.
Despite advances in awareness, many people are still uncomfortable talking about suicide or seeking help for themselves or others, Muckey said. Also, the available resources have improved over the past 12 years, but still lag far behind the growing demand.
“We have not yet developed a system or enough professionals in this field to meet the demand. It remains a missing link,” he said. “We must also continue to raise awareness. We need to think big and keep working with our health systems. We have not grown enough to meet the needs.
Also over the past 12 years, Muckey has seen mental health issues rise dramatically.
“It’s very clear, especially with the pandemic, that the rate of reported depression and anxiety has skyrocketed and continues to remain very high,” he said. “Students have remained isolated for the past two years. They were learning online at home rather than with others in the classroom, and they weren’t socializing or participating in activities with others.
Many schools have stepped up their mental health offerings and Lost&Found is looking to provide a support network. The organization has 10 employees and receives public and private funding for its operating budget.
Lost&Found has stepped up its work with the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference (NSIC), which is made up of NCAA Division II schools in five states.
Additionally, the organization has also had conversations with the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, Muckey said. “The U de M has a different setting from other colleges in the region. You have an urban setting with a diverse population of 80,000 students, which is larger than many small towns,” he said.
Regardless of school size or location, students face many of the same challenges, Muckey said. He sees huge opportunities for growth and meeting the need for more mental health professionals and services, including more community programs.
Muckey plans to continue his role with Lost&Found. He knows the impact of the organization from his own experiences.
“I know it’s important to have access to help and to know that it’s okay to ask for it,” he said. “If I didn’t have the resources I have, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
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