Northeast Ohio students opening the conversation on preventing teen suicide

Nichole Vrsansky, WOIO
December 21, 2023

Medina County, Ohio (WOIO) - A mental health crisis is looming among our kids. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for those ages 15 to 24 years old.

But what if help from their own classmates could be part of the solution?

The 19 solutions team looking into a local program that has saved lives.

“As soon as I received that note, I knew they were in danger of hurting themselves,” Quinn Brightbill describes an alarming message in a group chat.

The junior at Medina High School knew her friend was in the middle of a mental crisis.

She acted immediately: “I called the suicide hotline.”

Police were then called to the friend’s home.

Sgt. Seth Gaede said as soon as he arrived, it was obvious a crisis was happening.

“Our job at that point was to make sure we could get in and alleviate the crisis and make sure we take care of this person,” said Sgt. Gaede.

Sgt. Gaede believes Quinn’s actions saved her friend’s life that day.

Quinn is one of sixty-two students on the Medina High School ‘Hope Squad’: a special team of teens trained to listen and help guide peers who are struggling.

They also learn how to spot a mental health emergency and act.

“It’s definitely a lot more easy to talk to someone your age, than an adult or a teacher because there’s always the feeling that they’re not going to understand you or you’re going to get in trouble,” said Stella Allen, a freshman member of the Hope Squad.

The first ‘Hope Squad’ started in Utah in 2004 by a principal who lost a student to suicide.

The program has grown to now more than 1,600 hundred schools nationwide.

Research in Ohio finds schools with ‘Hope Squads’ have less suicide-related stigma and more referrals of high-risk students who were able to get support, according to the Ohio Hope Squad Comparison Study.

“You have to normalize the conversation about mental wellness, about preventing suicide and that just means you got to talk about it,” explains Ron Blue.

Blue runs the ‘Hope Squad’ program at Medina High, which started in 2019. Blue says there were skeptics at first, but the need for help was there.

The CDC says nearly 37% of high school students reported feeling sad or hopeless in the past year, and nearly 19% have seriously considered suicide.

“If you were to ask all 62 of our hope squad kids how many of you guys were talking about these types of things before, every single one raises their hand. And the adults who hear that are like, stunned, ‘Really? This stuff goes on already?’ Oh yeah it goes on, now we have a structure in place and a protocol in place where we can link them to help,” said Blue.

But is it too much responsibility to put on kids, for their own mental health?

“We pound into the kids’ head, ‘you’re not counselors, you’re not therapists, you’re not expected to be, but you’re good listeners,” said Blue, adding, “that is powerful medicine just being heard and our kids are great at that.”

The students believe ‘Hope Squad’ is making a difference.

“Yeah, hope squad makes a difference because we all pretty much have our own personal testimonies of kids that have come up to us and people we’ve potentially saved,” said Caleb Sundermeier.

Quinn was honored by police with an award for her quick thinking.

“I do believe Quinn’s actions possibly did save a life that day, and this is something I believe the rest of the schools around the area could learn from,” said Sgt. Gaede.

“I’m just thankful that I got them to the police officers,” said Quinn.

Other local schools have approached the Medina School District about the ‘Hope Squad’ to see if it would be a fit for their schools too. Many have signed on.

If you or someone you know is struggling with a mental health crisis, call 988 for the suicide and crisis lifeline.