A 1st: Lakota students parade on campuses to support anti-suicide efforts

For the first time hundreds of Lakota students at the district's schools marched this week in support of youth-suicide prevention programs. Organized by the district's student-led "Hope Squads," the parades of support were designed to bolster the spirits of classmates who may be struggling with mental health issues during the continued coronavirus pandemic. Pictured are students outside of Lakota West High School. (Provided Photo\Journal-News)
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For the first time hundreds of Lakota students at the district's schools marched this week in support of youth-suicide prevention programs. Organized by the district's student-led "Hope Squads," the parades of support were designed to bolster the spirits of classmates who may be struggling with mental health issues during the continued coronavirus pandemic. Pictured are students outside of Lakota West High School. (Provided Photo\Journal-News)

Students at Lakota schools wanted to make a show of support for classmates who might feel overwhelmed, depressed and even suicidal as the shadow of coronavirus lingers into a second year.

That’s why earlier this week the school system saw hundreds of students parade around school campuses — led by the district’s student-focused Hope Squads — a show of support to help emotionally troubled teens know they aren’t alone.

The first event of its kind in district was designed “to encourage students and staff to take a pause and re-center their minds in the name of mental health,” said Lauren Boettcher, a spokeswoman for Lakota.

Participating students took a lap around their school building and at the finish were given strips of paper and asked to write a response to a single question: “What brings you hope?” The responses were then displayed at schools as the district celebrates “Hope Week.”

Coronavirus and its unique pressures caused by social distancing isolation has added to the emotional burdens of youth, according to mental health experts.

A nationwide survey of high school and college students in August found nearly 25 percent of the high school students questioned said they knew a peer who had experienced suicidal thoughts since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020.

The survey conducted in part by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, showed 5 percent of both high school and college students reporting suicide attempts in the months prior to the survey’s release.

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Lakota school officials said this new type of student solidarity demonstration is more effective when it comes from peers.

“Programs like today’s walk are always more impactful when they originate with our students. When Lakota West High School’s Hope Squad introduced the idea of making it a district-wide effort, we didn’t hesitate to give them the green light,” said Boettcher.

“Mental health is an emphasis at all grade levels and healthy habits like practicing mindfulness are introduced to our youngest learners. So, it only made sense that they would participate in this exercise, too.”

Three years ago, Lakota was one of the first school systems in Southwest Ohio to create Hope Squads to combat the youth suicide and mental health challenges.

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Lakota West High School student Evy Best was among the first to join her school’s Hope Squad.

“Hope Squad has always been about creating a culture where there’s less of a stigma surrounding mental health and bringing positive (support) to people who need it. That’s what today and all of Hope Week is about,” said Best.

“I’ve had lots of friends who have struggled with mental health. I know what it takes to ask for help and have conversations about it. But people can’t do it alone and they need to know that people around them care and want to help.”