In 2017, Mason City Schools (MCS) students began recognizing the mental health crises their peers were facing and brought it to the attention of their school administrators. The MCS administration was quick to take action, implementing a series of directives focused on equipping students with resources and support and raising awareness for mental health throughout the district.
The following year, a chapter of the Utah-based peer-to-peer suicide prevention program, HOPE Squad, was established at Mason High School (MHS). The mission of the program is to “create a safe space for members to listen and refer peers to help” while “breaking down the stigma around mental health,” according to HOPE Squad member and rising MHS senior, Kaya Rossey.
MHS Advanced Placement (AP) Psychology teacher and HOPE Squad advisor, Alex Beurket, says that when students are facing a mental health crisis, they are more likely to reach out to a peer for help rather than a teacher, counselor or other trusted adult. That’s why the HOPE Squad program has been introduced in over 1,000 schools across the continent— it allows students to talk to their peers about struggles they may be facing in a casual setting that may feel less intimidating.
Although MCS has a plethora of counselors and mental health resources available for students (and HOPE Squad members acknowledge that they are not alternatives to professional help), the student advocates have an advantage that staff members do not. HOPE Squad members can see their peers’ activity on social media, where students may post more personal content for their friends to see.
HOPE Squad members are first nominated by their peers to the program before they undergo training. It teaches them to listen to other students and refer them to other resources when needed. HOPE Squad services are available as a comforting first step students can take to feel heard and then be directed to professional help.
This year, the HOPE Squad also welcomed a different kind of member: Hibbs, MHS’ new therapy dog, who Alex hosts. “Hibbs has been great for our students,” Alex says. “He’s been a source of calm and relaxation when he comes into classrooms to hang out with the kids.”
In discussions about health, Alex says the conversation is often divided into mental, physical, and emotional aspects without considering how they impact each other.
“We’re one body, one system, and everything we do impacts our health— everything is interconnected. We try to talk with our members about the importance of being healthy, setting boundaries, practicing self care and doing things that actively make them healthier,” he explains.
Kaya, who is also an advocate for mental health outside of HOPE Squad, says that she wants her generation to be the last to experience a stigma around mental health.
“I want to acknowledge the difficult, uncomfortable aspects of mental illness that can leave people feeling isolated, so we as young people can work to end the stigma,” Kaya says.
Another program working to lift the voices of MCS students is the Building Relationships And Valuing Experiences (BRAVE) Ambassador program. Alicea Wortham, a 4th grade English as a second language (ESL) teacher at Mason Elementary School, serves as the Building Leader of the BRAVE program.
Alicea says the mission of the program is “to provide space for young learners to take on leadership roles and proactively integrate diversity, equity, and inclusion into our school and our community.”
As ambassadors for the BRAVE program, 3rd and 4th grade students are encouraged to put their own ideas into action by forming committees. Fifteen Mason Elementary staff members also volunteered their time and helped facilitate the work of the committee groups. The committees meet regularly so the ambassadors can collaborate and plan activities. Through their projects, the ambassadors have impacted not only their school, but the Mason community as well--and all during a pandemic.
“They have spread inspiring messages to the student body and personalized tokens of appreciation for our students and staff members,” Alicea says. “Beyond that, our committees have worked on projects that shine a light on our essential care workers, spread kindness to elders in the community, provide care packages to the homeless, and help keep our area parks clean.”
Alicea says being a facilitator for a student-led program has been a dream of hers for years.
“Sometimes, we as adults have to step aside and listen to the thoughts, ideas, passions and concerns our children have about the world around them,” Alicea says. “When we give them an opportunity to act on it; the end result is something quite beautiful.”