BEMIDJI -- “You haven’t seemed yourself lately. Is everything OK?”

That simple question could start a life-saving conversation with a friend who’s contemplating suicide. That’s why about 20 Red Lake Middle School students on the school’s new peer-based suicide prevention group -- called “Hope Squad” -- practiced asking it and other like-minded questions at a Wednesday morning meeting.

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Formed this school year, Hope Squad is a group of peer-nominated middle schoolers who are trained to recognize when a classmate might be in crisis and persuade them to get help or refer them to an adult. It’s the first squad in Minnesota, and members learn about the difference between a “safe” secret like an adolescent crush, and an “unsafe” secret about self-harm, for instance.

Ayla Koob
Ayla Koob
“The kids already know what each other are going through,” said Ayla Koob, a wellness counselor and suicide prevention coordinator from Red Lake Comprehensive Health Services who leads the school’s Hope Squad. “When youth are struggling, they usually reach out to other youth, but those youth don't maybe know what to do.”

On Wednesday, Koob talked squad members through questions like “what can I do to support you right now?” and “why do you think you might be feeling this way?” before they split into pairs to practice talking with a friend who might be at risk.

Eighth-grader Hazel Sumner asked to join Hope Squad when it was constituted last fall. She said she hasn’t had to use the skills she’s learned in the program, but could if she needed to.

“I guess I like helping people,” Sumner said sheepishly.

Red Lake Middle School has nearly two Hope Squad members in each homeroom there, Koob said. She hopes to expand the program across Red Lake School District.

Virtually every student in the district is American Indian, and American Indians commit suicide at a higher rate than any other racial demographic, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Minnesota Department of Health reported that the state’s suicide rate for American Indian youth aged 10-24 is more than three times the rate of their white counterparts.

In 2016, 111 Minnesotans between the ages of 10 and 24 killed themselves, and the state’s suicide rate across all demographics is slightly higher than the national average.

The health department plans to put a $3.6 million federal grant toward suicide prevention in Beltrami County, and at the Red Lake, Leech Lake, and White Earth Indian Health Services, among several other regions and agencies.

The national suicide prevention hotline is 1-800-273-8255.