6 Ways Teachers Can Help Fight Depression and Mental Health Disorders

Depression has affected more than 10 percent of teenagers in the last year, yet most educators are not prepared to help students deal with depression.

Depression and Mental Health Issues Are More Common than Most People Think

The statistics are alarming; one out of every five adolescents between the ages of 13 – 18 years old will experience a mental health disorder that is significant enough to impact their daily functioning.

Out of a typical classroom of twenty-five students, that translates into five of those students with significant challenges impacting their ability to learn, socialize, and/or function in school. In particular, recent studies have pointed to a growth in the number of teenagers diagnosed with depression.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 3.1 million adolescents aged 12 to 17 years in the United States had at least one major depressive episode within the past year. This represents a little more than one out of ten teenagers.

Some individuals may have increased risk for depression, including girls, LGBTQ+ youth, and students with disabilities Unfortunately, most of these teens experiencing depression DO NOT receive treatment or interventions for their disorder.

There is no doubt that any mental health challenge will affect a student in the classroom. However, students diagnosed with depression often face unique problems in learning environments.

Depression is More Than Sadness; Impact is Far-Reaching

Depression is more than simply feeling sad; it impacts individuals on a social, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive level.

Individuals with depression may have difficulty completing challenging tasks. They may feel confused, overwhelmed or easily frustrated. Even basic everyday tasks become difficult. Depression can leave some individuals feeling irritable, agitated, anxious and unable to focus. Others find they are no longer interested in hobbies, activities or learning new things.

Mood swings make it hard to pay attention, while feelings of hopelessness or low self-esteem can cause individuals to believe they shouldn’t bother or simply can’t learn new things. Further, depression puts students at a disadvantage given the social nature of learning in schools.

Depression is not easily recognized or may be mistaken as another problem, such as lack of motivation. Although severe depression might manifest as suicidal thoughts or attempts, severe withdrawal, or emotional swings, the vast majority of cases are much milder and do not attract attention from adults. Moreover, children and adolescents are less likely than adults to refer themselves for mental health problems.

Training and Information Are Key to Treating Mental Health Disorders

However, educators with some training and information can begin to recognize the signs or symptoms in their students.

Common Signs Seen in the Classroom Include:

Cognitive

  • Memory problems
  • Concentration problems
  • Attention problems
  • Negative view of self, world, and future
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Feels loss of control
  • Suicidal thoughts

Behavioral

  • Sad mood
  • Social withdrawal
  • Does not participate in usual activities
  • Shows limited effort or motivation
  • Decline in self-care or personal appearance
  • Decreased work or school performance
  • Appears detached from others
  • Crying for no apparent reason
  • Inappropriate responses to events
  • Irritability
  • Apathy
  • Uncooperative
  • Suicidal thoughts/ideation
  • Suicide attempts

Physiological

  • Psychomotor agitation or retardation
  • Somatic complaints
  • Poor appetite or overeating
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Low energy or fatigue

Educators Can Take Action To Help Fight Depression

So what can educators do to support students who are struggling with depression? Although serious depression may require external professional help, support can be provided in the school setting.

Depression is Not a Choice; Depressed Students Want to Succeed Too

First, remember that depressed children are not choosing to underperform or withdraw. They want to be successful and often are seeking guidance and support from teachers and others, but lack the ability to articulate their needs.

Learning How to Address Depression as a Teacher

Understandably, educators without significant mental health backgrounds may feel uncertain and uncomfortable approaching and interacting with students with depression; though all educators should remember that providing support and compassion does not necessitate training in therapy or counseling.

6 Actionable Steps To Help Students with Depression

1. Develop a Working and Collaborative Relationship with the Student

Do not be afraid to talk with students with depression about how they feel. In fact, saying nothing says a lot, and asking about how they feel will almost never cause harm.

Many times, they are seeking someone who cares about them and can recognize their pain without them having to seek help on their own, although it might not seem that way. Above all, don’t give up on them!

2. Avoid Negative Techniques

Strategies such as punishment, sarcasm, disparagement, passive-aggression, or other negative techniques are ineffective and likely will only reinforce feelings of incompetence and low self-esteem, which may worsen the symptoms of depression.

Remember that these students are not choosing to be depressed.

They want to feel better and do well, just as you want them to do well. When depressed, students lack the personal resources to do their best work and overcome their challenges.

3. Make Adjustments or Accommodations in Assignments or Tasks

Do not lower expectations or give unearned grades. However, educatiors can give more time, break assignments into smaller pieces, offer extra help in setting up schedules or study habits, provide flexibility in assignment schedules, or pair the student with others who express an interest in helping as part of a range of classroom adjustments.

4. Plan for Success

To the extent possible, arrange experiences so that the student can be successful and receive recognition for successes. Scheduling pleasant activities and providing opportunities for successful leadership are examples. It is very important that depressed students feel accepted as a part of the school and that teachers believe in their competence.

5. Consult With Your School Psychologist, School Counselor, or School Social Worker

School-employed mental health personnel can provide suggestions of ways to support specific students, either through consultation, direct services, or collaborating with the family or other community agencies.

6. Get a Mental Health Certification to Learn Current Best Practices

The world is changing quickly, and so is the research on depression and other neuro-cognitive disorders. A mental health certification through IBCCES will show you how to apply the latest research in the classroom with evidence based research and treatment. This helps educators to feel more comfortable addressing mental health disorders in students (which about 1 in 5 struggle with) and helps students to get the care they need to succeed.

Depression can impact many aspects of a student’s performance at school, including both academic achievement and social relationships.

While students with depression can benefit significantly from mental health services, they can also greatly benefit from support by caring adults in their school settings that they interact with on a daily basis.

Understanding, patience, compassion, knowledge of the nature and course of depression, a desire to help, and a commitment to improving outcomes can be major factors in helping students with depression to succeed in school and life.

Guest post by:

Dr. John Kelly
School Psychologist
Commack Schools
Past-President
National Association of School Psychologists

Find me on Twitter: @jkellyphd 

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