'Starting with young people.' Hope Squad suicide prevention spreads across Cape schools

Rasheek Tabassum Mujib, Cape Cod Times
September 23, 2023

On Thursday morning, student members of the Falmouth High School Hope Squad, along with their advisers, huddled together, clapped their hands and broke the huddle, yelling “hope squad” to finish off their meeting.

Student members, wearing gray sweatshirts with the Hope Squad logo written on the front, went on to join their regular classes of the day. Members of Hope Squad stand out as trusted classmates, someone to whom students can share their concerns and worries.

“There’s a presence of this group in the school now, students know there’s a group you can turn to where other students have your back,” said Tyler Murphy, an English teacher at Falmouth High School. “Anyone, be it their friend, a student from one of their classes, teachers, or guidance counselors, it is evident with this group that they will have your back and these kids are here for everybody in the school.”

What is the Hope Squad?

Hope Squad is a peer-to-peer suicide prevention program, a student organization overseen by advisers.

The student members are not counselors. Rather they are someone students would choose to go to, with anything that concerns them. The members are nominated by their classmates as trustworthy and then the squad members receive education and training in peer intervention.

“The squad is like an united team consisting of different groups and everyone comes together to show the whole school that if we work together, we can be better together,” said Victoria Fialho, 15, a sophomore.

Falmouth High School is the first school in Massachusetts to develop a Hope Squad

Hope Squad is a national program started by a high school principal in Utah in early 2000s, as a way to prevent youth suicide.

Sharing Kindness, an Orleans-based nonprofit, introduced the idea to Falmouth High School students and staff. This year, Nauset Regional High School in North Eastham, Monomoy Regional High School in Harwich, Cape Cod Regional Technical High School in Harwich and Barnstable High School in Hyannis are also starting squads.

According to Dr. Kim Mead-Walters, executive director of Sharing Kindness, students in ten of 15 towns on Cape — more than 4,870 students — will have access to Hope Squad.

“The program reduces youth suicide through education, training, and peer intervention and currently Hope Squad is in over 40 states and more than 1,600 schools across the country,” said Mead-Walters.

“Squad members are more aware of the signs of suicide or somebody who might be struggling and they know who the trusted adults are and who they can refer to and that's what they're trained to do,” said Mead-Walters.

“We're making the school feel inclusive and people feel connected to each other,” said Catherine Fauth, school adjustment counselor at Falmouth High School. “The number one way to prevent suicide is for people to feel like they are a part of something.”

Advisers and students go through training following the Hope Squad curriculum

According to Mead-Walters, Hope Squad follows a specific method, QPR — question, persuade, refer — which is a suicide prevention program. Students learn how to identify signs of struggle, how to talk to their peers while validating their feelings and how to be there for others.

At the same time, the focus of Hope Squad is also to teach students how to take care for themselves, so that they can help others.

Bringing the whole school together

“It’s awesome being a part of this, because it's one of the only school-wide things where I've seen all students actually participating and like having fun doing it,” she said. “It brings the whole school together.”

“Different people from different groups came together with a common goal to improve the school and it’s a great feeling being part of this group,” said Tommy Bushy, 18, a senior.

The student squad members work "to identify who the struggling ones are and to know what the initial problem is and then we hand it over to the professionals,” said Evan Hauptmann, 18, another senior.

"One of the concerns that most parents have before starting is that we're asking the kids to be counselors, and I want to stress we're not asking that," said Mead-Walters. "We try to educate them to look for the signs and we're educating them to know who to turn to, because the peers see and hear things differently than teachers and we want them to know how and who to ask for help."

There is a growing need for mental health programs among youth

Barnstable County has lost more people between the ages of 18 and 29 to self-directed violence than any other county in the state for more than a decade, said Mead-Walters.

“Young people are asking for programs to help them connect to their peers to help them build communities for suicide awareness,” she said. “This generation of young people certainly struggle more but they also have tremendous insight, openness and vulnerability to ask for help.”

The problem continues to grow.

“Every year the mental health needs have increased and especially since COVID,” said Erica Tasha-Oliveira, a school adjustment counselor at Cape Cod Regional Technical High School.

A new way to look at mental health

According to Lee Docherty, the youth development and dropout prevention coordinator at Barnstable High School, it's a lot harder to be a kid now and especially with the changing demography of Cape Cod.

“A lot more kids are interested in destigmatizing conversations about mental health and the kids are willing to do serious conversations about it, they're interested in helping their friends and creating a safe environment for each other,” said Docherty.

Hope Squad is creating a new way to look at mental health, said Murphy, the English teacher in Falmouth.

“Though we're starting with young people, hopefully that trickles into society as a whole,” he said. “We’re starting with the schools and if it spreads throughout the Cape, it might spread throughout this region and it becomes something bigger.”

Mead-Walters says focusing on young people is critical.

“In this beautiful area where our demographic tends to be older and the services are often directed in that way, we're not addressing the struggles of our youth and young people, and we need to hear their voices,” she said.