District 211 has adopted a new program, Erika’s Lighthouse, this school year to shed light on mental health issues. Erika’s Lighthouse is a local program that facilitates discussion, education and raising awareness of mental health issues such as depression and suicide at school.

According to their website, “Adolescent depression lives in the shadows. Young people facing it feel isolated and dangerously alone. We help schools create hopeful dialogue so students can talk to each other, to their parents, to their teachers, and counselors.”

In 2004, a 14-year-old girl named Erika, lost her life due to depression, a mental illness that was not talked about at the time. Her parents, Tom and Ginny Neuckranz created this not-for-profit organization to prevent this from happening to other families around the world.

The Erika’s Lighthouse program was brought to Conant High School this school year. This is an area in education within the school district that’s been lacking in the past. People have been more reactive instead of being prepared for mental health crises. This includes the teachers and staff, as well as the students. This program is more proactive and has a goal to catch these signs early on.

The students are the ones that are interacting with their peers. They are the ones that could potentially catch some of these warning signs early, as long as they know about the early signs of depression.

The education can help students make smart decisions if they are suffering or if they suspect their friend is suffering. It can give students confidence to report a situation, if their friend is depressed or in danger of self-harming. Having this education on mental health as well as a procedure is critical to the many students that are suffering with this illness.

One of the staff members at Conant that is heavily involved with this program is Ashley Langley, school psychologist. Her background of helping teens deal with mental health issues makes her very suited to be involved in the program. Langley serves on the committee that is rolling out Erika’s Lighthouse district wide.

The district committee reviewed a number of programs before settling on Erika’s Lighthouse, Langley said. “We looked at lots of different programs, and Erika’s Lighthouse stood out.” Langley said one of the benefits of the program was its flexibility. Each of the 7 schools has different needs and populations, so Erika’s Lighthouse was the perfect program to fit all schools in our district.

Each school has customized it to meet the needs of their student population. For example, some schools only taught underclassmen, but Conant taught all four grade levels. The first step to administer this program to our school was to educate the teachers and staff on depression awareness and suicide prevention.

The staff had a presentation discussing what Erika’s Lighthouse is and watched the same video the students watched as well, Langley said. “This is what you do if you have a student that’s struggling.” The staff responded positively and overall felt the information would be useful on campus.

The student roll-out was facilitated through the wellness program at Conant during the students’ classroom P.E. time. The reaction of the students was also positive, even leading to an influx of students coming forward to student services.

“I would say that given the response we had here,” Langley said, “it was pretty effective. After the presentation, we had a high response rate of students seeking help. It’s unfortunate that this is existing— but fortunate that we have opened someone’s eyes to get support.”

One of the students who participated in the program, Conant sophomore Graziella D., feels that the program is helping more students than she could have imagined, “I’m really glad that Conant is raising awareness about mental health and depression,” she said, “It is something that needs to be talked about because there are students here at Conant fighting every day that didn’t know how to get help.”

It seems that even at this early onset, Conant is proving Erika’s Lighthouse successful in their goal of giving “educators the tools to create meaningful discussions about depression.” This program may prove to become, in the program’s words, “a beacon of hope” for the Conant community far into the future as well. To learn more about Erika’s Lighthouse, visit their website at: www.erikaslighthouse.org.

Aliya Blackburn, Senior at Conant High School in Hoffman Estates, Illinois