As a pediatric nurse, Marian McCord was used to taking care of sick and dying children. She even learned a lot about mental illness through her time on the hospital floor. But when her son Chad developed depression, which led to his tragic suicide, she realized she had been clueless about just how many children are lost to suicide every year.

“My heart just breaks, not only for my son, but for all the children who suffer from a mental disorder,” McCord says. “Compare it to cancer as a journey: Two children each have a potentially fatal disease, but the journey is so different. I thought, Something needs to be done about this, because I knew my son would not be the last teenager to die by suicide. My husband and I have been doing our best to help make a difference and save another teenager’s life, to save a family from going through the hell we went through and continue to live in after losing a child to suicide.”

McCord and her husband Larry formed a non-profit group called CHADS Coalition for Mental Health (Communities Healing Adolescent Depression and Suicide). Its mission is to advance the prevention and knowledge of adolescent depression and suicide through awareness, education and research. “Our focus is on teenagers and college-age young adults,” says McCord, “although we gave our last award to Washington University to support research on preschoolers who have depression. There’s more and more evidence that it can present in a young child, and the belief is that the earlier the treatment is begun, the better the prognosis for these kids. But for the most part, our organization supports awareness of teen depression and suicide.”

The McCords have brought the Signs of Suicide (SOS) program, developed by Screening for Mental Health Inc. of Boston, into local classrooms. The program, which includes a video and handouts, can be implemented during one classroom period by existing school staff. Through a series of interviews and dramatizations, the SOS program teaches teens that depression is a treatable illness and empowers them to respond to suicide symptoms in a friend or family member. CHADS also has added a teachers’ symposium to the program. “We encourage the schools to let us do a parent night and a teachers’ symposium, because the teachers see the kids more than the parents,” says McCord. “Our teachers need to be educated, too.”

According to statistics, one out of every eight adolescents is depressed; 50 percent of adults with mental illness began showing symptoms in their childhood; and society loses more young people to suicide than the top eight medical conditions combined. “Our society has done a very good job of keeping it hidden in the closet,” McCord says. “Chad said, ‘I always thought I was the only one who felt this way. We talked about reckless driving and drinking, but not depression.’ It’s something that families don’t like to talk about because of the stigma of mental illness. The SOS program does an excellent job talking about the facts of depression, the causes and how you can treat it. We think it’s very important for our children to be educated on the facts vs. the myth of mental illness. That will be part of our community understanding of the problem. We think it’s a good tool and a good, strong effort to have a more mentally healthy society.”

McCord is proud of the annual research grants raised and awarded by the coalition to explore early-onset mood disorders. She also notes that the program received a grant from the Wellpoint Foundation in 2007, enough money to get the Signs of Suicide program into every middle school and high school in the St. Louis area, both private and public. At one school where SOS has been employed, within 24 hours, many children had already utilized the skills they learned. “We get a consistent 10 percent immediate response from kids,” McCord says. “It’s out there, these kids are struggling, and it just gives them a tool and permission to seek help.”

Today, only a sliver of the national research budget goes to early-onset disorders. CHADS is out to change that, says McCord. “We see our research support growing in the future. Our signature event is the annual Kids Walking for Kids; last year we had several hundred people there and raised $100,000 for research. And the event is incredibly healing for kids who had been suffering in silence and for families who have lost anyone to suicide,” she adds. “We are also looking to start programs to help families who are in crisis now, because research payoff takes years to achieve. We want to connect those in crisis to other resources in the community. St. Louis has a lot of resources, but most people don’t know about them. We want to be that link.”