DE PERE, Wis. (WFRV) – Suicide is a growing concern in Wisconsin and the second leading cause of death in 2017 among adolescents. But as Kris Schuller reports there is help through a program called Hope Squad, active within the De Pere school district, working to prevent youth suicide.
In the halls of De Pere Middle School, you’ll find the hustle and bustle of just another school day. But mental health experts say some of these kids could be burdened by much more than their next homework assignment.
“There’s a lot of issues with our youth navigating social pressures and social media – the things they feel that I think is a burden on them,” said Erin Bongers from the Brown County Coalition for Suicide Prevention. “Our kids are more socially isolated now than they ever have been.”
In 2017, 918 Wisconsin residents died by suicide and it was the second leading cause of death among adolescents. Bongers fears that isolation could lead some kids to consider harming themselves.
“It’s really something that has become a public health concern that we need to do something,” Bongers said.
Enter Hope Squad, a De Pere School District suicide prevention and intervention program.
“Hope Squad is a peer-to-peer support program to help students struggling with mental health issues or students that might be thinking of hurting themselves or taking their life,” said Melanie Brick, social worker within the De Pere School District and coordinator of Hope Squad.
Founded by a former Utah high school principal 15 years ago, the program trains students on how to help students and when best to alert an adult. Brought first to Foxview Intermediate School in 2018 thanks to a grant, Hope Squads are now active in De Pere’s middle and high schools.
“So basically, we take a group of kids chosen by their peers. We use students because kids are more likely to talk to their peers about issues they are struggling with or thinking about – like suicide or thinking about harming themselves or being very depressed,” Brick said.
“They teach us how to listen to people, how to talk to them and how to get them to get help or how to help them,” said 7th grader Gabby Hauser, a member of Hope Squad.
“It’s important to know that someone is there for you no matter what you need, no matter what’s going on in your life, that there is someone you can talk too,” said Julianne Bradford, also in 7th grade and a member of Hope Squad.
“If you see kids sitting alone, go talk to them – say hi, how are you doing?” said Bongers.
The program is now expanding into the West De Pere School District, as well as parochial schools in De Pere, due in large part to the fundraising efforts of one man who calls Hope Squad vital.
“I just know deep in my heart that it’s making a difference,” said the owner of Cotter Funeral Home.
Mike Cotter raised $60,000 to expand the initiative. Motivated to act after caring for a middle school student that committed suicide two years ago.
“It’s important to show every, every person on this earth, that they are important, that they have importance in this world,” Cotter said.
In 2018 the Unified School District of De Pere was the second district in the state to implement Hope Squad.
“We want them to feel like they always have a safe place to come talk, that they are supported and even when in periods of struggle we’re here to help. We want to make a difference and we want to keep them alive,” Brick said.
It’s 7th grader. Hauser, that may have summed up the mission of Hope Squad best, “I think it’s important for everyone to know that someone is there for them.”
STORY BEHIND THE STORY
Local 5’s Digital Director Josh Rose spoke with Kris Schuller live on Facebook about how important the Hope Squad and what it takes for kids to get involved. Watch the full discussion below.