Ruby Vejar was struck by an activity at the Utah Rotary Youth Leadership Award conference last year. Teenagers were asked to step forward if they answered “Yes” to a series of questions, like if they’ve ever wanted to commit suicide or if they know someone who wanted to commit suicide.
“Almost the whole room went up there, and it just kind of shocked me, and I didn’t want that to happen ever again,” Vejar said. “I just wanted to fix it.”
When the junior at Green Canyon High heard that her school was forming a Hope Squad, she didn’t hesitate. Along with about 30 of her peers, Vejar is now part of a team that serves as the eyes and ears of the high school to spot students who may be feeling suicidal or depressed.
She said every teenager goes through a time where they need help. Members of the Hope Squad are there to remind those students that someone cares. That there is hope.
“We’re just here for everyone,” she said.
Hope Squads aren’t a new concept in Utah, but they are new to Cache Valley. The peer-to-peer program, whose members are nominated by their fellow students, first debuted in Provo in 2005. Janine Justis, counselor at Sky View High, said Cache County School District decided to implement Hope Squads in high schools this school year after programs elsewhere have demonstrated success.
In Logan City School District, Logan High Assistant Principal Roxanne Sharr said the school is working to create the Hope Squad framework this school year and plans to have it up and running in the fall.
Saving lives can be a burden, and the members of Hope Squads aren’t going it alone. Students in local schools with newly-formed Hope Squads have all received training from the Bear River Health Department.
BreeAnn Silcox, health educator with BRHD, said her department teaches an evidence-based intervention approach called Question, Persuade, Refer, or QPR. If a student thinks a peer is suicidal, Silcox said the best option is to directly ask if they’ve thought about ending their life.
“They’ve found that when you’re direct about it, you usually get an honest answer and people are more likely to open up,” Silcox said.
The next step is to persuade. Silcox said that means persuading the student not to take their life, listening to the problem and convincing them to get help. Finally, Hope Squad members are trained to refer the student to an adult. Silcox said that could be a school counselor, social worker, parent, teacher or even the SafeUT app, which anonymously connects students with mental health professionals at the University of Utah.
After that initial training, Hope Squads typically meet up several times a month for more instruction. Rachel Gunther, president of the Green Canyon Hope Squad, said recent training has focused on members' own mental health. They have learned about mindfulness and self-care.
Gunther said it might sound selfish, but sometimes it’s important to take a step back before helping others.
“You do kind of have to think of yourself first,” she said. “If I’m not in a mentally prepared spot to be able to help this person, then maybe it would be best to have somebody else bring them in.”
Fortunately, Green Canyon has three counselors and two social workers for Hope Squad members to refer students to.
“With suicide, since it’s such a heavy topic, we don’t want them to feel like they’re the ones who are keeping their friend from having a suicidal inclination or keeping their friend safe,” school social worker Hailey Maire said.
Referring students to qualified adults is just one role that Hope Squad members play. Gunther said they also want to reverse the stigma that discussing mental health is off limits. By talking about suicide, being visible around the school and putting on events, they want to let students know that it’s OK to talk about suicide and it’s not their fault for feeling down.
“Making it a place where there’s not really any stigma,” Gunther said. “If you need to go to the counselors, that’s chill, we’re still friends and I’m not going to treat you any differently.”
Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said eliminating that stigma and changing the culture around suicide is the most important part of the process.
“It means we need to have conversations about suicide; they can’t be taboo,” Cox said. “It’s something that we should be talking about more.”
Gov. Gary Herbert recently asked Cox to head a suicide prevention task force, made up of a variety of community members, including a representative from Equality Utah, an LGBTQ advocacy group, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In addition to suicide being a leading cause of death among teens in Utah, Cox said another statistic sticks out to him: About 20 percent of Utah youths have thought about suicide over the past year.
To help bring the issue to light, Cox said he has a personal goal to always mention suicide when he meets with teens. Just this week he met with a group of 30 students at the Capitol to explain the role of the lieutenant governor and to discuss the legislative process. Toward the end of their time together, he mentioned suicide.
He told the students that, statistically, five or six of them have thought about suicide over the past year. If they are feeling hopeless, he said it’s important to talk to someone — anyone — whether it’s a parent, teacher, friend or even himself. As the group was leaving, he said a girl grabbed him and asked for a hug.
“She whispered in my ear, ‘I’ve been thinking about it,’ and started crying and we talked and we got her with teachers, got some help,” Cox said. “Those conversations just need to be standard conversations.”
The statistics may be grim, but Cox said he feels optimistic now more than ever because there is momentum to talk and take action.
“When top policymakers and religious leaders and the gay community, when we’re all at the table together, the odds of finding solutions and reaching more people increase dramatically,” he said.
Patrick Matthews, a sophomore at Green Canyon and member of the Hope Squad, shares the optimism of the lieutenant governor. He said the stigma of mental illness is generational. He said his parents would probably never admit to having anxiety or depression, but for teenagers these days, it’s not such a big deal.
“We have that opportunity to completely, or pretty close to completely, wipe that stigma, and I think that’s awesome,” Matthews said.
Green Canyon counselor Clint Fullmer, who’s been on the job for 20 years, said he’s noticed changes over the years. When he was just starting out, he said there were no social workers in schools and counselors had to “wear all the hats.” With fewer resources, he said students used to think that no one would listen to their problems.
But now, he said, we live in a much more open society. With 30 Hope Squad members walking through the halls each day, he said it doesn’t necessarily make his job easier, but it does give him peace of mind.
“There’s a few more people out there that if they walk by somebody in the hall and they’re over there in tears in the corner, that if I don’t see that person and stop and say something, maybe Rachel will or maybe Patrick will,” Fullmer said.
With more eyes and ears at a school, Fullmer said, there are more chances to not only spot teens who may be suicidal — they could also prevent a potential school shooter. When more students are reaching out to people in need and providing hope, Fullmer said it’s like adding more links to a chain.
“Not everyone of them is going to be stopped, as we can see, but I think the more of those you put in the bank, the more likely you are to stop something crazy like that from happening,” Fullmer said, referring to the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
But the main goal of Hope Squads is to focus on bringing hope to schools. Gunther, the Green Canyon Hope Squad president, said it’s important to let students know that there are resources out there and having a mental illness doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you.
“This isn’t the end of the world; it’s not going to last forever,” Gunther said. “We can take care of this — we’ll help you take care of it.”