Research is fundamental to Hope Squad’s mission and plays an important role in the ongoing development and delivery of the program. Training is based on years of suicide prevention theory, research, and best practices. Hope Squad works with researchers at the University of Cincinnati, Brigham Young University, and the University of Utah to evaluate and develop the program.
There are two presiding theories undergirding the work of Hope Squad. First, Thomas Joiner’s Interpersonal Theory of Suicide (IPTS) is the dominant theory in suicide research and practice. In his book, Why People Die By Suicide, Joiner describes the three mechanisms that, in tandem, could identify those at highest risk for suicide death: perceived burdensomeness, thwarted belongingness, and capability for suicide.
Joiner argues that when a person assesses that their cost to their loved ones is more than they contribute, that may result in perceiving oneself as a burden. When that same person feels as though their primary tribe of support, such as friends and family, no longer want them or love them, and when they have lowered inhibitions about death, dying, pain, and injury, they are at the most vulnerable to suicide. In a 2007 publication, Joiner further argues that this theory can be applied to school-aged adolescents. Although adolescents may arrive at these three emotional states a different way than adults, these areas of concern align regardless of age. Complicating factors for youth could be family dynamics, pressures of peer relationships, academics, and other systems that young people require to thrive.
In practice, Hope Squad’s work addresses the elements of Joiner’s theory. First, Hope Squads use unconditional positive regard and intentional outreach to forward acceptance and belongingness to all students, regardless of mental state, emotional health, or suicide risk. Second, Hope Squads employ positive messaging to all students in order to highlight each student’s value, the importance of their life and contribution to the school and student body. Lastly, Hope Squads are trained to report lethality risk, including the possession of a lethal mean, such as a gun, poison, or other items or mechanisms by which a peer could harm or kill themselves.
A second important theory relevant to the work of Hope Squad is Kalafat’s sentinel research on peer-to-peer disclosure of suicide risk. Their findings suggest that young people tell each other of their risk as opposed to going to an adult for help. Hope Squads work to address concerns about students keeping “deadly secrets” when peers disclose suicidal thoughts to each other. Hope Squads advertise themselves as peers who, without judgment, will listen and shepherd someone to help, using a warm-handoff whenever possible. This may reduce the fear and angst young people have in seeking help.
Hope Squad is supported by several other strands of research. In a systematic review of suicide prevention programs, Surgenor, Quinn, and Hughes recommend that prevention efforts be long term, flexible, interactive, and have clearly defined learning outcomes. They suggest that successful programs focus on both protective and risk factors and engage multiple levels (e.g, individual, school environment, parents). Additionally, Marraccini and Brier report that programs focusing on improving school climate and promoting connectedness help reduce suicide risk. Doan suggests schools should create a comfortable group climate and train students to recognize potentially suicidal peers. According to Mazza and Reynolds, creating a sense of belonging can be challenging in a school setting but can be one of the best preventative measures within a school to help prevent suicide.
Finally, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) supports the need for suicide prevention in schools for the following reasons:
- Maintaining a safe school environment is part of a school’s overall mission.
- Students’ mental health can affect their academic performance.
- A student suicide can significantly impact other students and the entire school community.
- Schools have been sued for failure to get assistance for a student at risk of suicide and for failure to notify the student’s parents.
Joiner, T. (2007). Why people die by suicide. Harvard University Press.
Kalafat, J., & Elias, M. (1992). Adolescents’ experience with and response to suicidal peers. Suicide and Life‐Threatening Behavior, 22(3), 315-321.
Marraccini, M. E., & Brier, Z. M. F. (2017). School connectedness and suicidal thoughts and behaviors: A systematic meta-analysis. School Psychology Quarterly,
Mazza, J.J, & Reynolds, W.M. (2008). School-wide approaches to prevention of and intervention for depression and suicidal behaviors. Transforming School Mental Health Services, 213–41. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2012). Preventing suicide: A toolkit for high schools. Retrieved from store.samhsa.gov/product/Preventing-Suicide-A-Toolkit-for-High-Schools/SMA12-4669
Surgenor, P.W.G., Quinn, P., & Hughes, C. (2016). Ten recommendations for effective school-based adolescent, suicide prevention programs. School Mental Health, 8: 413–24. Retrieved from doi.org/10.1007/s12310-016-9189-9