Aspen High School’s ‘Hope Squad’ offers peer support in mental health crises

Lucy Peterson, The Aspen Times
November 11, 2023

Aspen High School’s Hope Squad, a peer-to-peer program that trains students in mental health support skills, passed out donuts to students on Thursday morning with the message: “‘Donut’ quit.”

Aspen High School senior Caleb Seward (left) joined the Hope Squad Thursday during a Hope Week event meant to destigmatize mental health among students. He is a member of the high school's Hope Squad, a group that offers peer-to-peer mental health support.Lucy Peterson/The Aspen Times

The Hope Squad is a group of 25 students that is taking the charge to destigmatize mental health and enhance suicide prevention. Students from 9th to 12th grade are elected by their peers to serve on the Hope Squad and are meant to help fellow students access mental health support.

They are trained to question, persuade, and refer (QPR) when students come to them to talk through something. Members of the Hope Squad will talk with students about what they are going through, persuade them to seek professional help, and refer them to someone who can best support their needs, like a teacher or school counselor.

In a small community where any loss can feel so close to home, senior Caleb Seward said it’s important students know people are not alone in their mental health struggles and there are resources they can access if they need help.

“I understand the importance of mental health, and I know that a lot of people struggle with it, especially in our times today,” he said. “I’ve known people in my community who have committed suicide because they haven’t had the proper guidance to help them get out of that mindset.

“I understand what it’s like to lose someone, and I can’t stand by and see it happen,” he added. He joined the Hope Squad after it was formed at the high school in spring 2022.

The Hope Squad program was first started at a high school in Provo, Utah, in the early 2000s. Since then, over 1,200 high schools across 35 states and Canada have formed Hope Squads of their own.

Aspen High School’s Hope Squad stems from an International Baccalaureate (IB) curricular project called the creativity, activity, service (CAS) project, said Assistant Principal and Hope Squad adviser Becky Oliver. CAS is a project students are required to create and complete to receive their IB diplomas.

Since it was first formed by three now former Aspen High School students, it has grown into a robust program that Oliver hopes will help students for years to come. The program is funded by revenues generated from the city’s tobacco tax, she said. The money has funded Hope Squad adviser and student training, branded t-shirts that members wear each Thursday to school, so students know who they can reach out to, and events hosted by the group like Hope Week, which kicked off Monday, Nov. 6, to bring more awareness to the group and its purpose.

“A bunch of our students have had either personal experience with suicide, friends or families committing suicide, or students who have unfortunately attempted suicide,” she said. “I think our students just felt like, ‘We have got to start doing something.'”

All week, the Hope Squad has engaged with students through events to educate about and destigmatize mental health. It has hosted events to discuss the warning signs of mental health crises, how grief manifests, and how students can support one another.

The need to address mental health was heightened after the COVID-19 pandemic shut schools down and disrupted the way students learned and interacted with one another, said Annabelle Francis, a junior at Aspen High School who was nominated to be on the Hope Squad.

“I feel like during COVID, no one could really see each other, it was just hard to connect with people one on one, and I feel like that trend has not completely died down yet,” she said. “I think that is still kind of affecting us, not being able to connect with each other like we did before.”

Freshman Maria Pacheco was also nominated by her peers to serve on the Hope Squad, and she hopes she can make a difference in her next four years at Aspen High School.

“I really wanted to help people because I know suicide is really becoming a bigger problem in the world,” she said. “I wanted to provide people with a safe person or a safe place to talk.”

Aspen High School’s Hope Squad passed out donuts to students Thursday with the message “‘Donut’ quit.” It was part of the group’s Hope Week that was meant to bring awareness to the mental health resource.Lucy Peterson/The Aspen Times

The isolation of COVID certainly took a toll on students’ mental health, but declining mental health among students was present long before the pandemic, said Karen Hawkes, a post secondary counselor at Aspen High School and Hope Squad adviser.

Suicide rates in mountain communities tend to be much higher than state averages, and Pitkin County has often reflected that trend. While the county’s suicide mortality rate from 2015-2019 was in line with the state average according to data compiled by the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, data from the 2021 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey presented to Pitkin County commissioners in August 2023 showed that 39.3% of Aspen High School students reported feeling sad or hopeless for two or more weeks in a row, and 18.1% had seriously considered suicide.

“From my perspective as a post secondary counselor, I’m privileged that (students) share their stories with me, and a lot of them are struggling,” Hawkes said. “It’s not only COVID – it’s life happening around them, the climate crisis, the war now in the Middle East. It just feels like every time they turn around, they get slapped in the face with something new.”

In May, the Aspen School District joined districts across the country in suing several social media companies over the effect they can have on the mental health of students. The district is suing the parent companies of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Tik Tok, Google, and Youtube.

Josh Berro, a counselor at Aspen High School and an adviser of the Hope Squad, echoed sentiments of other Hope Squad students that they are not alone in their struggles with mental health.

“A lot of times, they think they’re the only one that really struggles. A lot of kids will come into my office individually, they’ll unload, they’ll cry, and talk about stress, anxiety, depression. Then they’ll walk out as if everything’s fine; they may feel self-conscious about kids watching them walk out of the office, and they’re caught up in these judgements and feelings,” he said. “We really want them to know that it’s universal.”

He said the ultimate goal of the Hope Squad is to encourage students to talk to adults. But by bridging that gap with peer-nominated and trusted students who are offering their support, he hopes it will significantly help stymie the growing mental health crisis among students.

“I don’t want kids to be alone, I don’t want it to be a secret,” Berro said. “I want kids to talk about what they’re feeling.”