Hope Squad empowers students to help peers who are contemplating suicide
Compassionate students at six Washoe County schools are being recruited to give hope and support to their peers who are struggling with suicidal thoughts.
Washoe County is the latest Nevada school district to bring the Hope Squad program to its campuses. The program trains students on how to spot the warning signs of suicide, how to effectively communicate with a peer in distress and how to refer them to a trusted adult or resource where they can get the support they need.
The program was born in early the 2000s out of former Utah high school principal Gregory Hudnall’s desire to prevent youth suicide after grieving the death of students by suicide.
Over the past two decades, the program has expanded into about 2,000 K-12 schools across 35 states, including about 70 Nevada campuses across Clark, Lyon, Nye and Washoe school districts.
The peer-to-peer model has already saved countless lives across the country. Julia Bush, Hope Squad regional support specialist and a retired Clark County school counselor, recalls one student who got help after a peer recognized suicide warning signs on the student’s social media post and alerted his mother, who then called 911.
“We're giving kids the skills they need,” Bush said. “Instead of laying there all night and worrying about what that kid had posted and not being able to sleep … we're teaching kids, ‘Let us adults handle the burden. Let us know and we will take care of it.’”
The Washoe County School District is piloting the program at five schools: Billinghurst, Dilworth, Marce Herz and Clayton middle schools and Sparks High School. The district is using about $40,000 of its federal COVID-19 funding to support the program at these schools for three years. It’s in addition to other suicide prevention efforts the district is working on, including mental health screenings.
Carissima “Crisy” Coulon and Kara Murphy, Hope Squad advisers at Sparks and Dilworth, said they wanted to bring the program to their campuses because students are already talking about their mental health struggles with each other, especially over social media, and usually know what’s going on with a student even before adults.
“A lot of times, if they don't know what to do, they don't do anything,” Coulon said about the peers of struggling students.
Youth suicide has become a growing issue in Nevada. It was the leading cause of death among youth ages 10-17 from 2017 to 2020, according to a 2022 state report.
Across the country, the overall number of deaths by suicide increased by almost 3 percent from 2021 to 2022, according to provisional 2022 data released last November by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The data also showed a 8.4 percent decrease in suicides among people ages 10-24.
In a 2021 statewide survey, the latest year results are available for, about 12 percent of high school students said they attempted suicide during the 12 months before the survey, nearly 20 percent indicated they made a plan on how they would attempt suicide and 22 percent said they had seriously considered attempting suicide.
Among middle school students, 8 percent said they attempted suicide, 13 percent made a plan and 20 percent seriously considered suicide.
In Washoe County, youth suicide has become the one of the top preventable causes of death among Washoe County children. The number of suicides by children ages 17 and younger grew from three suicides in 2016 to six suicides in 2022. The county is still compiling its 2023 data, but so far has tracked six youth suicides.
Denise Tyre, a supervisor for the Washoe County Human Services Agency, said she attributes part of this upward trend to youth exposure to the idea of suicide on social media and TV.
“There's lots of trends out there and they tend to kind of glorify it a little bit, even kind of minimize the severity of it,” she said.
Tyre said the county is using grant funding it received last year to create training videos to help its first responders spot suicide warning signs and raise awareness of the issue when they are out working with children and families. She said the county is focused on expanding opportunities for youth to have conversations about suicide with trusted adults at home or school and destigmatize the topic.
Spreading hope in schools
Unlike typical school clubs and organizations, students are selected to be a part of Hope Squad through nominations by their peers.
“These are kids that other kids know are trustworthy, are kind [and] care about other kids,” Bush said.
Sparks High School junior Omar Hurtado said he decided to join Hope Squad because he has gone through a period of feeling depressed and suicidal himself.
“I want to help those people get the help that I felt like I didn't have at the time,” Hurtado said.
Dilworth eighth grader Tyrell Montegomery said he wanted to join to be around other people who want to help others and to be more aware of his peers around him.
The program prepares students on how best to approach a classmate who’s experiencing suicidal thoughts, and what’s the best language to use. For example, Hurtado said rather than saying someone “committed suicide,” which can have a negative connotation, more preferred terms would be “a victim of suicide.”
“You don't want to say someone committed anything because it's not a crime, it's not a sin,” Hurtado said. “You want to be kind of careful with the words you use because if you make it sound negative, you're kind of making it a norm that it's very bad to feel suicidal, it's wrong, and it makes people closed off to expressing themselves.”
Breanna Gianopoulos, Dilworth Hope Squad’s second adviser, said the program also emphasizes self-care to its members and making sure they are taking care of themselves by setting emotional, social and physical boundaries.
“It's OK to tell your friends that you care about them and that you love them, but it's also OK to say, ‘Hey, I'm not the one that's responsible, like, I can't. Yeah, I need to make sure that I'm getting you the help that you need by somebody that's a trained professional.’”
Sparks senior Joshua Rogers said he’s already been able to apply the skills and knowledge he’s learned through Hope Squad in real life.
“I personally have had a lot of friends that have had a lot of signs of being suicidal and Hope Squad has kind of allowed me to see it more and better talk to them about it, and just try to get them to be willing to get help,” he said.
At Dilworth, students have been working to spread hope throughout their school by passing out handmade bracelets to any students or staff who Hope Squad members feel needs a little help or a little extra love.
“We've taught them and the staff here that if you see somebody else, you can pass that bracelet on to somebody else,” Murphy said. “So it's not necessarily to keep; it's to pass on to spread love and hope.”
She said demand for the bracelets has grown so much that students have been asked to make more.
Sparks’ Hope Squad is planning on building more visibility and starting a conversation on suicide awareness. Rogers said he is hopeful that he and other Hope Squad members will be able to make a difference at their school.
“I know a lot of people probably struggle with thinking that they're alone. So Hope Squad’s big goal is to really make them understand that we're here for them,” he said.
People thinking about suicide can call or text 988 for free and confidential support. This service is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. A chat function is also available on the organization’s website.
This story was updated at 10:55 a.m. on 1/22/24 to correct the list of Washoe schools piloting the Hope Squad program, ,and at 12:02 p.m. to correct a Sparks’ Hope Squad adviser’s name, based on updated information provided by the district.