By Deborah Goodman
It is a far too common headline. It’s the subject of two separate bills in the current Utah State legislative session. And, it’s every family’s worst nightmare that is tragically becoming a reality for too many.
According to HopeSquad.com, a school-based peer leadership program founded in Utah, suicide is “the number one cause of death in students ages 10-17.” Hope Squads train “gatekeepers,” students who are taught how to be on the lookout for crisis situations and warning signs of suicide. Started in Provo in 2005 by then high school principal Dr. Greg Hudnall, the Hope Squad program has continued to grow. It can now be found in most junior high and high schools in Utah, as well as seven other states. The Junior Hope Squad is the elementary school equivalent and is comprised of fourth, fifth, and sixth graders.
As was seen most recently in the case of Tyler Hilinski, the quarterback for the Washington State football team who took his own life earlier this month, suicide often comes as a complete shock to the victims’ friends and family. Students who are members of the Hope Squad become adept at sophisticated methods designed to notice when their friends may be suffering. Often, they are the first ones to recognize a problem.
Courtney Droz, a counselor at Springville Junior High, is a former advisor over the school’s Hope Squad, which has been a part of the school for the past eight years and currently has thirty members. “I’ve had many squad members through the years let me know of a name of a student I should check on because of something they’d said in class, or something they’d written in a notebook that our squad member heard or saw. Many times those referrals turn out to be serious, and because the Hope Squad member noticed a warning sign and reported it, that student at risk was able to get the help and support they needed from their parents, and medical professionals when needed.”
The Hope Squad at Springville Junior teaches the QPR technique—Question, Persuade, Refer—to the students in a day long, off-site training that is thorough, yet fun. Using questions, persuasion, and referral shows that this program is not asking students to become therapists, but to become, rather, the ears and eyes of the school and to communicate any concerns they notice to their advisors.
“Protecting the Hope Squad students from burnout, as well as feelings of blame, responsibility, or any undue pressure is our first priority,” says Droz. The advisors make sure the students understand that they are never responsible for others’ thoughts or actions. There are continued activities throughout the year: assemblies, trainings, suicide awareness walks and service projects. And, if the end-of-year surveys are any indication, the students are overwhelmingly positive about the experience they’ve had.
Hope Squads in the elementary schools focus on educating the students about what constitutes safe and unsafe secrets, when to involve an adult advisor and ways to discourage bullying. Suicide rates in the area have lowered since the Hope Squads were started, and Droz has nothing but praise for the program. “I think it also helps with letting kids and teens know that it is okay to talk about their own feelings, and that suicide is not a taboo subject. The more comfortable a student feels about talking about their feelings, the less likely they are to be at risk for suicide.”
For more information, call 1-800-273-TALK or visit HOPE4UTAH.com or the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.