OGDEN — Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox spoke about suicide prevention to 500 secondary students — grades 7–12— at DaVinci Academy Tuesday, ending the speech with a performance with the school’s teacher band.
Students extended a concert-like welcome of applause, screams and hollers as Cox brushed up his bass skills with the band of four teachers — quite popular in their own right — playing “All These Things That I’ve Done” by The Killers.
The song started with music teacher Max Moreno, a lone voice, singing, “When there’s no where else to run, is there room for one more son, one more son? If you can hold on, if you can hold on, hold on.”
Even the handful of students with their eyes glued to their phones sang along with the song’s escalating chorus: “I got soul, but I’m not a soldier. I got soul, but I’m not a soldier.”
Many students held their phones above their peers’ heads, smiling as they took videos.
The group was much quieter when Cox spoke to them about suicide, the leading cause of death in 2017 for Utahns ages 10 to 17, according to the Utah Department of Health’s Public Health Indicator Based Information System (IBIS).
It was Cox’s own story that held the attention of the gym full of students.
Right before Cox entered middle school, when he was 10 years old, his parents went through a difficult divorce, “one of those not nice divorces,” he said. He had also been physically and sexually abused.
When he entered middle school, he was stuffed in a garbage can by some of the popular kids, who bullied him.
“I was just broken,” Cox said. “I was so sad.” He started to think that the world might be a better place without him.
With the support of people in his life — a teacher, some family members, some friends — he made it through this difficult time.
“I’m so glad they did,” Cox said. “I’m so glad I stayed because I have this incredible life, and there were so many wonderful things ahead of me that I didn’t know were ahead of me ... and I never would have gotten to experience if I had made some different decisions.
“I want to talk about hope and how much hope there is for you, how bright your future is. It’s so much brighter than you can even begin comprehend,” Cox said.
Cox said he wouldn’t have made it through his own dark period without help, and he encouraged students to reach out for help and watch for others who need it.
To students thinking the way he though in middle school, Cox said he wanted them to “know that we need you to stay, desperately.” Secondly, he asked them to find someone to talk to — a friend, a family member, a teacher or a school counselor — to let someone know what they’ve been thinking.
He also encouraged students to download the SafeUT smartphone app, which connects young people in crisis to a professional, who can talk them through their difficult moments via phone or text.
“If you are not one of those (students), I promise you know someone who is, and I need you to be the type of friend that will lift someone up, that will help them out, that will have those difficult conversations,” Cox said.
DaVinci Academy students are already stepping up to look out for their peers.
The school has a student organization called the Hope Squad that looks out for students who might be distressed — three or four students in each grade are nominated by their peers to be part of the squad.
DaVinci’s group is part of Hope4Utah, which supports Hope Squads at schools across the state.
“We look out for kids who need help or need to talk to somebody, and we always try to go above and beyond to help other students if they need it,” said Jenisy Barker, a ninth grader on the Hope Squad at DaVinci Academy.
“They describe us as the eyes and ears of students. We report back to the counselors what people we have our eyes on that are maybe at risk or going through a hard time, they maybe need some extra emotional support,” said Quincy Koons, another ninth grader on the Hope Squad at DaVinci.
“I do know, as the counselor, that we do have a high proportion of students who suffer from depression and anxiety,” said Brooke Harger. “We do get a lot of students ... referred to DaVinci by their care providers, because we have an environment of inclusiveness. I don’t know how we got that reputation out there, but I feel like our students are very good at accepting those who have mental health struggles.”
Harker said the school also has a high LGBTQ population, and a gay-straight alliance (GSA) on campus. Both the GSA and Hope Squad have received training in a suicide prevention method called Question, Persuade, Refer (QPR).