The number of Kansas youth planning to take their own life is on the rise. In Cowley County, as many as one in four kids says they've devised a plan.

"It kind of just clicked and made me think," Ark City High student Victor told Legacy Regional Foundation last year after seeing the one man play Every Brilliant Thing. "And it gave me an idea of what some kids may go through."

The play was part of a weeklong program designed to help students understand the way depression and mental illnesses can affect the brain.

"In our school, and our community, really, suicide is something we're talking about," said Michaela Taylor, a counselor at Ark City High. "We don't want people to languish in the shadows. We want them to come out and get help."

The concerted effort to change the conversation comes as the A Closer Look at Cowley Kids survey, part of a statewide effort to better understand rising teen suicide rates, shows the rate of depression and suicide ideation, planning to take one's own life, is on the rise there and has been for the last several years.

And it's rising faster than at the state level, from 14.1% of students surveyed in 2018, below the state average, to 25.9% this year, above the state's average.

"I think that Covid was a factor," said Eric Burr, Ark City Police Chief and chair of the Cowley County Suicide Prevention Coalition. "Prior to that, you know, it's really hard to say."

"We have theories about why we're higher than other counties, but no proof as to why," said Taylor.

But in hopes of slowing, or even turning around, that increase, the schools across the county teamed up with the police department, health professionals, and others to form the Cowley County Suicide Prevention Coalition.

"We started looking at programs that will impact the teens through the school district," Burr said.

Burr suggested a peer-to-peer crisis response program called Hope Squad. The Legacy Regional Foundation says schools signed on after seeing the student's reactions to the play "Every Brilliant Thing."

"There are students identified, they are elected or nominated by their peers," Taylor explained about the Hope Squad program, "a peer who they would go to if they were in crisis, they needed to talk to someone."

Those nominated students then get training in crisis intervention, suicide prevention, and when to seek out an administrator or counselor immediately. Those students become the Hope Squad for their school.  Studies show students are more likely to turn to other students than to adults for help.

"Our focus, especially with the coalition and even getting Hope Squad into the schools, is to educate teens and then also educate the community about the warning signs and knowing what resources to go to when they do identify that maybe someone is struggling," Burr explained.