Whitehall-Yearling High School junior Crystal Elizarraras knows what it's like to be depressed.

Now she's working to prevent other students from feeling that way as a member of Whitehall-Yearling's new Hope Squad, a peer-led suicide-prevention program that is expanding in central Ohio school districts.

Beginning in August, and after completing a training camp, about 30 Whitehall-Yearling High School students will comprise the Hope Squad group.

"We saw that kids needed more emotional and social support ... especially in the digital age," said Lauren Taylor, a counselor at Whitehall-Yearling.

She and Nicole Duffy, the school's other counselor, sprung to action when Doug Shoemaker, director of support services and community relations, suggested that Whitehall-Yearling implement Hope Squad, a program of the Cincinnati-based organization Grant Us Hope.

Grant Us Hope was founded several years ago by the parent of a student at a Cincinnati-area high school who committed suicide; it quickly spread into many Cincinnati-area school districts, Duffy said.

The origin of Hope Squad, however, dates back to the early 2000s, when the peer-based suicide-prevention program first appeared in Provo, Utah, according to Taylor.

Shoemaker suggested in January to bring Hope Squad to Whitehall-Yearling, and by the following month, Duffy, Taylor and four Whitehall-Yearling teachers, with the assistance of a federal grant, began training, Taylor said.

The program also will be in place at Rosemore Middle School next year, where students were similarly chosen by their peers and staff members as Hope Squad members, Shoemaker said.

The four Whitehall-Yearling teachers, who along with Duffy and Taylor will lead the Hope Squad, are Nichole Lohrman-Novak, Joel Ritter, Lisa Schweiterman and Judy Sies.

The training included visiting high schools and middle schools with Hope Squad and receiving professional instruction about recognizing depression and signs of suicide, Sies said.

"We learned the QPR method: question, persuade and refer," said Sies, speaking to the practice of questioning an at-risk student, persuading the student to seek help and, lastly, referring the student for professional help.

But at the core of the program are the students, those whom the counselors and teachers chose based on input from the entire student body, Duffy said.

"We did a student survey and asked all our students, if they had a problem, what other student would they go to? Some of the same names kept bubbling up," Duffy said.

Those names included Elizarraras, who said she has experienced anxiety and depression and many times did not have help she would have welcomed.

"When I heard (about Hope Squad), I wanted to join and be that person that others can go to, because I know how (depression) feels and not to have (someone to talk to). ... I want to help others who are going through what I've been through or worse," Elizarraras said.

Erick Martinez, a sophomore, said while he does not have personal experience with depression, several family members have suffered from clinical depression or attempted suicide.

"It sticks with me, what someone is going through that would make them try suicide. If they have someone to talk to, maybe they wouldn't have tried that," Martinez said.

It is not clear the last time a Whitehall student committed suicide, but no instances are known to have occurred in the recent past, said Ty Debevoise, director of marketing and communications for Whitehall schools.

Many other schools cannot claim the same.

Nationwide, suicide rates have been increasing steadily since 2007, and suicide now is the second-leading cause of death among youth and young adults, behind accidental injuries such as car crashes, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

From 2008-17, 1,373 Ohio adolescents (ages 10 to 21) died by suicide, including 117 in Franklin County, according to newly released data from the Ohio Alliance for Innovation in Population Health, a collaboration of researchers from Ohio University and the University of Toledo.

Hilliard City Schools implemented Hope Squad earlier this school year. Shoemaker visited the district's central offices to learn about the successes of the program.

While visiting Hilliard schools, Shoemaker saw a presentation by program operators from the Cincinnati area.

Apart from reducing risk and instances of suicide, Shoemaker said it "positively impacts school culture by highlighting themes of empathy and caring."

Hilliard school officials say their program has seen great success.

"We are excited that Hilliard was the first school district in central Ohio to implement the program in our three middle schools and three high schools," said Mike Abraham, Hilliard's director of student well-being.

There are 35 students in each of the district's three high schools and 25 at each of the district's three middle schools that serve as Hope Squad "ambassadors," Abraham said.

Each building also has four to six advisers who lead the curriculum associated with the program.

"We are already seeing tremendous benefits for our students," Abraham said.

Those benefits include connecting students with resources they need and providing students a peer when they might not be comfortable speaking to an adult, said Stacie Raterman, director of communications for the Hilliard district.

Whitehall-Yearling's Hope Squad will be composed of students from all four grades when the program begins on the district's first day of class Aug. 21. By then, the student members of the Hope Squad will have completed a summer camp, expected to be funded with a $5,000 grant from the Whitehall Education Foundation, Duffy said.

"It's an honor to be part of Hope Squad and knowing you could help save a life," said Whitehall-Yearling freshman Mya Fuller.

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