Hoquiam Mayor Ben Winkelman talks suicide prevention

Hoquiam Mayor Ben Winkelman spoke about a serious subject at the Hoquiam City Council meeting Monday, and it’s a subject that people don’t like talking about.


Winkelman and Hoquiam High School Principal Brock Maxfield, through Hope Squad, want to get the community trained. Not just people in Hoquiam, but Grays Harbor’s other communities.

“I feel that it’s very important and it’s a way that when we lose somebody in our community, oftentimes people will come to us as council members, or mayor, and say ‘what are we doing? What can we do?’” Winkelman said. “It’s one of those frustrating situations where you don’t really know what you could do. I believe that by participating in the Hope Squad and some of the training that they offer through law enforcement, our Police Navigators, and local faith leaders, we can, as a community, have a direct impact on reducing suicide rates.”

For years, Hope Squad has been used to help Hoquiam’s High School staff and students identify the serious signs of suicide and suicide ideation. Hoquiam High School was the first high school in the state of Washington to have a Hope Squad. Hoquiam Middle School also has a Hope Squad. Montesano High School and Grays Harbor College do as well, according to Maxfield. There’s a Hope Squad in Aberdeen as well.

While the students are not at all counselors — an important distinction — Maxfield said the students are “the eyes and ears” for the program, since students typically talk to other students before they turn to an adult.

“The idea isn’t that they have to fix somebody, and they shouldn’t have that burden on them,” Maxfield said. “Really, they need to have the courage to go let an adult know, who can get them help. That’s what this whole thing’s about.”

Maxfield explained what got him involved with the program, which began in Utah.

“Many years ago we had a couple suicides in our district and we talked about having something like a program that was sustainable versus a one-time assembly or something like that. That’s not good practice,” Maxfield said. “So, we were searching with the Grays Harbor County Health Department about programs that might be out there that we could get involved in. They brought the Hope Squad for me and then I talked to Dr. (Gregory A.) Hudnall for the Hope Squad and we set it up.”

Maxfield also wanted to clarify how this isn’t just a school problem. It’s a societal problem and any suicide is tragic.

“It’s a community-wide issue,” Maxfield said. “Dr. Hudnall mentioned that for every one suicide in high school, there tends to be 9 to 1 typically in the community.”


The goal is to educate 25% of the community on suicide prevention.

Part of that training is QPR — Question, Persuade and Refer.

“Basically, through that process, what you’re doing is you’re training people to look at the signs of depression, or signs of potential suicide-type behaviors,” Maxfield said. “Through that process it teaches you how to talk to them about that, not in the way that you’re the counselor, but in a way that you convince them to go get help. And so that’s gonna be big, I think that’s where we’re heading with our community. I know our schools are heading that direction as well.”

When Winkelman addressed the need for such training in the community with the city council and city staff, it was clear the issue resonated a lot with him.

“I feel like we have the obligation as active leaders to encourage the rest of our community to get trained,” Winkelman said. “That’s a lot of people who need to be trained. Other communities that have accomplished this task have almost eliminated suicide in their communities. If there’s a way that we can eliminate suicide in our communities, or nearly eliminate, each one of those lives that we can save is something we should all put forward on our best foot.”

Maxfield believes in the program and the training. And when it delves into the community, it will not just be for Hoquiam residents.

“Anybody who wants it can get it,” Maxfield said, before noting people have definitely been helped by Hope Squad.

Maxfield said the school counselors can “probably vouch” and say Hoquiam High has a lot of students who get help and support. He estimated the school itself helps more than 100 students throughout the year.

“It’s not like, you’ve got kids who are depressed, it doesn’t mean they’re at the point where they’re gonna commit suicide, but we help kids all the time with different things,” Maxfield said. “But actual suicide help? It’s really hard to quantify. Maybe around 25.”

And then through Hope Squad, Maxfield estimated about 50 get help, while a number of students “probably closer to 10” receive help with suicide-type scenarios specifically.

Winkelman also took time to speak about Hope Squad on Tuesday March 28 at the Greater Grays Harbor, Inc’s, “Lunch with the Mayors.” Winkelman shared a few more thoughts about the training and the importance of its presence in the schools and why he wants to roll it out to the community.

“We’ve lost too many young people and recently some of them had a very direct impact on some of the members of the Hope Squad,” Winkelman said. “They feel like it’s their job to communicate, so I think they take it a little bit harder than some of the other kids in our community.”

Winkelman explained the “biggest piece” to the Hope Squad.

“It’s teaching our community how to communicate with people to help them before a crisis comes to the point of suicide or drug and alcohol abuse as they remedy to stop the bleed, so to speak,” Winkelman said.

According to Winkelman, Dr. Hudnall recently came to the city of Hoquiam, and spent time in Aberdeen to talk to the schools about what they can do to reach the community.

“A lot of that has to do with leadership, whether it’s leadership in the health department from a county level, from the city, mayors, city council, law enforcement,” Winkelman said.

Winkelman believes in the program and he sees it as a personal responsibility to direct people to the resources necessary to try and stop suicide.

“That training, if we can get our community trained, will save lives,” Winkelman said. “It’s something we can actually do. People are so frustrated by not being able to either understand why people are taking their lives, or help change it. I want to be able to give our community the tools to make that stop. It’s a big, big problem. And it’s not just in the schools, but we started in the schools.”

Winkelman, also a father of two students in Hoquiam School District, said he’s heard specific examples of how the program has helped.

“I have absolutely through communication with my own children and their participation on Hope Squad,” Winkelman said. “But also Hope Squad shares their stories of success because it’s how they encourage other communities to fully grasp what they can do. And so in looking up Hope Squad and Dr. (Hudnall) … shared those community stories where they went from a ridiculous amount of suicides and attempts, not just completions but attempts.”

According to Winkelman, suicide attempts happen so often and many of those attempts are unrecorded.

“We know it’s a big problem in Grays Harbor County and by providing some leadership in that training, I intend to work with the other cities and the health department to kind of jumpstart that process,” Winkelman said.

For anyone who is thinking of suicide, there is help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (NSPL) is 988.

Contact Reporter Matthew N. Wells at matthew.wells@thedailyworld.com.