Teens who care: Combating suicide, mental health issues in Cincinnati area schools
SHARONVILLE – Jennifer Wright-Berryman looked over a room packed with Southwest Ohio teenagers sharing stories about the tough business of personifying hope in high school.
“Have people made fun of you for being on Hope Squad?” Wright-Berryman asked, and a wave of assent rolled arose. She nodded. “You are like firefighters. You are first responders. You are responding to all the fires we have to put out.”
More than 450 middle and high school students across Southwest Ohio got excused from class Monday to attend the first Ohio Hope Squad Conference at the Sharonville Convention Center. The students and their advisors have formed the region’s first Hope Squads – groups of peers trained to listen to classmates suffering disappointment, crisis, mental health problems or suicidal thoughts.
Hope Squad is a national movement to address the youth-suicide epidemic by countering the notion that teenagers don’t have the maturity to handle heavy emotions.
In Ohio, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among teenagers, and adults are wrong to think young people shouldn’t talk about suicide, said Wright-Berryman, a suicide expert in the School of Social Work at the University of Cincinnati. She also is the national research director for Hope Squad.
“These kids know just how bad the problem is,” she said. “They know better than most adults do.”
Hope Squad moved into Southwest Ohio thanks to Diane Egbers of Cincinnati, whose 15-year-old son Grant died of suicide in 2015. She said Monday she wanted her foundation, Grant Us Hope, to give teenagers tools and language to help each other.
“When Grant died, I knew we had to start doing things differently,” Egbers said. “We really hadn’t had any breakthroughs. But I feel strongly that this generation of kids is the one that will change things. They are so much more inclusive and accepting.”
Hope Squad started this school year in 39 Southwest Ohio middle and high schools, including Mason High School, the state’s largest. When a new school year starts in the fall, Egbers said, at least 55 area schools will have Hope Squads.
Students recommend classmates to Hope Squad, and squad members receive training in listening to and empathizing with students. The squad members do not offer counseling or therapy but refer students to adults who can help.
Hope Squad’s primary task is to offer a connection and a sense of belonging to all students. But spreading love and caring isn’t easy in the bubbling cauldron of high school. Wright-Berryman led sessions on changing the culture, and Hope Squad members talked about how often they hear friends say “I’m going to kill myself,” and some joker responds, “OK, Hope Squad, here’s your chance!”
Wright-Berryman counseled that teenagers often use threats because they can’t find the right words to express anger or sorrow or disappointment. So when faced with a suicide threat, a Hope Squad member can respond, “Are you all right? Because if you’re serious, I’m here for you.”
“Your message,” she said, “is that you don’t have to be on Hope Squad to spread hope.”
Published 10:16 p.m. ET March 11, 2019
Updated 9:41 a.m. ET March 12, 2019
By Anne Saker