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updated: 1/19/2011 6:14 PM

New partnerships to help suicide prevention

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In its ongoing aim to prevent further teen suicides, Barrington Unit District 220 is receiving both guidance and validation from some highly respected agencies.

Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University and the Skokie-based Cheryl T. Herman Foundation are lending their expertise to the district's and community's mental health programs.

From the fall of 2007 through August 2010, five Barrington High School students and two district staff members committed suicide.

The deaths sparked the creation of the group Help, Encouragement, Resources, Education, or HERE, to publicize and improve the community's mental health programs.

One of its major goals is to de-stigmatize depression and those seeking of help. The program's objectives and successes strongly impressed Dr. John Zajecka, associate professor of psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center and a trustee of the Herman Foundation.

"It was refreshing to see the open-mindedness that was there," Zajecka said Wednesday.

The Herman Foundation, named after a Zajecka patient who battled both breast cancer and depression, supports education, diagnosis and treatment related to depression, bipolar disorders and related illnesses.

The foundation's executive director, Steve Murray, was well aware of the struggle the Barrington High School community was going through, having two daughters there himself. A few months ago he offered the foundation's expertise and resources to the district.

District 220 Superintendent Tom Leonard said this "knock on the door" could not have been more welcome.

"We're working hard on something we all care about," Leonard said. "We're willing to receive instruction in case we're not doing something exactly right."

The district is in its first year of introducing an Adolescent Depression Awareness Program developed by Johns Hopkins University and Hospital in Baltimore.

Principal Steve McWilliams said that not many schools have the opportunity to be connected to such knowledgeable and respected groups as those now helping his.

"There's been quite a bit of validation of the things we have done," McWilliams said. "Yet, there are still more things that can be done."

Zajecka emphasized that there is nothing unique about the issues District 220 is now wrestling with, as high profile as they became there.

Deanna Griffin, a parent who co-chairs HERE in Barrington, said the biggest thing her group has learned since its founding in 2009 is that depression is as much a medical condition as pneumonia, and requires the same direct approach in its treatment.

She said the new professional associations the group has acquired will help it communicate that reality and develop new methods of treatment and prevention.