A beacon of hope for adolescent depression
Story: Juliann Carlson
In 2004, Tom and Ginny Neuckranz, of Winnetka, Illinois, lost their 14-year-old daughter, Erika, to adolescent depression, a mental disorder that not many people were educated about at the time.
“Within several weeks, with many friends helping, including many friends of Erika, we decided to start an education program and put it in the schools if we could, and we have done that, to teach children about depression and destigmatize it,” Tom says in an interview with WGN-TV in Chicago.
Promoting early identification and intervention by raising awareness of depression is the best hope of preventing suicide. In the same interview with WGN, Erika’s Lighthouse Executive Director Heather Freed says that “it starts with education, it starts with facts. Our program is all about teaching young people and the adults in their lives what depression looks like and what it’s about. And I think once people start to understand what the warning signs look like, that it’s common, that anyone can have it, it really starts to break through some of those stereotypes and a lot of the shame that is carried when you have mental health issues.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the leading cause of death for people ages 10-24. What’s more, most children or adolescents suffering from depression will go undiagnosed and untreated. Depression is common. It is treatable. It’s just a matter of understanding what it is and how to get help.
Erika’s Lighthouse began as a pilot program in one school and has grown to have a presence in 176 middle schools and high schools spread across 28 states. The classroom-based programs, Depression Awareness for Middle School Students and Depression and Suicide Awareness for High School Students, feature teens sharing their own stories of dealing with depression and cover the basic information about the disorder while encouraging young people to take ownership of their mental health. The programs are evidence-informed and data-driven, compliant with National Health Education Standards, and also meet many state education suicide prevention standards.
Mac Shannon, a former recipient of Erika’s Lighthouse programming and mental health advocate, says in a recent annual report that Erika’s Lighthouse gave him a voice.
“It gave me a way to fight back against the frustratingly intangible issue that mental health is,” he says. “It gave me a small sense of community with a peer group during a time that I didn’t have a safe space to retreat to, with school and home and sports all being so deeply entangled with my struggle with my gender or depression.”
The programs, along with countless other resources such as “The Parent Handbook for Childhood and Teen Depression” and the Teen Depression Toolbox, can be found at erikaslighthouse.org, free of charge.
“We do what we do because no one else was giving kids the 411 on this common illness,” says Ginny, co-founder and board member of Erika’s Lighthouse. “Tom and I are grateful to work with a fabulous staff and team of volunteers that share a common vision.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression, contact a doctor or mental health professional to get help.
Erika’s Lighthouse is a nonprofit organization that offers school-based depression awareness programs for middle and high schools—free of charge and easily accessible. Visit erikaslighthouse.org for more information.
About the writer: Juliann Carlson is marketing and development manager at Erika’s Lighthouse, a program to educate communities about teen depression, break the stigma of mental illness, and promote mental health in teens. See erikaslighthouse.org for information.