After graduating from New Prague High School in 2000, Dave Hruby and his group of friends went their separate ways.

That is until their freshman year of college, when they lost their friend Duck to suicide.

Each year Duck’s friends would gather annually to pay their respects. Thirteen years after his death, Hruby said, the question came up — “if we could go back and do anything differently, what would we do?”

“We didn’t really have a good plan in place, as a group of friends,” Hruby said. “We all did what we thought was best at the time.”

Thirteen years later, though they desperately wished the outcome had been different, they were still at a loss for how they could have been there for a hurting friend.

In processing through their own experience, they began to recognize that the challenge of supporting a friend through a mental health crisis wasn’t something the average high-schooler was equipped to work through.

“We thought that was a problem, and we wanted to help,” said Hruby.

Out of a desire to help prevent suicide by equipping people with the tools they need to support loved ones going through mental health crises, the Duck Cup Memorial Fund was born.

Each year, the organization hosts an Annual Memorial Golf Tournament, their main fundraiser of the year, as well as a “Stomp the Stigma” gala.

They also spend a bulk of their time each year organizing speaking events at area schools including New Prague, Jordan, Shakopee, Belle Plaine, Montgomery and LeSueur.

Their mission is especially important in 2020, a year of disappointment for many teens and adults alike, Hruby, the president of the organization, said.

Difficult year

“It’s just not normal anymore and there’s no certainty about when this is all going to end,” said Hruby. “And it’s impacting not only students and kids, it’s everybody.”

Hruby said he and the board of directors never claim to be mental health experts, but they know you don’t necessarily need to have a mental illness to be going through a tough time in life and feel hopeless.

“It could just be something temporary that you just need to talk about, (the pandemic) has really magnified the need for that as well,” Hruby said.

During COVID-19 the organization isn’t able to host their normal in-school trainings. Instead, they’ve shifted to webinars, including parents in on the conversation about supporting their teens’ mental health.

Resilience required

On Dec. 9 the Duck Memorial Fund hosted a webinar in partnership with Jordan Public Schools along with counselor and speaker Jon Mattleman entitled “Resilience required: COVID-19 and teen mental health.”

Throughout the webinar Mattleman spoke to parents and caregivers on how to support their teens in the midst of the pandemic.

Firstly, he encouraged parents and caregivers to view the pandemic as what it is — a trauma that will affect school-age kids for years to come.

“COVID changed everything,” Mattleman said. “What we’re trying to do now as moms and dads and caregivers is get back to our normal way of life.”

Mattleman also spoke to the importance of resilience, though he cautioned caregivers against moving too quickly toward the end-goal, especially while the pandemic is still going on.

“Let’s remember that people who are resilient can also hurt inside, and those wounds can be very deep,” Mattleman said at the webinar. “This is a very traumatic time, so let’s praise resilience, but let’s look beyond that and look inside.”

Though learning through Zoom and online classrooms was almost “fun” in the beginning of the pandemic, it’s become exhausting for teachers and students alike, Mattleman said.

The exhaustion those in virtual classrooms feel day in and day out can cause feelings of anxiety and depression and even suicide in teenagers at startling rates.

Mattleman said 25% of people between the ages of 18 to 24 have thought about suicide during the pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Around 75% of high school students reported feeling high levels of stress and anxiety throughout the pandemic. Even before COVID-19, rates of depression and anxiety were high among the young-adult age group.

In order to help, Mattleman said, parents’ primary role is to be an empathetic listener.

“I think it’s very appropriate to just take a half hour of time where you can both share what is going on and what you’re anxious about,” said Mattleman.

He also said encouraging your teen to seek help in the form of counseling can be a huge help in the long-term goal of preventing self-harm and promoting good mental health.

Finally, Mattleman encouraged parents to model self-care to their teens.

“A lot of parents are not so good at self care,” said Mattleman. “I used to think self care was indulgent. It’s not. Self care shouldn’t be a reward, it shouldn’t be a treat. It needs to be intentional.”

To watch back the webinar in its entirety, you can go to bit.ly/2WnJOMt.

Local impact

Over the years the memorial fund has experienced countless moments of connection with community members impacted by their work.

“The amount of support we get locally is overwhelming,” said Executive Director Sara Jutz.

Hruby said though the work national organizations do for suicide prevention and awareness is vital, the knowledge that someone local cares about you can be a game-changer.

“We will never really know how many people we impact or who we impact,” Hruby said. “If we save one life that’s more than adequate.”

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