Reducing the stigma around mental health requires knowledge and empathy in order to transform views on youth suicide and mental illness. This is the mission of Northwood High School’s Hope Squad, a group of peer-elected students and teacher advisors whose goal is to prevent suicide through education, training and peer intervention.
Northwood’s mental health specialist Megan Keller has taken a lead with other teachers and counselors in the Irvine Unified School District to bring the Hope Squad program, which originated in Utah, to the Irvine Unified School District.
After the program was successfully piloted at Woodbridge High School in the 2019-2020 school year, the rest of the high schools in the Irvine Unified School District joined the national movement towards suicide prevention. There are now Hope Squads in over 800 schools across 25 states in the United States.
“Hope Squad allows students to reach out to their peers who they feel comfortable approaching, and we are trained to help them,” member Kamryn Scott said.
Last November, Northwood students were shown a video about mental health and were asked to nominate peers and advisors that were approachable, empathetic and helpful. The top nominees make up the current 20 students and 12 teacher advisors on the Hope Squad.
They follow a curriculum that trains them on the Question, Persuade and Refer method, common symptoms of mental illness and methods to break mental health stigma.
Positive peer-to-peer interaction is crucial in supporting students who are struggling with their mental health and suicidal thoughts. Hope Squad opens the net of support for Northwood students when they are uncomfortable with directly speaking to mental health specialists or a school counselor.
“Be there to support but not to solve. Be there to listen but not fix. Be there to connect with someone who can help and not feel the burden of saving. Reach out to a parent or trusted adult,” Keller said. “Remember that their safety is more important than your friendship.”
The first virtual Hope Week of many was hosted by the Hope Squad in May that aimed to spread hope through Instagram challenges. From tag chains to messages of hope to publicizing the Say Something app, the students of Hope Squad created accessible and relatable content to provide peer support during the early stages of quarantine.
“It can be easy when we’re all experiencing a collective trauma to get bogged down in some negative thinking, but I think Hope Week really promoted a positive mindset,” Nicole Midani said. “We wanted to give hope to people who maybe haven’t had it in a while.”