HOPE Squads help prevent suicide in Utah high schools

Selina Llewellyn teaches English at Skyridge High School in Lehi, Utah. It’s not unusual for her to have a bunch of kids eating lunch in her classroom, but recently, she had one boy come in to talk to her privately.

As he talked, Llewellyn picked up on a few red flags. She had to ask him a tough question: are you suicidal?

Llewellyn said this only happens about twice each year because high school kids are much more likely to talk to their friends than a teacher about problems like this. But Llewellyn is in a special position to ask this question. She is one of three teachers on the HOPE Squad at a school with three suicide attempts in February.

Students and teachers don’t campaign to be on the HOPE Squad, which keeps a special eye out for suicide warning signs in students. Instead, they’re recruited by an anonymous vote of confidence from the student body, and Llewellyn takes the nomination as a big compliment.

Dr. Greg Hudnall, former school administrator and current executive director of HOPE4UTAH, described how the member selection process began. After founding the first HOPE Squad at Provo High School, he tested this method at Timpview High School, which he said had similar problems with suicide.

Hudnall distributed surveys to every student at Timpview through their English classes with a simple request: to list three of their peers they would feel comfortable talking to if they were having suicidal thoughts.

“The most amazing thing happened. The same 40 names rose to the top,” Hudnall said.

The students most commonly listed were invited to join the squad and receive training on suicide prevention. After every school in Provo had a HOPE Squad, the district went nine years without a suicide.

The program has picked up speed, gaining attention from the United States Surgeon General and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It has spread throughout Utah and to Alaska, North Carolina, Texas, Wyoming, Indiana and Oklahoma. Last year alone, HOPE Squads referred more than 1800 kids for professional help, and more than 200 were hospitalized.

“We’ve trained over 40,000 people now to understand the risk factors, the warning signs, how to talk to someone you may be worried about, and then the most important — where to go for help,” said Hudnall.

The HOPE Squad at Spanish Fork High School poses for a team picture. (HOPE4UTAH)

Hudnall said he can pick out one common factor that shows up in suicide cases across the board, regardless of what kind of stress students are facing.

“Suicide is so complex and so unique to the individual,” Hudnall said. But as he looks back on the 53 youth suicides he said he’s been personally involved with as a first responder or consultant, “what rises to the top is young people that do not have the ability to psychologically deal with failure or pain.”

Hudnall said academic failure is a big one — 4.0 students facing their first A- can feel like their world is ending — but failure in sports doesn’t emerge as a risk factor.

Paul Dymock, a social worker for Alpine School District who does most of his work at Lone Peak High School in Highland, Utah, has an explanation for this effect.

“Because it’s kind of an indicator of popularity and acceptance by the student body, it’s almost a reinforcer to [play sports]. Even if you have an off game or you perform poorly … it’s OK, you’ll pick yourself up and be good the next time you’re out.”

Dymock said that kind of safety net is missing in academics.

“When they don’t make the grade or they don’t get the scholarship, there’s not support for them,” Dymock said. “There’s no picking them up, patting them on the back and saying, ‘Well we can do this instead.'”

Hudnall’s organization is on a mission to tackle school environments where failure isn’t an option.

“It’s one of the things that we’re really trying to train parents and coaches and others — to help young people to understand that failure is part of life,” Dymock said.

In fact, Hudnall passed on a message from a Harvard professor he said he met with in February, that administrators at the school no longer want 4.0 applicants. Instead, they want well-rounded students who have fallen short before.

Dymock said the intense academic pressure found at Lone Peak and other affluent high schools doesn’t disappear at the less wealthy schools he works with in the district. It just comes from a different motive.

Dymock said students and parents at Lone Peak are often aiming for acceptance to competitive universities like BYU. Families at other schools are under intense pressure for their student to get a scholarship offer — otherwise, they may not be able to afford college. Academic stress at smaller schools in the district comes “more out of need than out of wanting to be seen doing well,” said Dymock.

According to Dymock, Lone Peak has grown leaps and bounds in the suicide prevention department. The Lone Peak Coalition draws parents, law enforcement and ecclesiastical leaders in the area to meetings educating the public on suicide. Lone Peak Principal Rhonda Bromley also always includes a note to parents about mental health in her weekly newsletter to parents, and the school hasn’t had a suicide in three years.

“For a long time it really was the perception that we’re the richest, we’re the biggest, we have the most suicides. And other students, other schools, other communities sort of passed the label on to Lone Peak,” Dymock said. “We are happy to pass that crown and tiara on to somebody else.”

If you or someone you know might be at risk, call BYU Counseling and Psychological Services at 801-422-3035 or BYU Police at 801-422-2222 during non-business hours. The Wasatch Mental Health crisis line is 801-373-7393.

Zoe Woolf McGinn

Zoe McGinn is a journalism student at Brigham Young University. She dreams of working for This American Life in New York City in the future.

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