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Loyola's Hope Squad Promotes Mental Health and Wellness Among Peers

In March 2020, one month after Loyola Academy launched Hope Squad, a peer-to-peer program that trains "squads" of students to recognize peers at risk for suicide and then access immediate help from an adult, the global COVID-19 crisis took hold, forcing most schools and businesses into a strict lockdown. For a program modeled on building connections between students, the situation presented a seemingly insurmountable challenge. But, for the eighty-nine members of Loyola's Hope Squad, adaptability was the name of the game.
"The students were amazing," says School Counseling Department Chair Mrs. Sheila Blanchfield, who moderates the group along with School Counselors Colleen Fahrenbach '11 and Gabrielle Feldman, PhD. "When we pivoted and went remote last spring, the kids really rallied around positivity and hope."

Blanchfield explains that, while learning remotely, students first turned to social media, a natural outlet for their generation, to share on Hope Squad's Instagram page pictures from their daily routines that would encourage others to find some stability and things that bring them hope and joy—their pets, afternoon walks by the lake and even the avocado toast they had for breakfast.

"The seniors started doing challenges and 'takeovers' on Instagram, just anything to try to motivate each other and their followers. It opened healthy conversations about stress and coping strategies," says Blanchfield, who notes that it also helped students feel connected.

Blanchfield explains that the pandemic's full impact on children may not be known for years to come. But in the present moment, many high schoolers are experiencing loneliness, isolation, anxiety and grief. "Even though we're resilient, it's still hard," she says. "We're all grieving the loss of normalcy, of what our lives used to be. And while some students are doing pretty well—they love that they have fewer distractions, are getting more sleep and feel that some social pressures have lifted—others are struggling. And for the latter group, I am so impressed with our students and how they are rallying around one another. They are empathetic, getting connected and looking out for each other." 

When issues of racial injustice, both at Loyola and nationally, reached a boiling point over the summer, Hope Squad members returned to Instagram and created a campaign to address specific instances of inequity and how to navigate related emotions. They made it a priority to feature facts about BIPOC mental health and sought out mental health resources that addressed these facts. They also highlighted resources for struggling students, like Text-A-Tip, an anonymous service that allows students to text a local licensed/certified mental health professional who is on-call and can provide help 24/7. 

Blanchfield says that the students were instrumental in establishing the group's new leadership roles at the beginning of the 2020–2021 school year. "Recognizing that remote learning is here to stay, at least for now, students were looking for a way to better connect with other Hope Squad members. They were looking for ways to make the Hope Squad of nearly one hundred feel smaller." 

And so hatched the Hope Squad Leadership Committee, which includes the following new roles: social media chairs, who focus on a broad reach and connect with other Hope Squads across the nation; communications chairs, who take copious notes during meetings to keep all students in their grade level up to speed with the group's activities; outreach chairs, who connect with other schools to come up with new ideas; and class representatives, who run the leadership meetings and make sure other leaders and committees stay on task.  

The 2020–2021 Hope Squad Leadership Committee

Sophomore Leaders
Faith Mikhail - Communications Chair
Ellie McCain - Social Media Chair
Michaela Heintz - Outreach Chair
Nora McNabb - Outreach Chair
Ally Walsh - Grade Representative

Junior Leaders
Julia Swanson - Social Media Chair
Diana Tuebo - Social Media Chair
Lauren Dziedzic - Outreach Chair
Lexi Brkovic-  Grade Representative 
Liam Zidar - Communications Chair 
Molly Farr - Communications Chair

Senior Leaders
Lili Varela - Social Media Chair
Sarah Nelson - Social Media Chair
Abby Pinkerton - Outreach Chair
Lilly Rossi - Grade Representative
Frannie Whelan - Communications Chair
Ellie Lazzeretto - Communications Chair

First Semester Accomplishments

During the first semester, the Hope Squad diligently worked through a curriculum to help them connect with peers—whether in person or virtually—and identify potential warning signs in friends and classmates. They studied everything from the QPR—question, persuade, refer—tactic used in crisis management to spotting the verbal, behavioral and situational warning signs of a person in need of help. These warning signs include (but are not limited to) verbalizing suicidal thoughts by discussing how he or she feels trapped, is a burden to others, or has no reason to live; exhibiting behavior that indicates the presence of suicidal thoughts such as abusing drugs or alcohol and participating in reckless behavior; and happenings that can propel an individual from suicidal thoughts to a suicide attempt such as losing a major relationship or experiencing sudden unexpected loss of freedom. In the second semester, the group will delve into peer advocacy and stress management. 

In addition to staying current with best practices through their curriculum and lessons, during the first semester Hope Squad honored National Suicide Prevention Week (September 7–11) by handing out yellow ribbons and raised awareness with daily school announcements. In a small but powerful gesture, they challenged students to reach out to one another on social media, to meet classmates they didn’t know and to check in on one another.  

Before Christmas break, the group created a beautiful bulletin board display outside the Student Center, a highly trafficked area of campus. Large sprawling letters invited students to "Take What You Need." Below were hundreds of PostIt notes with positive messages, small drawings and simple reminders like "You got this!"  and "It's okay to ask for help." Students were encouraged to take a note for themselves and to pass another on. The bulletin board was a huge success.

When students returned from Christmas break and the subsequent weeks of remote learning, Hope Squad member Emily Rice '21 participated in a Zoom webinar on "Mental Health for Athletes", organized by athletic team captains in conjunction with coaches and Loyola’s Counseling Department. The webinar came after the tragic passing of a Glenbrook North High School student-athlete and while many anxiously awaited a decision by IHSA about the future of high school sports amid the ongoing pandemic. As a captain on the Ramblerettes, Loyola's dance team, Emily has experienced first hand the stress and frustration of being a high school athlete during this uncertain time.

"Vulnerability regarding mental health can be a tough conversation," says Rice. "For so many Loyola students, sports are where they find their tightest group of friends and their most vital source of support. The webinar reminded athletes that their stress and anxiety were not only valid, but also shared among everyone else on that call. The message we wanted to send was that there are plenty of resources available to help students cope, and that seeking support shows strength, not weakness."

The discussion focused on team engagement, resources for support, maintaining a positive mentality and how to deal with the stress and anxiety surrounding uncertain athletic seasons. School Counselors Mr. Tyler Vradenburg and Mrs. Britta Ackron led the presentation in partnership with Compass Health Center. And while the webinar was geared toward athletes, Rice says its message can be applied to any student at Loyola: "Everyone deserves whatever support they need in order to thrive as a Rambler."

Looking to Second Semester and Beyond

The Hope Squad has been busy and has no plans to slow down. So what's next for the group? "Connecting with freshmen," says Blanchfield, who explains that because of the unusual circumstances of this school year, freshmen students were not eligible to join Hope Squad. "We're planning to go into freshman classes—either in person or via video—and increase awareness about what Hope Squad is, who the members are and how they can be a resource for Loyola’s youngest Ramblers." 

Next, the group is drawing up a process where students can request a Hope Squad member to talk to, much like a peer tutor request. The idea is to partner students with similar interests and cast a broad net to make sure all students feel reached. "If people feel connected, their mental health is better," Blanchfield says. "They do better in crisis situations."

And the group wants to focus outside the Loyola community, as well. "The leaders have been meeting regarding the tragic death of the student at Glenbrook North High School," explains Blanchfield. "They want to raise money for his family, for suicide awareness, for students who can't afford therapy and for suicide prevention in general." 

Loyola community members can look out for Hope Squad buttons, bracelets and yellow ribbons later this semester. The group will be selling them for $1. 

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