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What is Hope Squad? Kids lean on each other for mental health help

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  • Grant Us Hope was founded in 2016 by Diane Egbers, who lost her son to suicide in 2015. Grant Egbers was 15 when he died.
  • There are over 200 schools with Hope Squads in the Tristate and Hope Squads are in schools in 30 states.
  • Students told The Enquirer that there is a gap between children and adults when it comes to mental health. Most students said they wish parents were better listeners.

When it comes to mental health issues, local kids beg the adults in their lives, “Listen to us.”

Concerns about young people’s mental health have never been greater. A 2021 survey of local students in grades 7-12, more than half felt they were under a lot of stress, and one in 10 said they had considered suicide.

Local experts, children respond to rising concerns about young people’s mental health: What is being done to help our children?

1 in 3 local children may be struggling with mental health. Is your child one of them? How do you tell and how do you talk to them.

When children feel they cannot get help from adults, they turn to their peers. The peers most trusted to help classmates through mental health crises are nominated to be part of Hope Squads in schools with the program. Grant Us Hope, a local nonprofit, has implemented the peer-to-peer suicide prevention program in more than 240 schools throughout Ohio. Hope Squads are in 30 states across the country and Ohio has the most squads of any state except Utah.

Hundreds of Ohio Hope Squad student leaders and advisors recently gathered at the Lakota West Freshman Campus in West Chester for their first regional meeting since 2019. The Enquirer asked several students at the conference what they wanted adults to know about mental health and youth. This is what they said:

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  • Braeden Fedders, 18, is a senior at Mason High School. He said some adults attribute the youth mental health crisis to a generational trend and have a kind of “helpless attitude” to the problem. “It can be a little humiliating,” he said.
  • Ryan Faessler, 15, is a sophomore at Loveland High School. He said the world has changed since most parents were in school. “There are just different challenges for kids these days,” he said. “And I think that might be hard for some people to understand.”
  • Keeghan Wills, 17, is a senior at Middletown High School. She said that when children tell their parents they are depressed, parents will often respond by saying they have “nothing to be depressed about.” That’s not true, she said. “I feel like parents should absolutely be there for their kids and pay attention to those cues.”
  • Clark Velasco, 17, is a senior at Middletown High School and said adults need to listen to children more and have more empathy. “Put yourself in their shoes and really try to understand what they’re feeling,” he said.

Students involved in Hope Squads at Milford High School and Lakota East High School expressed similar concerns to The Enquirer earlier this school year, describing a disconnect between children and adults when it comes to mental health.

Hope Squad students at the conference also identified the top issues they believe contribute to poor mental health in children:

  • Social abstinence.
  • Comparison.
  • Academic pressure, social pressure and/or pressure to be ‘perfect’.
  • Family problems.
  • Social media and technology.

Social media is a common scapegoat for youth mental health issues. But it’s not the only culprit, Fedders said.

“I get a little annoyed when adults just want to say that mental health issues are a result of social media,” he said. “But I don’t think that’s necessarily true.”

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The best thing adults who are trying to help children can do, Fedders said, is to involve children in the conversation about solutions.

“I feel like there can never be enough resources in the school building for kids who are struggling,” Wills said.

What is Give Us Hope?

Give us hope is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in Sharonville that oversees Hope Squads in Ohio and Indiana. It was founded by Diane Egbers after her son, Grant Egbers, died by suicide in 2015. He was 15 and a student at St. Xavier High School.

When she lost her son, Egbers said, she started looking for a way to help other struggling kids so no other parents would have to suffer the same fate.

“We just didn’t see him lose hope,” she told The Enquirer.

Grant Us Hope was founded in 2016 with the goal of changing the culture and stigma surrounding mental health, making it “okay not to be okay,” Egbers said. She believes that if Grant had gotten help a year or two before committing suicide, things might have been different.

Watching more than 700 Hope Squad students gather last week gave her an “extraordinary feeling,” Egbers said. She is thrilled to see how proud children are to be leaders, and she is confident that they will take the skills they learned through Hope Squad with them as they grow up and move to other communities.

“What touches me the most is how the Hope Squad kids embody our son’s spirit,” she said. “These kids are going out into the world and this is the generation that’s going to change the stigma.”

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Hope Squad students always report red flags to an adult at school, said Scott Inskeep, CEO of Grant Us Hope. The students are trained to notice the signs of suicide and other mental health problems and how to contact their peers who show these warning signs.

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Fedders said he particularly notices red flags on social media. Sometimes kids who are struggling post alarming messages online, and that can prompt a Hope Squad member to reach out. When social media interaction begins, Fedders said, he tries to move the conversation to face-to-face or at least FaceTime.

“Because that’s the best way to communicate,” Fedders said. “There can be a lot of obstacles when you go through text, and a lot of things you miss, like the tone of voice.

“The most important thing is just to try to create a safe place for that person and make them feel like they can trust you.”

But sometimes the effort to create a safe space can be a burden for Hope Squad members. Wills said last school year she tried to help a peer who was “struggling.”

After the interaction, she thought of all the things she could or should have done or said differently to help.

“I just walked away feeling like I wasn’t doing enough,” said Wills. “And that really stuck with me for a while.”

The responsibility is sometimes overwhelming, Wills said. But at the end of the day, she recognizes that any kind of help adds positivity to someone else’s life.

Kids talk to each other about mental health anyway, Inskeep said. And students are the best resources adults have to understand which kids are struggling. Hope Squad adds structure to the conversations already happening among young people and provides additional resources to students who want to help their friends.

“It’s just another way to help those kids be the conduit, if you will, to an adult who can get them the help they need,” Inskeep said.

“This is about saving children’s lives.”

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