As a longtime PE and health teacher at Carleton Washburne School in Winnetka, Victor Cooper said he is vigilant about spotting possible signs of depression in his students.

“I look for the kid who always wants to be the star and impress his friends, and the kid who is very quiet and withdrawn,” Cooper said.

Each year he teaches his eighth-grade students an adolescent depression awareness unit using a school-based program created by the nonprofit organization Erika’s Lighthouse.

The program was launched in 2004 by Winnetka residents Ginny and Tom Neuckranz after their 14-year-old daughter Erika, an eighth-grader at Washburne, died by suicide after struggling with depression.

Erika was one of Cooper’s students, and the adolescent depression awareness education program her parents created in her name is now taught to students at 325 schools in 36 states across the U.S.

“Back then, we weren’t doing anything to teach students about depression … we talked to kids about staying away from alcohol and drugs, but we had no idea about depression,” Cooper said.

He said Erika’s Lighthouse has created a local awareness about depression and mental illness.

“Our community understands that people with mental illness are just like those who are sick with other physical illnesses, and they can be treated, and there is hope,” Cooper said.

In Washburne’s mental health unit, teacher’s give students a pre- and post-assessment during class and deliver a curriculum that allows students to explore scenarios that prompt discussions and lead to possible solutions, Cooper said.

The unit is team-taught, Cooper said, with teachers accompanied by a health professional. During classroom instruction, students are given bookmarks with the signs and symptoms of depression and contact information for organizations where they can seek help.

Cooper said each student also receives a confidential “help card” where they can indicate if they think that they or someone else might be suffering from depression and in need of help.

Ginny and Tom Neuckranz will be marking the journey they started in 2004 at the Erika’s Lighthouse 15th Anniversary Gala on May 18, a celebration of the organization’s mission and success.

“Back then, teachers talked to kids about sex and drugs, but depression awareness was not taught in the schools at all,” Tom Neuckranz said. “We wanted to do something to help kids like Erika who are facing depression and need to seek proper medical help. The message we send is positive, hopeful and helpful. Depression is an illness that is not your fault, and with help, you can live a life that is as happy as possible.”

Depression is an illness that is not your fault, and with help, you can live a life that is as happy as possible.

Tom Neuckranz recalled how after he and his wife gathered with friends and neighbors from the community after their daughter Erika’s death, the couple quickly realized that despite their grief, they needed to everything they could to raise awareness about adolescent depression.

“We were in total shock . . . Erika was a straight-A student who had lots of friends and was very popular, but she masked her depression,” Tom Neuckranz recalled. “It was such an emotional time for everyone in the community, but we knew we had to help other kids and families, so two months later, we started our nonprofit, Erika’s Lighthouse.”

Ginny Neuckranz said once she and Tom started their research and began meeting with mental health professionals, they learned that some studies find that one in five young people ages 11 to 24 will struggle with depression.

Still, despite the frequency of adolescent depression, the stigma associated with mental illness can prevent families from sharing their experiences with others, or seeking help, she said.

“I think one of the biggest changes we’ve seen in 15 years is our culture has become more inclusive, and as more people talk about depression, it starts to break down the stigma,” Ginny Neuckranz said.

The urgency of the Neuckranzes’ mission to bring their depression awareness program to students across the U.S. is underscored by a recent study by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, which found the rate of adolescents who suffer from clinical depression grew by 37 percent from 2005 to 2014.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, researchers found that in 2011 through 2012, more than 1 in 20 children in the U.S. ages 6 to 17 years old had current anxiety or depression that had previously been diagnosed by a healthcare provider.

  • Feeling sad, hopeless, or irritable a lot of the time
  • Not wanting to do or enjoy doing fun things
  • Changes in eating patterns – eating a lot more or a lot less than usual
  • Changes in sleep patterns – sleeping a lot more or a lot less than normal
  • Changes in energy – being tired and sluggish or tense and restless a lot of the time
  • Having a hard time paying attention
  • Feeling worthless, useless, or guilty
  • Self-injury and self-destructive behavior

Tali Raviv, a clinical psychologist at Lurie Children’s Hospital, said the reach of Erika’s Lighthouse has grown enormously in the past 15 years.

“Their resources for schools and families has really chipped away years of stigma and silence,” Raviv said. “Many times, depression awareness education can be an unfunded mandate, so the fact that Erika’s Lighthouse is providing their resources and products to schools at no cost is huge.”

The organization, which is run by a small staff of mental health professionals, also relies upon volunteers, including young adults who serve as diplomats and help with fundraising to support the nonprofit’s work in schools.

Reflecting back on how the organization has grown since its inception in 2004, Ginny Neuckranz said it is rewarding to hear from families who say Erika’s Lighthouse has been a life-changer.

“A woman stopped me in the post office once, and told me her son had gone through the Erika’s Lighthouse program in junior high and in high school,” Neuckranz recalled. “She told me that when he went away to college, he started to suffer from depression, and he told his mother he visited the campus medical center because he remembered what he learned from Erika’s Lighthouse,” she said. “She said he knew he should not be feeling the way he did, and needed to ask for help. And she was very grateful.”

Originally featured in the Chicago Tribune – Author  – Karen Ann Cullotta