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West Jordan Journal

Copper Canyon trains Jr. Hope Squad for early suicide prevention

Mar 16, 2020 03:14PM ● By Jet Burnham

Junior Hope Squad members encouraged students to write kind and uplifting messages on colorful papers to create a kindness tree. (Jet Burnham/City Journals)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

An encouraging note and a sucker greeted each student at Copper Canyon Elementary as they headed to their desks on a Thursday morning in February. 

“That might be the only thing that the kid has heard positive about themselves in a long time,” said Naomi Varuso, school psychologist at Copper Canyon Elementary.

Notes such as “never give up,” “don’t let people change you,” “U rock!” and “you are the diamond in the rough” were written by members of the Junior Hope Squad, a suicide prevention club. The campaign was part of Hope Week, four days of school-wide activities promoting kindness and connection.

Utah is one of the top states in the nation for youth suicide, and it is not just a problem among teens, said Varuso. She was shocked by the number of suicide risk assessments she did for elementary students last year.

“It's not that these kids are going to start having these thoughts,” Varuso said. “These kids have these thoughts and feelings, and they don't know what to do about it. They don't know how to ask for help.”

Last year, Varuso implemented the Junior Hope Squad. She recruited 30 students who were identified by their peers as someone they felt they could talk to if they were having a problem. 

Peer support is critical for students with suicidal ideation.

“Research shows that kids are more likely to talk to their friends before they go talk to an adult or a parent,” Varuso said. “A lot of those times, those friends don't know what to do. They want to help their friend, but they don't want to break that trust.” 

Hope Squad training gives students tools such as QPR (question, persuade, refer) training to identify peers who are struggling and connect them with an adult who can help.

Fifth grader Jace Christensen said the training has helped him realize how serious the issue of suicide prevention is and has motivated him to reach out to help others.

Adelle Acasy, a sixth grader, enjoys talking to people and feels her role on the Junior Hope Squad is to cheer people up. She said the training has taught her to be a better listener.

Hope Squad members regularly teach their peers how to deal with social and emotional problems using video skits and books. Each month, squad members visit classrooms to read a book that illustrates a problem kids may face, such as how to deal with emotional bullying or the difference between tattling and telling.

“Books help connect those lessons with the students in real-life examples,” Varuso said.

The Junior Hope Squad’s activities have had a positive impact at the school.

“I have seen it help specific kids make friends and make those connections,” Varuso said. “It's also helped me find those kids who maybe would have fallen through the cracks.”

Squad members have also benefited.

“I just can't express how happy I get when I can be there to protect somebody and that they know that there's somebody that they can come talk to,” said sixth grader Gissele Rios.

“I had parents come to me and say being a part of the Hope Squad has helped their kid talk about things that are bothering them and things that they've seen that they felt wasn’t OK but didn't know they should say something,” Varuso said.

Varuso said the number of requested suicide risk assessments this year has decreased. She believes because each elementary school in Jordan District has its own full-time psychologist, mental health supports can be individualized and effective. The district’s approach to mental health is the reason she moved from across the country to work here.

Varuso encourages families to check out Jordan District’s Wellness website. It provides resources such as tips and crisis line information. Parents can also access a list of mental health providers with up-to-date information on their location, specialty and accepted insurances.