In an effort to help middle and high school students deal with issues related to teen depression, the Sarah Michelle Peterson Foundation has been training school staff to help them recognize the signs in an effort to prevent suicide.

In a partnership with Suffolk Public Schools, eighth- and 10th-grade students will hear from their health and physical education teachers about how to recognize early signs of depression in themselves or others, challenging the stigma about it and teaching them how to ask for help or direct others to get help.

“What we want is for students to understand, first, to break down stigma and understand that asking for help is really a sign of strength,” said Michelle Peterson, the foundation’s executive director, “and that it is completely appropriate to ask for help, when we’re talking about mental health as well as physical health.”

Prior to the students receiving the presentations, Peterson has been in the schools coaching teachers and support staff on what the warning signs are for depression — things like people not acting like themselves, changes in their behavior or doing or saying things that are out of character — as well as what to say and how to guide teens to help.

Erika’s Lighthouse is the name of the program — as well as a non-profit organization working to eliminating the stigma about teen depression — used for 10th-grade students for the first time this school year. The program highlights early detection and treatment, and students see a video of teens sharing stories of their own depression in a documentary-style format.

Eighth-graders receive information from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, using the “More Than Sad: Teen Depression” video.

In each program, students watch a video, which is followed by a facilitated discussion.

As part of the program, the foundation has been hosting presentations for parents and other interested parties — such as coaches, youth pastors, activity directors, community sports directors, and Scout leaders.

Two have taken place so far — Dec. 4 at Nansemond River High School and Wednesday at Lakeland High School, and more are slated for January and February.

Last year, the foundation provided 140 separate programs in the Hampton Roads area, 92 of those in Suffolk Public Schools, presenting to 2,304 students, teachers and community members at no cost to the school division.

Peterson wants students to understand that depression is common, and if they recognize themselves or someone they know as having some of the warning signs or feelings, to seek help. Peterson said the program relies heavily on the theme of “tell a trusted adult.”

“A lot of times young people think that, first, no one else has ever felt this way,” Peterson said, “and second, that there’s nothing that can help them, that they’re just defective in some way, or something like that.”

She said Suffolk Public Schools deserves credit for putting the topics of teen depression and mental health in the curriculum.

“They’re the ones who decided to get ahead of the curve three years ago, before our state-required school systems to have suicide prevention included in their health curriculum,” Peterson said. “And that’s coming next year, but it’s not required yet. And Suffolk decided to get ahead. They decided not to lose any more students due to inaction.”

Want to go?

The Sarah Michelle Peterson Foundation will be holding more parent and community presentations on teen depression on the following dates:

Jan. 8 at King’s Fork High School
Jan. 15 at Forest Glen Middle School
Jan. 29 at John F. Kennedy Middle School
Feb. 5 at King’s Fork Middle School
Feb. 12 at Col. Fred Cherry Middle School
Feb. 19 at John Yeates Middle School
All presentations are on Wednesday evenings at 6 p.m.

For more information on The Sarah Michelle Peterson Foundation, go to For more about Erika’s Lighthouse, visit, and for more on the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, go to

Originally featured Suffolk News Herald – Author Jimmy LaRoue