Breaking point: How one Utah community is winning the fight against suicide

Published: Saturday, April 26 2014 7:10 p.m. MDT

Since devoting all of his time to suicide prevention since July, Hudnall said HOPE4UTAH has given more than 100 presentations to more than 6,000 people in 65 cities from Brigham City to St. George. The group is often called to communities recently impacted by suicide and offers training, sets up community support systems and develops hope squads in the schools.

The idea is to help everyone recognize the warning signs in people who are struggling, and then get them the help they need. It's made a difference in Provo and now in Syracuse because there is a commitment to sustaining the prevention efforts and a willingness to talk about suicide.

"A lot of entities have a suicide, we come in and fix it, and then a little while later, they don't want to do it anymore because they haven't had another suicide — that's why you keep doing it," Hudnall said.

Focus on schools

Hudnall said he has always emphasized schools, because it can be a difficult place where adolescents struggle with identity, bullying and feelings of isolation. One particularly successful program is the in-school "hope squads" comprising students identified by other students as those who they can go to for help.

Wendy Nelson, principal at Syracuse High School, said she had been asking her own questions about what could be done in Syracuse to save lives. She brought the issue up in community council meetings and became involved in NUHOPE's education committee.

After the town hall meeting, the high school launched its hope squad. About a year ago, the school sent a survey to the returning and incoming students asking which students were the best listeners or the most trustworthy.

"They're the people that the students may go to that aren't necessarily the popular kids, but they're the people (the students are) comfortable with," Nelson explained.

The students whose names appeared the most were contacted, as were their parents. Austad and another educator gave a training session, and parents signed off on their child's participation.

There are about 25 students who are active in the hope squad at Syracuse High School, where they undergo training and have monthly meetings. There are also four advisers on the school's staff.

Nelson said there have been many instances in which students have approached hope squad members, advisers and school staff about their own struggles or those of their friends.

Some weeks, she said, students are referred to them on a daily basis, other weeks less so. In all of those instances, the student's parents are contacted and the student either goes home or directly to a doctor, Nelson said.

Currently, six students are in residential treatment programs. In the past two years, school resource officers have transported 10 students to the emergency room for immediate treatment of their struggles.

"The students love to help each other, they really do, and they have a means now and they feel safe and they know that we're going to address it no matter what it is," Nelson said. "In 2012, we had two suicides. We haven't had any completed suicides since."

Austad said the students are the eyes and ears on the ground. One hope squad member overheard two girls in the restroom discussing what to do about a friend who was struggling.

"This hope squad member stepped up in the restroom and said, 'I know what to do. I can help you,'" Austad said. "She took those two friends to a hope squad adviser, and they were able to get the friend … some help."

She said most of the hope squad students have expressed gratitude at being able to have the resources to help the people who were already coming to them.

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