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Hope Squad: Young Las Vegans reach out to struggling peers to prevent suicide

Wade Vandervort

Hope Squad members from left, Alexis Fukuda, Katherine Cutie, Adam Gent, Bella Picasso-Kennedy, Andy Hang, Tiyanni Commodore, Jessica Bui, Maribel Carrera Garcia, Tara Powell, Izabella Zwiesler pose for a photo at Spring Valley High School Friday, Aug. 27, 2021.

Andy Hang wants his classmates to know that suicide is not the answer.

After facing a mental health challenge his freshman year, the now-junior at Spring Valley High School wanted to lend the kind of support that could make all the difference between a trying but temporary condition and a devastatingly permanent one. He joined Spring Valley’s Hope Squad.

Hope Squad is a nationwide peer-to-peer intervention program that has kids looking out for indications of depression, self-harm and suicide in other kids and steering them to adults who can help. They aren’t counselors but facilitators, who keep their eyes, ears and minds open as they build relationships and follow the principle of Question-Persuade-Refer.

“We want to provide that hope, that faith, that light at the end of the tunnel,” Andy said.

Those contemplating suicide can call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the National Hopeline Network at 1-800-SUICIDE (784-2433). The Crisis Call Center Text Line can be reached by texting “LISTEN” to 839863.

Tam Larnerd was the principal at Spring Valley when one of his teachers pitched him on Hope Squad last year. It was a few weeks before the coronavirus pandemic shut down in-person schooling and upended everyone’s life for more than a year.

Even without that potentially triggering shift, Larnerd eagerly accepted. 

He clearly remembers his five students who died by suicide over his 27 years as an educator in Clark County’s schools. He gets emotional when recalling having to deliver the news to every class.

There’s a good chance that one of those classmates had seen a red flag in the case of a suicide, though. Hope Squad members put that information to vital use by taking it to a trusted adult.

“Kids who have suicide ideation, or are considering suicide, they rarely tell an adult,” Larnerd said. “But 70% of the time, they’ll tell a friend.”

The Nevada Coalition for Suicide Prevention said suicide is the leading cause of death for Nevadans ages 12-19. For every teen who dies by suicide, an estimated 100-200 have attempted it; one of the biggest risk factors for completed suicide is a previous attempt, the coalition says.

At least a dozen Clark County School District students died by suicide just between July 2020 and December.

Nevada has the seventh-highest rate of suicide across all ages in the country, according to the American Association of Suicidology. That’s as of 2019, the most recent data available.

Larnerd said Hope Squads aren’t really guided by data because that information can be dated or incomplete. The number he cares about is “zero.”

“Whether it’s going up or it’s going down, I think we can all agree that one is too many,” he said.

Larnerd credited health and physical education teacher Adam Gent with launching Spring Valley’s club. The group, about 40 students strong, initially met only online.

Suicide is covered in health class, but this goes deeper.

Students tackle the subject head-on. It’s heavy stuff, but people first need to be able to just say the word, Larnerd said.

They take down myths — like people who are suicidal actually want to die. What they really want is for their pain to stop, Gent said. And not everybody who shows signs explicitly says what they’re thinking — they may isolate themselves, or suggest that the world would be better off without them in it. 

Talking appropriately and frankly about suicide doesn’t give people the idea to take their lives, Gent said.

“Asking them point-blank can actually get people to open up and start talking about their struggles, which is ultimately what helps people overcome suicide,” he said.

Larnerd is such a true believer in Hope Squad that after he retired from CCSD at the end of the last school year, he joined Hope Squad’s national staff, training other educators on suicide awareness and prevention at about 1,100 schools across the country. Hope Squad targets elementary through high school, although the youngest students have more of an anti-bullying mission. 

About 20 schools throughout CCSD have a Hope Squad. Many are in Henderson, where the city purchased the curriculum for all of its middle and high schools just before the pandemic hit — not long after some youth suicides in the city.

Lauren Argier is a counselor at Henderson’s Bob Miller Middle School and adviser to 30 or so students. She knows she doesn’t see every student every day, so classmates provide crucial intelligence.

“These kids are in the classes with the other kids,” she said. “Kids talk to other kids, and they may just overhear something.” 

Izabella Zwiesler, a Spring Valley senior, said she thinks being in Hope Squad has made her a better friend.

“I feel like mental health is very important, and a lot of people aren’t educated about it,” she said.

Jessica Bui, also a Spring Valley senior, said everybody needs somebody to care about their mental health, especially when school is forced online during a pandemic surge.

“You need someone to talk to, and we’re here,” she said.

Argier said bright students struggled with online learning last year, and with the full-time return to in-person school, kids are generally happy to be back after working through some anxiety. A program like Hope Squad will always be needed though, she said.

Hope Squad members are nominated by their peers, then vetted and trained by teachers. Advisers are looking for students who are, essentially, nice. They’re genuine and naturally helpful. Their classmates name them as people they’d be comfortable talking to when they’re having a hard time. 

Parents must give their approval, and the students almost always accept, Gent said — they consider it an honor. Two of his students, Andy and Jessica, are on Hope Squad’s national council.

Gent teaches his crew to reach out, make connections and to listen. A lot of people don’t realize how much they just need to be heard, he said.

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