Students in Libertyville are reaching out and raising awareness about an issue plaguing many teenagers – depression.
As part of National Depression Awareness Month in October, a student club at Libertyville High School is bringing in speakers and helping other students connect with resources to talk about depression and other mental health issues.
Libertyville High School's chapter of Erika's Lighthouse, a local organization aimed at helping teens who have depression and other mental health disorders, kicked off Depression Awareness Month by inviting motivational speaker and activist Jordan Burnham to address students.
Burnham, 24, attempted suicide when he was a senior in high school.
He survived a nine-story fall from his apartment building in suburban Philadelphia and since his recovery has dedicated his life to public speaking and mental health advocacy.
Students listened for more than an hour as Burnham recalled his struggle since middle school with depression and his suicide attempt, which came after an argument with his parents.
His story, while somber, was sprinkled with pop culture references and jokes – something that made him extremely relatable to his teen audience, said Libertyville senior McKenna Shanholtzer.
Shanholtzer, who is president of the school's Erika's Lighthouse chapter, said Burnham's unique style was something that prompted the club to reach out to him.
Students aren't often willing to talk about their struggles with mental health disorders, she said, and opening up the conversation with a charismatic man and an inspirational story might encourage students to speak up.
"A lot of kids go through this, and they don't feel comfortable talking about it," Shanholtzer said. "This lets kids know it's OK to talk about it. No matter what you look like, no matter who your friends are – it's OK to talk about it."
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, one in eight teens likely suffers from depression. Of that number, only about a third will seek treatment.
Erika's Lighthouse, based in Winnetka, started 10 years ago after eighth-grader Erika Neuckranz committed suicide. She was a student at Carleton Washburne School in Winnetka.
Erika's Lighthouse Executive Director Peggy Kubert said the organization speaks to at least 10,000 people each year, and offers free training to teachers, parents and students.
A major focus of the organization is allowing teens to talk to other teens about mental health issues, and using relevant tools – such as speakers teens can relate to – to remove the stigmas around depression.
"I can get up in front of a class and talk about this topic, and I'm just going to sound like their mother," Kubert said. "But if their peer or somebody you sit in class with, or one of the athletes on your school's football team is up in front of your health class, and they're talking about this serious topic … students tend to listen."
Libertyville High School social worker Lindsay Recsetar said students in the Libertyville club wanted to reach a wider range of students, and set out to do more than just advocate for mental health in health classes – and that's where Burnham came in.
Other schools in the area have held similar events to promote mental health awareness and help students speak up about depression and anxiety disorders.
At Vernon Hills High School, Burnham spoke to students in the spring, said Recsetar.
In Lake Forest last spring, students held a depression awareness week after three students committed suicide over a three-month span in 2011, and a local nonprofit hosted a panel discussion on mental health in the community.
"Stigma or no stigma, we just weren't giving enough attention to this," Lake Forest High School District 115 Assistant Superintendent Julie Cooley told the Tribune in May. "We are definitely more bold now when we speak about it."
Burnham said if there had not been so many negative stigmas surrounding mental health, he might have taken his treatment seriously. Seeing clubs like Erika's Lighthouse in schools in Chicagoland and the North Shore encourages Jordan that there might be a change in that stigma.
"Every student goes through a tough time," he said. "It's good to make people feel like they're not alone."