Utah has one of the highest suicide rates in the country, and the Park City School District believes it has gone unchecked for too long.
In the last year, the district added school counselors and held several educational lectures about mental health, but officials know that when a student has suicidal thoughts, they tend to tell their peers first. That is why the district helped initiate HOPE Squads at Park City High School, Treasure Mountain Junior High and Ecker Hill Middle School, said Samantha Walsh, a counselor at the high school and co-advisor for the club.
Participating students go through training on what to do if a peer comes to them with suicidal thoughts, and there are already 42 students involved at the high school and 45 at Ecker Hill. Counselors at Treasure Mountain are currently recruiting students.
“We’ve had students come to the table to be a part of it that have been affected by a familial suicide, or through their own struggle with depression,” Walsh said. “But it seems that the kids that come to the table are passionate because of a personal impact.”
The students, who can join from seventh grade up, meet once a month to talk about issues at their schools and listen to guest lectures on mental health. Students also attend retreats to become trained on QPR – question, persuade, refer – a suicide prevention training that is common for counselors and police workers.
Walsh said one reason the club is imperative is because students are more likely to go to their peers when they are in trouble rather than a trusted adult.
“The problem with that model is, usually their peers don’t have the information or knowledge to be able to help them,” she said. “By arming students with correct information and training them to ask the hard questions and getting them help, I believe more students are going to get help.”
By educating and mentoring students, they are then able to provide accurate information and resources, such as the SafeUT anonymous call line, she said. They also know how to identify warning signs of students who might be suicidal.
Natalie Fink, 16, is a member of the club at the high school and said it helps her to be a part of a safe environment where she can talk to other students about personal problems as well as develop the skills to help others. She has been surprised by the unification of the group since its start just weeks ago.
“We have people from totally different clubs that I never would have expected to be dealing with mental illnesses,” she said. “They come from different backgrounds and they are in totally different clubs and different friend groups, but I think we all have that connection that we’ve dealt with stuff, but we’re pulling through. We are all there for each other.”
Adam Herbst, 17, agreed. He is also a member of Teen Council and the Gay Straight Alliance at the school, and he said having that connection across clubs can help all students feel more like they are a member of a community.
“Sharing those resources with each other and all of us sharing ideas and different perspectives really helps us out,” he said. “I do think that this is one of the most needed clubs at the high school.”
Building that sense of community both within the club and within the school at large is what attracted him, and many others, to the HOPE Squad.
As president of the club, Olivia Henry, 17, strives to maintain a safe environment and encourage members to connect with personal stories.
At a training retreat, she led students in an activity where they wrote five facts on the outside of a paper bag that are visible or obvious about themselves. On the inside of the bag, they wrote three to four things that people would only know if they were close to them.
“We did that to de-stigmatize the idea that people are living this perfect life,” Henry said. “It was to basically show that everyone has a lot going on and you really have no idea what someone could be going through. You should be supportive of everyone.”
Now that Henry has gone through the training, she said she is not only more compassionate toward others, but also better equipped to help those who reach out to her for help.
“They are safer now that I am more educated,” she said. “They are in a better place because I am more educated, and I feel more comfortable with helping them.”