by Erik Kaufman for the Mitchell Republic, Sept. 10, 2021
Friday on the campus at Dakota Wesleyan University is a day to which many students look forward.
The long week of classes and studying is coming to a close, and the weekend is right around the corner.
On a pleasant late summer Friday afternoon, students can be found talking about their weekend plans or about the highs and lows of the previous week.
But there will be some students at DWU this Friday who won’t be speaking at all. To anyone.
Those students, members of the Lost & Found campus group, will dress in white shirts and will remain silent throughout the day, regardless of who speaks to them, whether it be teachers, friends or classmates. They will serve as a living reminder of the individuals who have been lost to suicide.
The Day of Silence event is being held in conjunction with and observance of World Suicide Prevention Day, which is also observed Friday.
Jennifer Noteboom, campus counselor at Dakota Wesleyan University, said the Lost & Found group at DWU was formed three years ago and has held its Day of Silence event every year since. Part of a larger umbrella group that has chapters on several South Dakota university campuses, it focuses on mental health and suicide prevention awareness.
Lost & Found is a not-for-profit social enterprise headquartered in Sioux Falls that connects students with the tools and community for lifelong resilience, according to the organization website.
Each year, the group’s team of students, advisers, on- and offcampus partners, staff, volunteers and board members collaborate to set goals for meeting its mission.
The organization’s goal is eliminating suicide for young adults ages 15-34 in the United States. It has chapters on campuses throughout South Dakota, including the University of South Dakota, South Dakota State University, University of Sioux Falls, Dakota Wesleyan University and Augustana University.
Students will remain silent on campus and in class from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Class instructors are made aware of the event and act to accommodate their silence where possible, though exceptions are made for scheduled class presentations and other academic requirements.
The event has grown in participation since its inception, with Noteboom estimating that between 15 and 20 students, including a large portion of the women’s softball team, will be donning white and holding their tongues.
“The members really like doing it, and people get something out of it, so we continue to do it every year, just to spread the word,” Noteboom said. “This year appears to be our biggest year yet in terms of participation.”
Suicide is a national problem, as well as one that hits close to home. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the second leading cause of death in South Dakota for people between the ages of 10 and 34. According to the South Dakota Department of Health, there were 186 suicide deaths in South Dakota in 2020, and 2021 is seeing suicide deaths on pace to reach 236 by the end of the year.
And it affects people from all walks of life.
From young people dealing with the stresses of growing up to farmers dealing with the uncertainty of economic ups and downs in their industry. The COVID-19 pandemic has also likely contributed to mental health stresses for the general population since its arrival in 2019.
Julie Brookbank, associate director for communications for Dakota Wesleyan University, said the project will serve as an awareness tool for the ongoing suicide problem that continues to plague the country. And it’s especially poignant to express that concern on a college campus, where young people can often deal with pressure and depression.
“This is where young people reside, where they congregate. They have social experiences and all the ups and downs of being a young person in the United States today,” Brookbank said. “This is intended to bring awareness and really put it in front of folks that we do lose members of our community who have not been able to get the help they need.”
It is vital for people to know that it is all right to feel the need to reach out and ask for help. It is not always a comfortable topic of discussion, and it may be hard for some people to open up about their struggles. Awareness projects like the Day of Silence help let people know that asking for help is always the best approach.
“I think there is something to be said of the stigma attached. We’re Midwesterners, and we don’t open up and talk about our feelings sometimes,” Brookbank said. “I’m happy to see people embrace the idea that you need to talk about this, and you need to reach out. And there are ways students can do that.”
Both Noteboom and Brookbank encouraged anyone - student or otherwise - to seek out a trusted voice if they are feeling the effects of depression. A good resource is the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, which can be reached at 1-800- 273-8255 or the South Dakota Helpline, which can be reached by dialing 211.
Noteboom said the group plans to continue with the annual event as well as host other events, such as on-campus talks and clinics on stress management.
The campus community is an excellent place to have up-front discussions about mental health and suicide prevention, she said, and in this case, it is hoped that discussion will sprout from the silence of its students.
“Being part of a community and having social connections is a huge factor in mental wellness and suicide prevention,” Noteboom said.
Brookbank said the campaign is important work, and it’s hoped that shining light on a tough subject can bring suicide numbers down as far as possible.
“We just want to avoid these tragedies,” Brookbank said.