Carmel Catholic High School Partners with Erika's Lighthouse to Support Teen Mental Health

Would it shock you to learn that according to the State of Wisconsin’s Office of Children’s Mental Health, 1 in 10 Wisconsin teens have attempted suicide over the last three years and that half the state’s youth have some type of mental illness? 

In Illinois, the numbers are just as worrisome. A recent study involving Lurie Children’s Hospital revealed the percentage of children showing up at hospital emergency departments with suicidal thoughts rose nearly 60% since the start of the COVID pandemic.

It’s no wonder that many parents now say that their child’s mental health is equally as important as the education they will receive. At Carmel Catholic High School, teachers, coaches, and school administrators are on the front lines every day, witnessing what can only be described as the biggest teen crisis in the past century.

Erika’s Story

In 2004, when Erika Neuckranz was a stalwart in the Winnetka community where she grew up. An aspiring poetess and eloquent writer at just 14 years of age, Erika seemed to care the most about those around her. She was an active member of Winnetka Congregational Church, served soup to the homeless at Night Ministry, and volunteered for the Multiple Sclerosis Walk and for the Special Olympics.

But like so many teenagers, Erika was battling her inner demons. Instead of talking about her depression or seeking help, Erika would take her own life just as she was entering her freshman year at New Trier High School.

Soon after her passing, Erika’s parents turned her suffering into hope for other families with the creation of Erika’s Lighthouse, a program whose mission is to serve as a rallying point for a community in pain and one that is dedicated to helping make sure every child, every school, and every community is aware of adolescent depression.

Erika’s Lighthouse Comes to Carmel Catholic

Carmel Catholic health teacher Michelle Orth did not personally know Erika, but she grew up in the same community and learned about her through a support program that now has a global reach. 

Ms. Orth brought Erika’s Lighthouse to Carmel Catholic when she started teaching here in 2022. Officially named Erika’s Lighthouse Teen Empowerment Club, the program is one Ms. Orth is passionate about, and she knows first-hand how important the club can be in going above and beyond to help teens cope with everything from depression, anxiety, peer pressure, and even thoughts of suicide.

“Growing up in the area [where Erika lived], it was an unfortunate piece of my childhood. I remember in all avenues of my life—from elementary through high school and even into my 20s, there have been people close to me that have been impacted by suicide,” recalls Ms. Orth. “I cannot tell you how often I’ve thought about what could have been done to prevent this tragedy.” 

Suicide is now the second leading cause of death for our young people, and while the goal of Erika’s Lighthouse Teen Empowerment Club isn’t necessarily about suicide prevention, it tries to break the stigma associated with mental health and seeking assistance.

“Erika’s Lighthouse is near and dear to me, and if we can impact at least one person or several people in this community, then we can make a difference,” said Ms. Orth.  

Thankfully, Carmel Catholic is not alone in making a difference. For this school year, 1,765 schools across the country have enacted Erika’s Lighthouse programs, and Carmel Catholic is 1 of 77 high schools with similar empowerment clubs. Officials at Erika’s Lighthouse anticipate that number to increase significantly this year and in years to come. 

While Carmel Catholic’s empowerment club has roughly a dozen members that meet once a month, every freshman receives a little bit of Erica's Lighthouse training and information. 

“Much of the focus is on mental health resources and where to find support both in and outside of school,” explains school counselor and department chair Tylee Resetich '11, who says that it is still early in the club’s existence at Carmel Catholic but she is seeing some promising signs.

“In the past couple of years, I have had more students who will speak up and say that they have battled or are currently battling anxiety, or having issues with their mental health, but that they’re learning how to navigate it,” said Ms. Resetich. 

Programs like Erika’s Lighthouse and topics such as substance abuse, our digital footprint, and social media that Ms. Orth covers in her health classes are helping kids learn how to deal with and manage stress.

Adds Ms. Orth, “We are at a crossroads because kids today want things immediately. They must learn that when it comes to improving the quality of their lives and mental health, healing is not linear but can be minimized a little bit each day.”

To say that the founders, including Erika’s parents and family, are grateful for the support and partnership provided by schools such as Carmel Catholic is an understatement. The nonprofit’s mission of providing free mental health programs for any school, anywhere, has come to 100% fruition.

“We are astonished and thrilled by our growth,” says Kate Conklin, Vice President of Programs for Erika’s Lighthouse. “In 2004, Erika’s parents decided to create educational programs that would educate and raise awareness around adolescent depression, encourage help-seeking, and reduce stigma, and almost twenty years later, that is exactly what our programs do.”