One’s teenage years can be thrilling, but the pressure to achieve can make those years stressful. In response to rising mental health needs, Lakota Local Schools has adopted a proactive strategy, one that works to plant seeds of hope for students experiencing loneliness, depression or desperation.
Based on a program originally implemented in Utah, Hope Squads are groups of students at both Lakota high schools. Selected by their peers based on how comfortable peers would be bringing up a concern with them, the squads and their advisors work with a detailed curriculum for training. The training includes Question-Persuade-Refer (QPR), a strategy that empowers students to calmly check in on their peers and connect them to a mental health counselor when they are in crisis.
“The QPR definitely helped me. It gave me a new perspective of how to talk to people and how to be a good listener,” says Chris Dunn, a member of Lakota West’s Hope Squad.
Informally, students also work to establish trust and friendships. They host Hope Week events with activities and positive messaging. West’s Squad created bracelets with affirming messages, and East’s Squad gave out sunflowers in January to spread some sunshine.
“I loved seeing everyone’s faces when we gave out the sunflowers,” says Ellie Leisten, a rising senior at Lakota East. “We want to make Hope Week even bigger and better understood next year.”
Mental health is gaining importance in the minds of teens, according to the results of this first year.
“We are part of the national research for Hope Squad, which shows 40% of referrals have been either self-referred or by a Hope Squad member,” says Lori Brown, Director of Student Services for Lakota Local Schools. “This means they were comfortable enough to come forward. Part of the mission is to eliminate stigma about mental health concerns.”
In the future, a version of Hope Squad will be implemented in the junior schools in Lakota as well, and long-term, the Squad members want to see their strategies spread.
Chris says, “I would like, in the future, to see all students doing what Hope Squad does: spreading kindness and showing people that they are loved.”
“If you can connect with people, they can learn to trust you as a friend.”
Chris Dunn, rising Junior, Lakota West
“It was helpful to have other Hope Squad members that understood and were there to support you.”
Ellie Leisten, rising Senior, Lakota East
“I want people to know that they aren’t alone. They don’t have to run from what they’re going through.”
Eliana Bishop, rising Junior, Lakota West
“When the help is peer-to-peer, people open up about how they are struggling.”
Gavin Mullen, rising Junior, Lakota East