The Provo Story
Provo City School District in Provo, Utah is the tenth largest school district in Utah. It is home to Brigham Young University and considered one of the most family-oriented communities in the West.
For many years, youth suicide was a silent tragedy. Provo was averaging one to two youth suicides a year for over twelve years, including the death of a fourth-grader who took his life on the school campus.
Dr. Gregory A. Hudnall, a high school principal had dealt with the loss of students to suicide during his tenure. Then in 1997, he was contacted by the Provo Police to come down and identify a student who had taken his life by suicide in the park next to his school. After working with the police he returned to his car and threw up and sobbed over the loss of the student.
While sitting in his car trying to recover from the experience, he made a vow that he would do everything he could to prevent another child from taking their life. The next year he was promoted to the Provo City School District office, which totaled 16,000 students in a community of 120,000 residents.
The Utah County Hope Task Force
A community task force was created bringing together the mayor, city council, mental health agencies, school districts and universities, faith-based organizations, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, business leaders, law enforcement, and concerned parents. The task force spent five years becoming certified in QPR, creating a volunteer mobile crisis team and educating thousands of residents in suicide prevention. Their mantra became, “while it takes an entire village to raise a child, we believe it takes an entire community to save one!” This effort led to the creation of a comprehensive community-based suicide prevention model. He called this model Circles4Hope, which brings together schools, communities, and mental health agencies for suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention.
The Circles4Hope model guided their mission to prevent youth suicides in the community. Over the next five years the numbers were reduced, but not eliminated. Then at Provo High School, a ninth-grader tried to give his watch to his best friend. When the friend reminded him that the watch was a gift from his dad, he replied, “My family would be better off without me.” The boy went on to tell a dozen friends that he was going to take his life and, unfortunately, he did. The friends had never told an adult.
Dr. Hudnall then realized the potential and the importance of positive “peer-to-peer” interactions. He thought if he could harness them for good to help prevent suicide, it might work.
The First Hope Squad
Dr. Hudnall and his team went into Timpview High, a school right next to Brigham Young University, with 2,100 students in grades 9-12. It was their “ground zero” secondary school at the time that had more threats, more attempts and unfortunately, more suicides than any other school in the district in the past ten years. The thought was that if successful suicide prevention could happen at Timpview High, it could be successful anywhere.
The team went through every English class asking the students to name three peers that were kind, easy to talk to, and didn’t bully. After collecting the thousands of surveys, the most remarkable thing happened, the same forty names rose to the top!
These students became the first Hope Squad members, trained to identify suicide warning signs in their peers and refer those peers to adults. After the first successful year, Dr. Hudnall implemented Hope Squads in every school in the Provo City School District; three high schools, three middle schools, and thirteen elementary schools—forever changing the district’s approach to suicide prevention. For nine years after this program was implemented, suicides in the Provo City School District dropped to zero.
Research & Partnership
The Hope Squad became part of the daily routine in Provo City School District. Curriculum was developed in partnership with the local mental health agency, University of Utah, and Brigham Young University. The psychology department at Brigham Young University spent three years researching children’s stories to compliment the three-year program for fourth through sixth grade that focuses on resilience, anti-bullying and mental wellness.
Sharing the Message of Hope
Dr. Hudnall was invited to testify to the United States Surgeon General, Dr. David Satcher, on suicide in Utah and the Hope Squad program. Because of this presentation, he was invited to present to the U.S. Department of Health and asked by President Obama’s team to present with Dr. Richard McKean from SAMHSA.
Hope Squads are now in 25 states and Canada, which involves over 800 schools. The program is slated to start in Ghana in September 2020. During the sixteen years since Timpview High School started a Hope Squad, the school has not lost a student to suicide. And as Hope Squad grows, we will continue to spread hope and save more lives.