In the first of many thought pieces from Lost & Found’s co-founders, Dennis “DJ” Smith shares his perspective on Lost & Found’s history—and why today’s Lost & Found is in great position to impact those facing depression and anxiety.
It’s difficult to find the words to describe an organization that has grown and changed so much in the last decade. I like to think Lost & Found has provided some perspective to those who do not understand the burden of mental health issues, alongside other institutions and volunteer groups around the world.
Now, more than ever, issues that surround mental health are taking the spotlight. The lingering stigma that forces those who suffer to hold their breath is clearing. It is slow, like watching the tide go out. We don’t notice it day-to-day, but the water’s edge is slowly receding.
Lost & Found started as a Facebook argument. Before people were posting memes, cat videos and extreme political views, social media was a way to connect with like-minded people who have similar interests both locally and otherwise.
A conversation about the usefulness of nonprofits in the suicide awareness and prevention field had me anxious. It had me wanting to prove a point, had me feeling as though it were my moral obligation to stand up for people who feel different and afraid to share that part of themselves.
The funny thing, I learned, is that more people are dealing with mental health concerns than we realize. Not just the kid who is bullied, but the other kid who is doing the bullying. External factors that we cannot see or fathom dictate how we feel, and the surrounding people we consider friends or family either block us from sharing our emotions or provide the emotional support every human craves.
This is the genesis of Lost & Found—a moment that led me to take action.
Thanks to this argument, I met a gal from Michigan: Kayla Roszkowski. We made our own community dedicated to just being kind to one another. Several hundred people jumped aboard, completing monthly challenges such as writing love on their arm for National Suicide Prevention Week or participating in the Operation Beautiful project. This work was demanding and heartwarming. Seeing humans participate in making the world a little brighter for other humans is an activity even the most lukewarm of hearts can jump behind.
While it may feel easier for many people to talk about their demons now, it was not always that way. Talking about your personal anxiety or depression or mental illness is a big obstacle to overcome. At a time when the stigma was first being attacked by social advocates, I was receiving emails from individuals thanking me. To be honest, I couldn’t tell you an exact quote from the positive emails. I just knew how they made me feel.
And yet, I would also receive other notes that left me heartbroken. The worst? I received an email left with a horrifying phrase: “If you are reading this email, then I am already gone.” I was crushed. This woman believed the world was so painful that it would benefit those around her if she was gone. Worse, there was nothing I could do to reverse time. Those ups and downs characterized the early days of what would become Lost & Found and reminded me why it was important to continue the work.
There was a break, a surge in membership, a national competition, and a nonprofit recognition process to go through before what is now Lost & Found came to be. As I “grew up,” so did Lost & Found. More people became involved. Friends and strangers opened up about their vulnerabilities. We shared our message with high schools and college campuses, where new student leaders took charge of the discussion with their peers.
As Lost & Found’s influence spread, however, I also spread—too thin. I became overly involved with different causes outside of Lost & Found, leaving others to take hold of the organization’s future at the University of South Dakota.
When I look back at that point in time, a part of me feels as though I failed the organization. If not for a team of highly invested people around me, Lost & Found would not have survived. My undergraduate career could have been focused on Lost & Found, had I opened up to people with different experiences to guide the organization. I have lost friends to mental illness. It is an important topic for me. It is a topic that needed addressing then and now. I also know, at the time, that it was vital for me to pursue a variety of passions, which led me to step aside and allow others to take the lead.
This time also showed me there were other ways I could carry on with the organization’s mission—or what was the mission in that moment. While at the University of South Dakota, I worked with policymakers, students, and universities to pass anti-bullying and anti-sexual harassment measures. Both actions are known to precede depression and suicide ideation, and both actions should never be tolerated in our homes, schools, and greater communities. I am proud of this work, the people involved and how it tied so naturally to the work of Lost & Found.
Flash forward to 2014: receiving my Bachelor’s Degree and a chance to serve the Peace Corps in Tanzania. Life pushes and pulls us in all sorts of directions, and I knew what I needed to do as I prepared to graduate and leave the country. I stepped down from the role of President, and the board soon after, as I prepared for a three-year move across the globe.
I didn’t know what would happen to Lost & Found, but what started as a difficult goodbye has grown into something wonderful. Under my friend Erik’s leadership, I watched the organization thrive. Instead of painting ideas with a broad brush, the organization focused on areas where direct change can be made. Where Lost & Found stands now is the best it has ever been. What started as a pipedream has become a reality thanks to the work of a dedicated leadership team and those who believe in the organization enough to support it.
As the world continues moving forward, so does Lost & Found. We all struggle. I think that is part of being human. We try to find ourselves in others or in academics or in organizations, taking bits and leaving pieces along the way.
But, I think that is why Lost & Found is here. It isn’t an invincible organization made of invincible people, but people who are flawed; people who have experienced life and have needed support along the way.
People who were strong enough to say they feel weak.
People who recognize that it is impossible to get through life on their own.
People who understand there are others out there who care.
People who reciprocate that sense of care.
I once said that if we can make the difference in one person’s life or the life of one family, then we have already accomplished our goal. I still believe that, but I also believe that isn’t where it ends.
Lost & Found will continue to grow, because the people who make up the organization today recognize that together, communities can be built where stigmas are torn down and those who feel lost have access to the people and tools necessary to find their way again.
He currently resides in Seattle while pursuing his Master of Arts in International Studies from the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies.
Learn more about DJ’s journey with Lost & Found here.