United Way of Coastal Fairfield County has awarded the Wilton Youth Council a grant for training students in a suicide prevention technique. The students are members of a new club called the HOPE Squad, launching at Wilton High School this fall.
Wilton resident and United Way Board Member Lyn Salsgiver Kobsa presented the grant to Wilton Youth Council Executive Director Chandra Ring, Wilton School’s Safe School Climate Coordinator Kim Zemo, Superintendent Kevin Smith, HOPE Squad advisor Emily Montgomery and rising senior Samira Ayoub.
“We are so grateful to the United Way for this grant. It will be used to train our new HOPE Squad members in the ‘Question.Persuade.Refer.’ technique of suicide prevention,” Ring said.
The Question.Persuade.Refer. technique, known as QPR, is a practical and proven method in suicide prevention that teaches trainees how to recognize and respond to warning signs that someone may be considering suicide. Trainees learn to ask key questions about suicidal thoughts or plans, persuade the person struggling to seek and accept help, then refer them to trusted adults or professionals for support.
Kobsa said she was proud to present the United Way grant to Wilton Youth Council. “As a parent whose children attended Wilton schools, I realize the importance of peer support; as a professional in public health, I recognize the critical need for mental health supports for our youth. I hope this grant will help promote wellness for Wilton students.”
Ring believes the grant-funded training couldn’t have come at a better time, given the increased need for support among American students. Recently, both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the U.S. Surgeon General issued warnings about the rising mental health crisis among youth, which was intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic. They point to an alarming rise in adolescent depression, anxiety and mental health distress that has resulted in double-digit increases in emergency room visits for kids in crisis.
Moreover, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), suicide is the second-leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds in the country. NAMI found that nearly 20% of high school students report serious thoughts of suicide, and 9% have made an attempt to take their lives.
The QPR technique will be a part of the training for HOPE Squad members, a new student club that aims to prevent suicide through public awareness and education, reduce the stigma around mental health, and serve as a resource to those touched by suicide. Student members are nominated by peers who see them as empathetic, non-judgmental and eager to help others — in short, someone they would turn to if they were struggling emotionally.
“We recognize that part of the solution to teen suicide is the teens themselves,” noted Zemo, who oversees how the school district approaches mental health. “That’s why we were so very excited when our student, Samira Ayoub, brought the HOPE Squad idea to us,” Zemo added.
“Kids talk to each other. So it’s important that students have skills to recognize warning signs and know how to help each other. With training, we can make a positive difference in the life of someone we know,” Ayoub said
Data support Ayoub’s assertion: approximately seven out of 10 youth who take their lives tell a friend beforehand, rather than an adult. Without training, that friend will often tell no one.
As one proven way to address the epidemic of teen suicide, the HOPE Squad is currently used by 1,200 schools in 35 U.S. states and Canada. Wilton’s club will be only the second HOPE Squad in Connecticut, joining the state’s other club in Newtown — the site of the Sandy Hook school shooting tragedy.
Ring noted that Wilton school staff members also have been trained in the QPR method, so there will be a good synergy of skills between adults and students in the district. “With re-training of staff and the new training of student HOPE Club members scheduled for fall, our schools will complete a full circle of training in suicide prevention,” she said.
“United Way is Wilton’s United Way, and we are happy to support the schools and youth in my hometown,” Kobsa said. ”We look forward to additional partnering to build resilient communities — where all our residents have the opportunity to thrive.”