What is the story related to mental health, suicide, and/or resilience that you’d like to share?
After completing my undergraduate studies at the University of South Dakota (USD) in May 2014, I experienced a significant depressive episode and experienced almost daily suicide ideation until I received professional support in late summer 2014. Had I not received this support, it’s quite likely I would not be here writing this story.
As a student at USD, I wouldn’t be someone you would expect to experience depression so severely. I came to USD on a nearly full-ride academic scholarship, became highly involved in some of the most visible professional and student organizations, served as student body president, and co-founded a mental health student organization that would go on to become my full-time employer (Lost&Found). I had wonderful friends, a supportive family, lots of connections in the community, and was well-liked by those who knew me. It was difficult, if not impossible, to see my ongoing battle with burnout and social anxiety throughout my college years.
I would come home from breaks completely exhausted, not adapting from a rural community where you could quite literally do everything, and having little to no understanding of mental health other than stories of family and community members who experienced alcoholism, depression, and anxiety. Or worse, had died by suicide. Mental health and suicide weren’t discussed regularly, and until I saw it firsthand, I couldn’t empathize with the experience. It simply wasn’t real to me. I trivialized my own mental health, at my own expense. I also didn’t give myself enough room to breathe or grieve several losses of close family and friends in the four years at USD, especially friends who had died by suicide.
By the time I reached my senior year, the act of trivializing my mental health came to a head. After loading overwhelming amounts of student organization responsibility on my shoulders, as well as trying to complete an honors thesis, regular coursework, and serve as student body president, I began to fall into depression. I walked across the stage at USD with no job lined up, some of my closest friends spreading across the country, and my identity as a community leader in question. Things kept getting lower, it seemed, and I couldn’t imagine living anymore with that kind of pain.
I didn’t create a plan or attempt suicide, but I did journal about how I was feeling. When I actually read what I was writing, something snapped in me for a moment. After spending the past four years as part of Lost&Found’s early team and supporting families who had lost loved ones to suicide, I realized how far down I was and knew immediately I needed to get help. For one lucid moment, I couldn’t imagine the pain I would have caused my family and friends had I not gotten the help I needed.
That summer, I was diagnosed with depression and social anxiety and began a long-term journey of receiving cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) that has been an absolute godsend. Over the past seven years, I’ve been able to dig into behaviors that kept me from living a resilient life and begin to shift my own perceptions of mental health and suicide in the process.
That same summer, our team at Lost&Found also experienced significant transitions, as our fellow founder, president, and visionary DJ Smith stepped down from the board. While I didn’t know what the future of our suicide prevention organization would be, my experiences with suicide ideation and starting treatment led me to commit to serving as the new, permanent president of Lost&Found.
Seven years later, it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Suicide prevention wasn’t a field I ever thought I’d be in, but if it weren’t for my experiences with depression and suicide ideation, I wouldn’t be as empathetic and committed to serving others through Lost&Found. Though I’ve had my dark days since, I know that I’m equipped and capable of getting the help I need. It’s possible to learn resilience.
What resources have helped you to address this challenge?
The support of my immediate family, close friends, and professional mentors made it easier for me to both seek professional support and navigate the journey of improving my mental health. Weekly cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) helped me gradually find hope after experiencing suicide ideation, and I’ve continued CBT on a regular basis over the past seven years to navigate later episodes with depression and anxiety.
Based on your experience, how can we work to build resilience in ourselves, our loved ones, and in our communities to better face life’s challenges?
No matter how lost you feel now or how much hope you’ve found, we will all face struggles in our lives, big and small. What is important to remember is that we can all learn how to navigate life’s struggles by building up our own resilience and finding ways to help others do the same. We can make life better for others and for our communities in so many ways, but ultimately, it comes back to us. Self-awareness is key to understanding what mental health and resilience look like for you, and as they say, “if you’re pouring from an empty cup,” it’s going to be difficult to contribute to a resilient community. Look inward at your own resilience and seek what you need to grow. Then, look outward at how you can be of service to others.
What is one thing related to mental health, suicide, or resilience that you wish everyone could understand?
Mental health conditions are one of the biggest risk factors to suicide, but we often forget that life circumstances (e.g., economic distress, relationship challenges, etc.) also create risk for suicide. Do not discount the challenges you and others may be experiencing, because they may become a burden that is too hard to carry. Suicide can impact anyone, and it’s absolutely essential to be mindful of suicide risk for ourselves and for each other.