According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, and the second leading cause of death of adolescents. Despite its prevalence, talking about suicide is something most people, especially young people, find uncomfortable. Jennifer Wright-Berryman, PhD, assistant professor in the School of Social Work at the College of Allied Health Sciences is part of an effort determined to change that through the work of Hope Squads.
Hope Squads are school-based peer-to-peer suicide prevention programs that empower students. The first one was founded in 1999 by Greg Hudnall, EdD, in Provo, Utah, following the suicide of a 14-year-old boy in the public park next to his high school. Wright-Berryman’s work on suicide awareness and prevention in her hometown of Columbus, Indiana, led to efforts to bring Hope Squads to the Greater Cincinnati area.
"Hope Squad students are trained to do intentional outreach with peers in distress and shepherd them to an adult,” says Wright-Berryman, who is the lead researcher at the national level for Hope Squad. "What we know from research is that kids don’t tell adults about suicidal thoughts, they tell each other. The way the Hope Squad students are trained is they will either ask to take them to a counselor or a trusted teacher or coach or staff member.”
Wright-Berryman was recently contacted by Diane Egbers, who lost her 15-year-old son Grant to suicide in 2015. Egbers and her husband Tom founded Grant Us Hope, a Cincinnati-based suicide prevention agency whose vision is to have suicide prevention programming in every school in Hamilton County, then Ohio and then the nation. Wright-Berryman says in the short term, she is working with Grant Us Hope to take Hope Squads to schools in the Cincinnati area.
"Right now we have about 22 schools at the table, and we’re conducting needs assessments to see where they are, what their needs are and where they’re going to go,” she says. "We are in the process of combing through that data, and we will start implementing Hope Squads in some of these schools this fall.”
Hope Squads are tailored to be age-appropriate for the students. In elementary schools, the Junior Hope Squads learn about friendship and belonging, and lessons preparing them for changing the culture of the school as they grow up and progress through those schools. In junior high and high school, the focus is on aggression and bullying, while at the college level, the discussion includes sexual harassment, sexual crimes and sexual safety. Wright-Berryman says they don’t start focusing on suicide itself until junior high, although that focus is shifting some as suicides victims are getting younger and younger.
"Last year we lost about 200 kids nationwide 10 and under,” Berryman says. "Here in Cincinnati in 2016 we lost an 8-year-old who hung himself, we lost a 10-year-old girl and an 11-year-old girl.”
Wright-Berryman says research on the impact social media plays on young people taking their own lives is very sparse, so she doesn’t want to jump to a conclusion.
"Of all the factors that contribute to a child taking their own life, certainly harassment and bullying of any sort can be a critical factor,” Berryman says. "The recent research shows that in-person bullying is more predictive of suicide deaths in kids than is cyberbullying.”
Wright-Berryman’s vision is to start working with the Hope Squad curriculum at a much younger age and take it beyond just the Hope Squad.
"I want to work with our parents, our pediatricians, anyone who engages kids so that we can start training our kids to be able to identify emotional pain in the same way they identify physical pain,” she says. "We give them hugs and kisses and say ‘it’s going to be okay’ or ‘kids are mean,’ but they have no idea why they are still hurting and what to do about it. Our pediatricians, our parents, our teachers, our coaches—they don’t even know how to ask. They have no idea.”
Several groups are involved in the Hope Squads in the Cincinnati including Cincinnati Children’s, the Children’s Home of Cincinnati, Beech Acres Parenting Center, Child Focus and the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.