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Husky HOPE Squads: Offering Support and Friendship at Hillcrest High School

Mar 09, 2016 01:03PM ● Published by Bryan Scott

By Stephanie Lauritzen | stephanie@mycityjournals.com

Midvale - Can a high school club help reduce bullying and raise suicide-prevention awareness, all while making school a happier environment? The newly formed HOPE Squad at Hillcrest High School believes it can. The club is a newcomer to Hillcrest this year, but school counselors, administration and students believe they’ve found a new way to help students feel safe and accepted. 

“We would like to see the culture of the school shift to being a more proactive studentbody – one that is more accepting of others by being more supportive and friendly,” Hillcrest counselor Lisa Gardner said. 

HOPE Squads are part of a larger organization, Hope 4 Utah, a suicide-prevention organization dedicated to helping schools and communities reduce student suicides by teaching students to recognize signs of suicidal behavior in their peers and reporting their concerns to adults. Founder Dr. Greg Hudnall created the program in 2005 after noticing the high rate of student suicides in the Provo School District; on average the district lost one to two students to suicide each year. After implementing HOPE Squads and community-based prevention measures, Provo School District reported zero student suicides from 2005-2013. 

At Hillcrest, faculty and administrators believe adopting the HOPE Squads and emphasizing suicide-prevention techniques represents a natural continuation of the training Gardner and fellow counselors John Oliver and Craig Hole already use. 

“We are trained in suicide awareness and prevention, so it is a natural fit for us to want to implement this program and work with students that have this specific need, and train students to know how to help their peers. It is also an opportunity for us as counselors to get to know more of the students at Hillcrest and interact with them in fun and positive environment,” Gardner said.

 Seneka Smith, the student president of this year’s HOPE Squad, sees her participation as “an opportunity to make a positive difference in fellow student’s lives.” 

Gardner emphasizes that while HOPE Squad is a student group, the students are not expected to replace trained counselors.  She identifies the goals for HOPE Squad members as:

• Increase the knowledge of suicide warming signs

• Create positive relationships among student peers and faculty

• Break the code of silence – train students not to keep deadly secrets

• Raise awareness and acceptance for students to seek help from a trusted adult

• Reduce self-destructive behavior and reduce suicide

• Educate students and parents about community mental health

Students were chosen to participate in the HOPE Squads after a schoolwide survey in which fellow students nominated up to three peers as people they could trust and talk to comfortably. Hudnall visited Hillcrest to provide information and training materials regarding the program, and all HOPE Squad students and faculty advisors attended a full-day training session led by counselors. 

 Michael Young, HOPE Squad vice president, believes that students are especially attuned to helping their peers. “It’s exciting to help those that are struggling, especially when many of us have overcome similar challenges,” he said.  His ideas are reinforced by the Hope 4 Utah organization, which identifies teens as particularly effective in noticing warning signs in their peers since “they spend so much time together and are able to recognize when someone is acting differently. Evidence-based research shows that seven out of 10 adolescents experiencing depressive or suicidal thoughts will confide in a friend or trusted peer before approaching an adult.”

So far, the program seems to be working in schools throughout Utah, with over 250 students referred to services in Provo City School District alone. Since founding HOPE 4 Utah and organizing HOPE Squads in dozens of Utah Schools, Hudnall has testified before the United States Surgeon General on suicide rates in Utah. In 2013, he was invited to present his research in Washington, D.C., to the Department of Health and Human Services.

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