High school to implement ‘Hope Squads’ in attempt to prevent teenage suicide

Dr. Gregory Hudnall explains the Hope Squad’s format at a presentation on Feb. 8.

Delaney Turner | Managing Editor

Mason High School, there is hope.

The Hope Squad, a peer to peer counseling program aimed at preventing teen suicide will launch at the high school in the fall of 2018. On February 8, Dr. Gregory Hudnall, former principal and now nationally recognized suicide prevention advocate spoke to students, faculty and families about this program he developed.

In 2003, Hope Squads were piloted in the Provo City School district in Utah and have since expanded across the country. The student-based approach aims to lessen the stigma of suicide and produce organic conversation. Hudnall said the benefit to peer nominations has increased conversation surrounding the topic of suicide. Students will nominate their peers and the top nominees will be offered a spot on the piloted Hope Squad.

“It is training peers how to recognize friends who are struggling and then having that courage to talk to them and get them help,” Hudnall said.  “They are nominated by their peers, that is the value factor.”

The Hope Squad’s introduction is in result of Mason’s fifth suicide in the past eight years. With MHS’ staggering population of nearly 3,600 students, Hudnall said it is likely students can feel unnoticed.

“(Mason) is a very large school; kids get lost,” Hudnall said. “I think the Hope Squad helps even so that more students are going to get the help they need.”

Set to launch in the fall of the 2018 academic year, Mason City Schools’ Public Information Officer Tracey Carson said the district is excited to introduce a program that will begin a process of suicide prevention education.

With plans to begin the peer nomination process this spring, Carson said the power will lie in the hands of the students. Carson said the greatest benefit comes from students having the ability to have a voice.

“Of those nominated students, 20 percent (are students) that (administrators) would not identify, and those kids may actually be the kids that are most connected with ‘at-risk’ kids,” Carson said. “I think that is the really exciting piece of Hope Squad in helping to make sure that kids are not taking that burden on. That, ‘I’m not responsible for doing the therapy, I am not responsible as a student for solving your problem, but I am responsible for hearing, engaging you and getting you help.’”

Members of the Hope Squad will receive extensive training throughout the academic year in topics surrounding searching for signs of suicide and how to speak with peers that may be experiencing suicidal thoughts. After conversation with a peer, Hope Squad members will then refer the student to a Hope Squad advisor or a mental health professional. Hudnall said the program will take time to see success but will overall impact the high school in a positive way.

“It changes the culture of the school,” Hudnall said. “It takes time; it does not happen overnight. It’s not a perfect model, because we are not perfect human beings. But what it does do is it builds and provides that support.”

Deputy Superintendent Jonathan Cooper said the district strived to consider student input when searching for solutions.

“We were looking for programs that had student leadership involved,” Cooper said. “What we were hearing from our students was that students wanted to have a voice in this process. We sent a group of people out to investigate, (Hope Squads) and we had other superintendents from around the area meet together and say, ‘What can we do?’ That ground swell of excitement about this program that goes statewide gave us confidence. There was evidence that it was working that got us excited. “

While the Hope Squads are not a final solution, Cooper said they will play a vital role in expansion of a multi-step solution.

“Think of Hope Squad as this one piece of a puzzle that we’re trying to put together, one of the key bridges that needs to be made,” Cooper said. “We’re working on this with a couple of the organizations in the area like the Lindner Center and Assurex Health. We want to bring them together to see if we have the community support that we need to do this well.”

Hudnall said the Hope Squad has greatly impacted the atmosphere of high schools in Utah, and is confident it will continue into MHS.

“We are becoming more kind, we are becoming more supportive and we are understanding,” Hudnall said. “‘When I see a friend struggling, I can talk to them. I can have the courage to see how they are doing and I can help.’”