|Source: Sofia Mendoza|
By Sam Piha
Since the return of young people to school and afterschool programs after the COVID shutdowns, there have been major concerns raised by educators and youth workers regarding youth mental health, the increase of challenging behavior and a decrease in acts of kindness shown to peers. Youth are not blind to these issues and want to be part of the solution.
In this vein, meet Sofia Mendoza, a freshman at Purdue University. When she was a senior at Hilliard Davidson High School, she served as a peer-to-peer counselor in the HOPE Squad program. HOPE Squad is a school-based peer support team that partners with local mental health agencies. They seek to reduce self-destructive behavior and youth suicide by training, building and creating change in schools and communities.
Below is an interview with Sofia Mendoza about her experiences as a HOPE Squad peer counselor. She is also a featured speaker in an upcoming webinar entitled, Youth-Led Efforts to Improve Mental Health on March 15, 2023 from 10am-12pm PST.
Q: Why did you join the HOPE Squad?
A: During my freshman year of high school, I was selected to be a HOPE Squad member as the selection process was based on peer-to-peer nominations. I accepted my role because I did not know what HOPE Squad would look like at my school, but I knew that breaking the stigma around mental health was something I wanted to be a part of.
A: As a HOPE Squad member, we all received instruction on how to Question, Persuade, and Refer our peers, better known as QPR training. We learned about the warning signs of suicide, practiced mock conversations with students, and learned about all the resources students can utilize to find professional help regardless of whether or not the student is in crisis.
Q: Many people say that youth are not able to handle the responsibility of a peer counselor. Please comment on this.
A: The situations that youth must deal with nowadays can be very challenging to navigate and especially mentally draining. Even if a student isn’t a peer counselor, they are already helping their peers through these difficult times.
HOPE Squad equips students with a toolbox to navigate these tough conversations. I would also say that as a peer counselor, we focus our efforts on referring students to the correct resources. We are not expected to solve a student’s issues, what we are responsible for is recognizing when students are showing signs of suicide and providing them the support to find the resources best for them. Especially with programming such as HOPE Squad, students work hand in hand with their guidance counselors. This relationship is critical because the student does not have the sole responsibility of ensuring their peer gets help, these counselors are here to support as well.
Q: Why do you think this peer approach is important?
A: Unfortunately, there are many students who do not have strong support systems to lean on when going through difficult times. Often when students do have these support systems, they would rather lean on their peers anyways because they do not want to burden their parents and mentors, or they simply may feel uncomfortable talking about their mental struggles. This is where their peers come in because the trust and confidence built between friendships is like no other. Because of these relationships, peers can notice these mental struggles earlier and have the ability to intervene. We must equip youth with the tools to listen and adequately respond when they believe their friends are in crisis. This is why this approach works because speaking about personal struggles comes much easier than discussing these issues with adults.
Q: What impact did serving as a peer counselor have on you?
A: I have gained a new awareness when interacting with people and I feel this experience has increased my emotional intelligence. I do my best to spread positivity each and every day by recognizing that the interactions I have with people can have a huge impact on their lives.
Q: Can you define "kindness"?
A: To me, kindness means being emotionally aware of others and offering continuous support to those around you. Kindness can be shown from little things such as saying thank you, holding the door for others, or even complimenting someone. It can also be exemplified through larger things such as assisting someone through difficult times.
Q: In your experience, what was the impact of the COVID pandemic on young people?
A: The little good that did come from COVID was that the pandemic highlighted the importance of self-care practices. Many students went from rigorous schoolwork and busy lifestyles to immediate isolation. This shift illustrated that it is okay to take breaks and not force students to stretch themselves thin.
Additionally, many young people’s lives changed by the pandemic whether their financial, family, or physical situations had changed. These unforeseen circumstances shifted many people’s views on what they truly value in life.
Q: Did you find that self-care was important in your role? Can you say more about this?
A: You cannot fully help people when you are not meeting your own needs. Even before joining HOPE Squad I had struggled with this because I enjoyed giving and helping people even when I could not give anymore. Once I was in this role, I found that our curriculum had equally emphasized the importance of self-care, and I even learned about new activities I could try to decompress. I have found that self-care is one of the most important things you could do in order to recharge your social, emotional, and physical batteries.
Q: If schools and youth programs want to learn more about youth led peer counseling, who could they contact or what resources would you recommend?
A: I would recommend schools and youth programs to look into starting a HOPE Squad. This organization has done a good job developing a curriculum for students to follow in order to begin breaking the stigma around mental health. If this opportunity is not an option, an alternative could be hosting educational events centered around mental health by consulting mental health experts in the area. Anything that involves talking about mental struggles and acknowledging that everyone deals with these issues whether big or small, is one step closer to normalizing discussing mental health.
Additionally, I would also recommend having all faculty to be QPR certified, sponsored by a Youth Suicide Prevention organization, as this is one of the most important educational tools I have been taught. As a society, I think it is important to be able to recognize the warning signs of suicide because this information alone can save lives if we correctly respond to these signs.
Click the image below to hear an interview with Sofia when she was named "A Rising Star."
Click on the image below to view a video of statements by other HOPE Squad youth volunteers.
Sofia Mendoza is a freshman in First-Year Engineering at Purdue University. She serves as the project manager for the Women in Engineering section of the Engineering Projects in Community Service initiative at Purdue, as well as a multi-faceted dancer for XSeries and the Purdue Contemporary Dance Company. Along with her passion for STEM and dance, she has an extensive history with advocating for mental health as a past member of HOPE Squad, a peer-to-peer suicide prevention program.