Exchange Helping Students Cope

In this photo, University of South Dakota graduate Erik Muckey poses in Yankton S.D. Muckey recently returned to campus for a “Lost & Found” board meeting. The organization seeks to help college students with mental health needs and suicide prevention.

YANKTON, S.D. — As a University of South Dakota freshman, Erik Muckey was asked to help college students dealing with depression and suicide.

Muckey’s involvement started in 2010 at the request of fellow USD freshman Dennis “D.J.” Smith, who was affected by the issue.

“D.J. had lost a friend to suicide while he was in high school, and he wanted to do something to make a difference,” Muckey told the Yankton Daily Press and Dakotan. “We went to different high schools — I’m from Corsica and D.J. is from Mitchell — but became friends. When he asked, I agreed to help him in founding an organization. Along with others, we started the Lost & Found Association on the USD campus.”

The organization initially provided outreach and connecting students with resources. In addition, the organization raised funds to cover the cost of medication and counseling for college students.

Lost & Found also seeks to shine a light on the issue, Muckey said.

“The game has changed. More than 40,000 people die by suicide every year,” he said. “Suicides are the most prevalent they have been in the last 30 to 40 years. There are more suicides, and there is also better reporting of it.”

Within the larger figure, more than 100 young adults (ages 15-24) die by suicide each day in the United States. Currently, suicide is the second leading cause of death for that age group.

At first, Muckey admitted he didn’t fully understand mental health needs.

“I had never had any experiences with anxiety or depression,” he said.

But that situation changed during his senior year.

“For most college students, the freshman year is the hardest because you’re transitioning into college and adjusting to that atmosphere. You can feel so lonely,” he said. “But for me, the senior year was worst. It was much harder than my freshman year.”

During his final year at USD, Muckey experienced multiple pressures. He was serving as Student Government Association president, completing his bachelor’s degree and seeking to enter a highly competitive program in graduate school.

Those stressors were compounded by his driven nature.

“You ask people around me, and they’ll say I’m really hard on myself. I want everything to be just right,” he said.

Muckey became more task-driven, devoting less time to socializing and connecting with others. He felt overwhelmed and battled depression.

He found the help he needed from both his family and a professional. The experience provided him with additional insight into college students facing mental health issues.

Young adults need to stay connected with others and find balance, he said.

“Basically, what it means is having a good life,” he said. “We have our family and friends, but we also have a relationship with a higher being or something spiritual.”

Through the years, Lost & Found has established chapters at USD and South Dakota State University in Brookings, serving nearly 25,000 students.

At one time, the organization had a chapter at Dakota State University in Madison, but the school’s enrollment of about 3,300 students didn’t work as well for the model, Muckey said.

Lost & Found focuses on campus mental health in three key areas: student engagement, campus counseling center support and resources, and training and advocacy.

However, the organization faced a pivotal moment in 2014.

The seven board members — six from USD and one from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln — were all graduating from college. In addition, Smith was entering the Peace Corps and serving in Tanzania.

At that point, Muckey decided to keep Lost & Found moving forward, or at least in existence.

“The decision was whether we were going to continue or let the chapters go their own ways,” he said. “At the time, I didn’t feel comfortable being vice president, so I jumped in as president and took over the board. We’re an umbrella organization for both campus chapters. “

After graduation, Muckey worked in Sioux Falls. In 2016, the organization achieved 501©3 status, bolstering its future.

Muckey became executive director of Lost & Found. He remained active with the organization after moving to the Twin Cities nearly two years ago for graduate school at the University of Minnesota. In addition, he founded and serves as managing partner of the PASQ company working with rural development.

His graduate work consists of a dual master’s program. He studies rural development and policy at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. He also studies entrepreneurial management at the Carlson School of Management’s MBA program.

Recently, Muckey was named a 2019 Sands Fellow at the Carlson School of Management. Through the $5,000 fellowship, he will seek to build new partnerships and programs that will bring Lost & Found to Minnesota and strengthen its existing programs in South Dakota.

The number of students battling anxiety, depression and other mental health issues has skyrocketed in recent years, Muckey said.

