Hope Squad aims to provide hope to fight suicides

Suzie Romig, Steamboat Pilot & Today
May 5, 2024

When Steamboat Springs High School freshman Henley Kerrigan talked with someone over summer break who was asking questions about suicide, she did the best she could to help.

Now though, since Kerrigan is a member of the high school’s new Hope Squad, she knows more about how to help a person with suicide ideation.

“In the moment, I was just stressed,” Kerrigan said of the conversation. “I feel like if that happened to me again, I would know what to do.”

Kerrigan is one of the Hope Squad volunteer students who participated in an impactful “Question, Persuade, Refer” training at the high school on Wednesday. QPR, similar to the bystander rescue technique of CPR, provides emergency intervention for someone experiencing a life-threating crisis.

“It was super informational and really opened up my eyes to what other people go through,” Kerrigan said. “A lot of people try to cover it up and only provide hints because of the fear of being shamed.”

According to HopeSquad.com, students and teachers work as a squad to spread hope and prevent suicide utilizing an evidence-based, peer-to-peer suicide prevention program built around the power of connection.

Senior Cole Campbell helped bring Hope Squad to the high school by working with Shelby DeWolfe, school district behavioral health and restorative practices manager. Next school year, the Hope Squad will add more student volunteers who are nominated by their peers for being kind, non-judgmental, bold leaders and good listeners. Teachers, counselors and an assistant principal are serving as trained Hope Squad staff advisors, including Tanya Rivera-Vigil, Kim Horton, Lara Sigmon, Paige Groenwald, Tyler Seislove, Thomas Gallegos and Katy Kingsland.

The Yampa Valley saw 10 deaths from suicide in 2023, and already this year in Routt County, four people have died by suicide as well as one person in Moffat County, according to nonprofit Reaching Everyone Preventing Suicide. The Rocky Mountain Region has the highest suicide rate in the country, and suicide rates on the Western Slope can be up to three times the rate of the rest of Colorado, according to REPS.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention notes Colorado ranked sixth in U.S. states in deaths from suicide in 2021. Suicide was the second leading cause of death in Colorado for ages 10 to 34 in 2021.

QPR trainer Meghan Francone, a program coordinator for REPS in Craig, provided a factual and powerful presentation for the students, including telling the squad about losing her 14-year-old family member and Moffat County High School freshman to suicide in 2010.

Several of the students already knew some contributing factors for the higher prevalence of suicide in Northwest Colorado, such as living in the higher elevation “suicide belt,” more social isolation in rural areas, less access to mental health resources, seasonal depression from long winters, prevalence and access to guns and the tough Western mentality of not wanting to ask for help.

Francone also pointed to the “Cinderella effect” when people move to beautiful places thinking they can outrun their problems.

QPR training notes that because of the stigma and taboo around the word suicide, many people considering suicide do not speak plainly about their suffering. Instead they often use indirect language and hint at what they are thinking of doing.

“Talking about suicide with someone willing and able to listen reduces psychological pain almost immediately,” according to QPR.

“People are already thinking about suicide or they are not,” Francone said. “We are not going to plant that idea in somebody’s head.”

Hope Squad is a national program first implemented in 2004 at Timpview High School in Provo, Utah, and Hope Squads are now in more than 1,600 schools in the U.S. and Canada.

“SSHS is committed for the next three years to continue the on-going programming, education and nomination process to ensure we consistently have students from every grade represented on the Hope Squad member team,” DeWolfe explained.  

Rivera-Vigil, assistant principal, said she looks forward to how the Hope Squad can help students and even adults in the community.

“You don’t keep secrets about this stuff,” Rivera-Vigil said. “That’s a huge piece is seeking help for people who are hurting and making sure they have someone they can go to when they’re hurting. We want to make sure kids know where to go and how to support each other.”