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A college student holding a sign on a Moorhead street corner saved her life

Wendi Wheeler was going through a dark time in May when she spotted Jay Dagny, a North Dakota State University student, holding a sign with the words "You are loved" at Eighth and Main in Moorhead.

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Wendi Wheeler had been contemplating suicide and was driving through Moorhead in May 2022, when she happened to see college student Jay Dagny holding a sign of encouragement.
David Samson/The Forum
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Editor's note: If you or a loved one is in crisis, you can call or text the  National Suicide Prevention Lifeline  at 988 to reach crisis support or to use an online chat feature, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

MOORHEAD — In the days leading up to one Saturday night in May of this year, Wendi Wheeler’s brain had taken a dark turn.

Going through what she said was an existential crisis, Wheeler was thinking not just of ending her life, but how and when to do it.

During the long and mostly sleepless night, she said a prayer of desperation for a sign that she should keep living.

The next morning while running an errand, on the day she planned would be her last, she spotted on the corner of Eighth Street and Main a man holding a piece of cardboard with the words “You are loved.”

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“I actually asked for a sign and there he was, holding a sign,” Wheeler said.

He was 24-year-old Jay Dagny, and Wheeler, 51, believes he saved her life that day.

Guy in shades holds a sign "you are loved"
Jay Dagny holds his sign "You are loved" on the corner of Eighth Street and Main Avenue in Moorhead on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022.
Robin Huebner / The Forum

She parked her car, told him what she’d been through, and the two cried and shared a hug.

“To think about ending your own life and say those words out loud to someone you've never met, is kind of the whole reason why I'm doing this,” Dagny said.

Seeing the message, at just the moment she needed it, gave her hope and a reason to keep going.

Today, Wheeler is a graduate student and teaching assistant at North Dakota State University, aiming to become a licensed mental health therapist.

“Being around a community of people who care about mental health and who want to make a difference in people's lives is so empowering,” she said.

Existential crisis

That day in May wasn’t the first time Wheeler had found herself in a very dark place.

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Growing up in Rolette, North Dakota, she went through a mental health crisis in middle school.

“I was crying out for help. I just didn't know how to ask for help, and I didn't even know what was happening with me,” Wheeler said.

She attempted suicide at age 13.

“Little tiny town, 600 people … so very shameful to be in that position at that time,” she said.

Her family had to drive 100 miles to Minot for her to be seen by a psychiatrist.

After high school, she moved to Fargo to attend NDSU, where she played in the marching band. But Wheeler ended up getting pregnant her freshman year, and placed her son up for adoption.

She never really bounced back from that, she said, and made a second suicide attempt that landed her in the psychiatric ward of what was then Meritcare, now Sanford hospital.

Wheeler wasn’t able to continue with college and figured she’d never get her degree.

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But she later got on a good track with a therapist for a number of years, and at age 31, went back to school to get her undergraduate degree in communication studies and women's studies at Augsburg University in Minneapolis.

She had a semi-open adoption with her son, and established contact with him.

Then last year, her depression came creeping back. She turned 50, began ruminating about never having been married and not having more children.

Good things were happening: She’d been accepted into graduate school and was soon to become a grandmother, but still, she felt bad.

“Depression is so tricky because it tells you no one will care,” Wheeler said.

'Brighter days to come'

Jay Dagny had his own mental health struggles growing up in Iowa, surviving a suicide attempt at age 17.

It fuels his desire to hold his sign a couple of times a week, written in black marker on a pizza box.

On the flip side of “You are loved” is the message “It’ll be okay.”

“Knowing that pressure I put on my parents, about them just thinking they were gonna lose their son … I just recognize that maybe if somebody had told me that when I was 17, maybe that morning would have gone a little different,” he said.

Along with the corner in Moorhead, Dagny holds his sign on 12th Avenue North and Albrecht Boulevard on the NDSU campus in Fargo, where he’s studying to be a tailor.

“I want people to know that no matter what dark spot they're in, there are brighter days to come,” Dagny said.

Wheeler has since found multiple tools and strategies to help her when her mood starts to get low.

Her crisis management plan includes a list of people she can call, books to read and podcasts to listen to that help calm her nervous system. Being sober from alcohol for 15 years also helps, she said.

Just this week, she and Dagny bumped into each other again on campus. At first, she didn’t recognize him from that day in May, but then saw him grabbing the sign out of his vehicle.

She asked if he remembered her, to which he replied, “I think about that moment almost every single day.”

“It just brightens my day so much to know that she's still with us,” Dagny said.

Warning signs of suicide

• Talking about wanting to die
• Looking for a way to kill oneself
• Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
• Talking about feeling trapped or unbearable pain
• Talking about being a burden to others
• Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
• Acting anxious, agitated or recklessly
• Sleeping too little or too much
• Withdrawing or feeling isolated
• Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
• Displaying extreme mood swings

What to do

• Do not leave the person alone
• Remove any guns, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt
• Call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline
• Take the person to an emergency room, or seek help from a medical or mental health professional

Source: Reportingonsuicide.org

Huebner is a 35+ year veteran of broadcast and print journalism in Fargo-Moorhead.
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