“Nationwide, the number of college students seeking campus counseling centers rose 30 percent in the last five years, while the student population grew by only 5 percent. There is a great disparity there,” he said.

“Campus counseling centers are nationwide saying they are seeing a tremendous increase in the usage of services. What else do we need to do?”

Why is there a soaring rise in mental health needs?

“Right here,” Muckey said, holding up his smartphone. “You have to be mindful of it. A lot of students are unable to unplug. Their phone is always turned on. They’re always tied into their phone. It’s very easy to feel as if you’re in a culture where you have to deliver constantly and move on to the next thing.”

Social media has also changed the definition of “friend,” Muckey said.

“It’s no substitute for face-to-face communication. It can leave us more isolated from others if we rely on our Facebook friends,” he said. “In many ways, social experiences are becoming more foreign to college students.”

Social media can also lead to more online bullying and an obsession with an online and phone “image” or “brand.”

In addition, college students feel heightened expectations and that they always need to have a plan for every aspect of their future, he said.

Muckey offers other thoughts on the rising numbers.

“My feeling is that, on college campuses, more students are seeing where to go (for help),” he said. “I think another aspect is that more people have more access to college than ever before. They are also tapping into the pool of students who are statistically more likely to have experienced depressive episodes, anxiety, ADHD or whatever.”

Taken all together, the stressors can become overwhelming, Muckey said. At the same time, a stigma still surrounds mental health issues, especially in rural areas, he added.

“I think more students are looking for help, but the stigma is as present as it ever has been,” he said. “We are slowly talking about it more and more, but I don’t know if people know how to address it.”

The time has come to see mental health as important as physical needs, he said.

“We as a society have pushed hard on seeing our primary care providers,” he said. “Let’s get a push for primary mental health care providers.”

Lost & Found focuses on campus mental health in three key areas: student engagement, campus counseling center support and resources, and training and advocacy.

“Our mission is to build resilient people and communities with compassion, inclusion and understanding,” Muckey said.

The organization brings together student leaders, counseling centers, and campus and community partners. They conduct research and develop effective local solutions for improving mental health and, ultimately, preventing suicide.

Student chapters consist of members who complete leadership development, active listening and storytelling, and crisis intervention training to reach their at-risk peers.

Besides the general student population, Lost & Found wants to reach out to marginalized groups that may feel unique pressures or not know where to turn for help, Muckey said.

Lost & Found has received strong support from the LGBT community, he said. Other groups could include students of color and students who are the first in their family to attend college, he added.

Lost & Found wants to help find a variety of short- and long-term solution, Muckey said.

On the one hand, helpline centers will remain the first line of responding to crisis situations, he said. Lost & Found doesn’t offer outpatient services but is working to create an information bank of available resources.

In addition, Lost & Found is also working with Lumen Therapy of Sioux City on alternatives such as yoga and meditation.

“There are untapped mental health options. We need to be more creative when we think of mental health services,” he said. “We’re taking more of a strength-based approach, which we believe is a much better approach.”

When it comes to reaching out to those with needs, the best resource may be family and friends, Muckey said.

“It’s great to ask, ‘Are you OK?’ The concept is in the right move. At the end of the day, if you’re dealing with depression, you generally tend to feel isolated and not as likely to reach out. You may think ... ‘I don’t want to unload my burdens on others,’” he said. “What you want to say is: ‘I sense something wrong. You don’t seem quite yourself, are you OK?’ The best advocates for someone struggling with depression are the ones closest in their lives.”

Muckey believes that mental health issues, including suicidal thoughts, can be positively addressed.

“I think what gives me hope is that people see this as an issue that needs to be addressed. It doesn’t have to be done in a way or talked about in a way that’s a downer,” he said. “There is a lot of strength in trying to save lives and trying to help people learn how to live. That’s the most rewarding part of all this.”

Muckey turns to his own bout with depression as an example.

“I can feel good that I have benefited from very close friends and mentors who have helped me go through my own journey,” he said. “A little bit of self-discovery can help us find something bigger than all of us. In the process, we have helped people who were lost and have now found their way.”

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Information from: Yankton Press and Dakotan, http://www.yankton.net/