Last year was a tough one for students and staff at Hastings High School.

First, a student died in a car accident, and in the following weeks, two students and an older resident committed suicide. A recent graduate died suddenly, too. Counselors were brought in to help students deal with their emotions and to talk about depression and mental illness in general.

“There was a lot of grief,” said school counselor Kim Hoff. “It was a stressful time and it was a sad time, and it affected everyone.”

This year, the school has turned over a new leaf, starting a program to train students to help their peers talk openly about family, academic and mental health issues.

Hoff was instrumental in bringing the program, called Peer Helpers, to Hastings. She saw it “work really well” at Hudson High School in Wisconsin, where she worked previously, and now serves as a Peer Helpers adviser.

Peer Helpers curriculum and training are provided by Hazelden, the addiction treatment center. The program kicked off two months ago with a retreat, where 20 students in grades nine through 12 were trained in “basic helping skills,” Hoff said.

Their biggest task as Peer Helpers, though, isn’t to solve problems or act like a school counselor — it’s simply to listen.

“Research shows that in 90 percent of cases, students talk to their friends first,” said Michael Kaul, a trainer with Hazelden who ran the retreat for Hastings students.

‘We have a lot of diversity’

Peer Helpers were chosen based on teacher and counselor recommendations, and care was taken to get a mix of students, Hoff said.

Students selected were “already the kids that students went to with their problems, in an informal way,” Hoff said.

“We have a lot of diversity — music kids, sports kids, straight-A kids and a lot of different personalities,” said Taylor Wickberg, a senior Peer Helper.

In the program’s first three weeks, students had 120 sessions with helpers, and there were 127 interactions in November, Hoff said.

Thus far, “It’s gone exceedingly well,” Hoff said. “We’re really feeling hope and positivity this year.”

Mike Johnson, principal at Hastings High School, sees the program as a piece of a long-term effort to address students’ mental health needs. Starting Peer Helpers wasn’t in direct response to the suicides, but the tragedies provided a “critical piece” in motivating the school to do more, he said.

Kids today are struggling with many pressures, from academic, family and relationship problems to chemical health issues, depression, anxiety or eating disorders, Hoff said.

“[Students] are presenting more and more complex personal and mental health issues than they have in the past,” Johnson said. “And you could talk to any principal in Minnesota and they would tell you the same thing.”

School counselors are an important part of helping students, but often there just aren’t enough to go around. Minnesota typically ranks 49th out of 50 states in terms of its high school student-to-counselor ratios, he said. Hastings has four school counselors and one school psychologist serving 1,400 students.

‘Everybody has a problem’

At a recent Peer Helpers meeting, students gathered to listen to Bryan Schowalter from the Dakota County Drug Task Force talk about the dangers of drugs and alcohol and signs someone is abusing them.

The group also had a speaker on healthy relationships. Topics addressed by future speakers will depend on whatever issues students bring up, Hoff said.

At meetings, the helpers record the number of times they’d met with students over the past month, as well as what they talked about. Relationship issues, anxiety and depression are some common topics students have discussed so far, Hoff said.

One thing they don’t write down is students’ names — everything is confidential, and that’s an essential part of Peer Helpers. “If we don’t have the reputation of being confidential, we don’t have a program,” Hoff said.

Sometimes, however — if a student is being abused or in danger of hurting themselves or others — they must tell an adult. Several times this fall, helpers have referred students with a serious problem to Hoff or the program’s other adviser, school psychologist Melissa Schill.

The program emphasizes that in order to help others, students have to take care of themselves first, Wickberg said.

The group also has an “amazing” bond, and they support each other, said senior Peer Helper Jake Kelly.

When done well, a Peer Helpers program can really change the climate of a school, Kaul said.

Because of Peer Helpers, Kelly said he’s made friends with students he never would’ve met otherwise. He’s also learned that “everybody has a problem, and everybody needs help,” he said.

Kelly said that he wished that the school would have had the program last year. “I feel like more people would’ve talked,” he said. “Because who do you usually go to if you have a problem? A friend.”