SIOUX FALLS, SD (KELO) — September is Suicide Prevention Awareness month, a time when focus is drawn upon education and prevention of suicide. According to the South Dakota Department of Health (DOH), in 2020 the state saw 185 suicide deaths, the second highest amount ever recorded.

Tweet from the South Dakota Dept. of Health

To get a closer look at the subject of suicide prevention, KELOLAND News spoke with Lost & Found, an organization that is, in the words of its CEO and Executive Director Erik Muckey, a comprehensive suicide prevention organization focused on young adults.

Part of Lost & Found’s mission is to build ‘resilient communities.’

“What it means for us to build resilient communities is for us to think about the ecosystems that allow us to prevent suicide in our communities,” said Muckey.

This, he said, involves making sure people have the tools they need to actually discuss the issue of suicide and how it impacts the community.

“When it comes to programs,” said Muckey, “our bread and butter has been working with post-secondary campuses to launch what we’ve called Lost & Found campus chapters where students are able to advocate for their peers, share educational resources and materials, and work closely with counseling centers and partners in the community to make sure folks are getting help.”

Advocacy is paramount to suicide prevention in Muckey’s view.

“The most important step we can take when it comes to mental health and suicide, first and foremost, is to be able to talk about,” he said. “Because mental health and suicide are often issues of the heart and mind — it’s really important for us to have that very public presence.”

To be able to have those conversations and be able to ask the right questions to know if somebody is struggling and needs help, and then to think about the system at large and say ‘how do I get help’ and ‘how do I understand what resources are available’, — it’s important because we need to be able, as individuals, to navigate a very complex system, and when people are struggling most, they may not have the tools to do it on their own.

Erik Muckey, Lost & Found

Muckey, reflecting on the 185 suicide deaths in 2020, cited a handful of contributing challenges, some of the biggest of which he said have stemmed from COVID-19.

“It’s difficult to understate the impact economically,” he said. “I think we still understate what that time away, and especially the recovery coming away from periods of unemployment, can do to people.”

Muckey also notes that this impact is not all in the past.

“I also think the biggest thing that we know from literature and from the studies around pandemics is that the impact in terms of mental health will last much longer than we would expect.”

As part of their work for National Suicide Prevention month, Lost & Found launched their 30 Days 30 Stories campaign, a digital storytelling project. The point of the project is “to show South Dakotans and Midwesterners in general what resilience looks like.” Muckey says the project allows them to share stories of hope and of people who have overcome mental health challenges and suicide ideation.

“The reason of us doing that campaign was really to change some of the narratives we see, especially for young adults,” said Muckey. “To say ‘it doesn’t have to be stigmatized; it doesn’t have to be something that’s a silent issue that you have to struggle with.’ It’s important to know that there are other people who have gone through what you might be experiencing right now and know that there is hope on the other side.”

Hope was a recurring theme in our interview, despite what can be seen as a bleak subject matter.

“The hope behind Lost & Found,” said Muckey, “is the fact that we know resilience is learned.” What this means is that Lost & Found holds the view that protective factors against suicide can be learned.

“That’s where you start to find hope,” said Muckey. “The hope that we share is that resilience is shared by everybody.”

To someone who may be dealing with suicidal thoughts, Muckey says the most important thing for them to know is that there is hope, and there is opportunity to get the support they need. To those who think someone in their life may be struggling, he has a request: “Please ask the question and be blunt about it.”

“Do not shy away from asking if someone is considering suicide and get to know the resources that are available and stick with them to getting them the support that they need,” said Muckey.

He goes on to say that people who are concerned should be asking about it.

“It’s not wrong to ask,” he said. “It’s also important to keep in mind that that person is probably struggling with a weight that is difficult for them to carry, and it’s important to not stigmatize and not blame them for feeling the way that they feel.”

Muckey says that validating the feelings of the person struggling is also important. If you feel that you or someone you know may be struggling and you would like to talk to them but are not sure how, you can find a guide to mental health on the Lost & Found website, along with Lost & Found’s ‘Tough conversations: How to speak with someone considering suicide.’

In furtherance of raising awareness, Muckey recommends getting to know the organizations active within the state. Ones he mentioned specifically include the 211 Helpline Center, NAMI South Dakota and Empire Mental Health, as well as Avera Behavioral Health, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention South Dakota Chapter and Survivors Joining for Hope.

Muckey also encourages people to get to know the State Prevention Task Force in order to get an idea of what they do and what resources are made available by the state.

According to Muckey, efforts to stem suicide can be broken down into three categories: prevention, intervention and postvention. Prevention, he says, is front-end work while intervention gets into the area of the helpline center and other types of crisis phone lines.

Postvention, said Muckey, is the hardest part, as well as the one least thought about. “You’re talking about somebody who might be returning from an inpatient behavioral health stay, or somebody who’s experienced a suicide loss and the grief that can come along with that,” he said.

“Suicide is something that impacts people in ways you may not expect,” said Muckey. “It’s important for us to keep in mind that we need each other to talk about conversations like suicide. We also need to understand that we can actively work each day to build resilience.”

This work is an uphill battle.

“The trend-line has been upward for some time,” he continued. “The full impact of the pandemic on suicide in South Dakota is still unknown, and we are going to be grappling with this for years to come so it’s important for us to be diligent and understand that we do have a high number of suicides in the state of South Dakota — the risk for suicide related to depression, anxiety and other factors is higher than it probably ever has been.”

Despite these odds, the ever present theme of hope remained in Muckey’s outlook for the future.

“I have hope that we can build an ecosystem that will reduce suicide. I think it’s going to take a lot of effort and a lot of investment and conversation; with individuals; with families; with friends, peers; but also with larger policy discussions about how we treat mental health in the United States and in South Dakota — what gives me hope in South Dakota is there are a lot of stakeholders — there are new resources coming into the state — there is new direction and new optimism and conversation happening that has not happened before, and that gives me hope.”

Erik Muckey, Lost & Found

If you or someone you know is experiencing a crisis, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.