Student 'Hope Squads' Fight Teen Suicide by Saving Peers' Lives: 'Every School Should Have This'

Utah high school principal Greg Hudnall had just finished helping police identify the body of one of his students — who had killed himself hours earlier with a handgun in a public park — when he broke down sobbing. Sitting in his car on that dark winter night in 1997, he realized he’d lost track of exactly how many funerals of teenage suicide victims he’d attended in recent years.

“That’s when I told myself, ‘I’m done. I can’t take any more of this,’” Hudnall tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue, on stands now. “I vowed that I would do everything I could to prevent it from ever happening again.”

Hudnall, 59, has made good on his promise to try and find a solution to the soaring epidemic of teenage suicide — by creating a network of teen mentors in high schools around the country that has since shown real promise in the face of sobering statistics.

According to the latest data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, teen suicide rates skyrocketed 70 percent between 2006 and 2016. Nearly 6,800 youth between 10-24 took their lives in 2017, and each day over 3,000 teens nationwide attempt suicide.

Enlisting the help of teams of students known as Hope Squads, he and volunteers have trained over 10,000 elementary, middle school and high school students to recognize warning signs in their depressed or suicidal peers and empower them to seek help from an adult.

“They’re not counselors or therapists,” explains Hudnall, whose program works closely with local mental health experts and has recently spread from Utah to 15 other states and Canada. “But these kids become the eyes and the ears of their school.”

Hope Squad members are chosen by a simple procedure: Each year students at participating schools are asked to name three peers they would turn to if they were struggling emotionally. From that list, several dozen kids are picked to become squad members.

Over the course of the school year they receive roughly 80 hours of training in everything from how to recognize signs of suicide contemplation and depression to how to provide companionship to those students who appear in need of a friend.

Early on, Hudnall — who left his career as a school administrator to develop his Hope Squad program — realized that a critical part of the solution to the teen suicide epidemic are teens themselves.

“Seven out of ten young people who take their lives will tell a friend beforehand, not an adult,” says Hudnall, who now serves as the executive director of the group HOPE4UTAH. “And that friend will never tell anybody. That’s what happened with the young man I was asked to identify in the park. He told five people what he was going to do in the days leading up to his death.”

That’s exactly why Tyelle Gustofson, an 18-year-old recent grad from Orem, Utah’s Mountain View High School, made the tough decision to contact a school counselor last December when a close friend announced to a group of buddies that he was planning on killing himself.

“My friends all wanted to help, but didn’t know how,” recalls Gustofson. “Because of Hope Squad I knew it was something I had to act on quickly. But it was scary because I knew my friend, who has a violent temper, would be furious. But I decided I’d rather have a friend who was angry at me than one who is no longer here.”

The youth, who is currently undergoing counseling, recently thanked Gustofson for getting him help. “I can’t think of anything better than that,” he adds.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “home” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

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