Hope Squad creating community for area students and safe place to talk about their fears

Eileen McCory, Dayton Daily News
March 25, 2024

Hope Squad, a program that trains students to be peer mentors, has rapidly spread in local districts due its effectiveness and creating a sense of community among students.

Some of the area districts that have adopted the program include Oakwood, Kettering, Bellbrook, Northmont and more. In Kettering, the program is a class, while at Oakwood, it’s a club. Bellbrook has a program in middle school, while most districts concentrate on high school students.

“With Hope Squad being a peer-to-peer program, it gives the kids the power to say yes, I’m in control of my own mental health needs,” said Emily Mongelli, prevention educator at Montgomery County Educational Service Center and Hope Squad liaison.

Mongelli said students are more likely to talk to each other first before they talk to an adult. Training the students that might be the first ones to notice someone in crisis can guide those who need help the most to get it.

Mongelli said 65% of referrals to a counselor made after Hope Squad was introduced were made by students, indicating a culture shift where students understand better what their own and their peers’ mental health needs are.

Northmont ninth-grade student Faye Osborne and 10th-grader Jae’Da Jennings said their peers often struggle with many relationships, including romantic relationships, friendships and with their parents. Teenagers can also struggle with stress management and technology.

“We can actually share experiences, because nobody really knows what it’s like to be a teenager except for us,” Jennings said.

While it’s more common to see Hope Squad at high school, some middle schools have also adopted it.

“You guys matter. You’re doing excellent work,” Jaime Burnham, a Bellbrook sixth-grade English teacher and Hope Squad advisor, told Hope Squad students at Bellbrook Middle school recently.

When I first began writing about the youth mental health crisis and asked schools what they were doing to address mental health concerns among their students, Hope Squad came up repeatedly. I was skeptical. How could students helping other students improve mental health outcomes, if those students weren’t trained professionals?

But in talking to students and teachers across the region, I found the reason Hope Squad works is because it helps foster community, which many students are lacking. Loneliness is hard, especially for teenagers, who are often surrounded by people daily but may not feel they can connect with anyone.

Because the students on Hope Squad are nominated by other students and teachers, they’re identified by the schools as a “safe” person to talk to. When I visited Bellbrook Middle School, one of the Hope Squad students walked up to a student in the hall and began asking them how they felt after studying for a quiz.

Students create larger events, too. At Kettering, Hope Squad and English teacher Jessica Stickel said the students have done things like a movie night watching Inside Out, a Pixar movie about emotions, and a basketball game dedicated to mental health. Students have done art projects about mental health.

“Kids are getting interventions from adults earlier,” Stickel said.

Stickel said her former students have told her the training they got in the Hope Squad class helped them later in life

“Every couple of months, I get a call or a text or an email saying, hey, this thing happened at work, or this thing happened on my college campus, and thank you for teaching me what to do because I was able to get them home,” Stickel said. “That’s really rewarding.”

Griffin Greear, an Oakwood High School sophomore and a member of Hope Squad, said he has always been interested in talking with others about mental health.

“There’s a stigma around mental health right now, when people will bring it up,” Greear said. “People kind of clam up, and I think it’s really important to normalize that conversation.”

He said it is also important for as many people as possible to be able to identify the warning signs of severe mental health problems like suicide and be able to handle those conversations.

Amanda Schroeder, a counselor and Hope Squad teacher at Northmont, said as the person doing suicide assessments for the school, she knows many students who wouldn’t still be here if it wasn’t for Hope Squad.

“I’ll let them know that they’ve made a difference and definitely saved...a lot of lives,” Schroeder said. “Even with the small acts that they do.”