THE TEACHER AND THE DEPRESSED CHILD
More than 1 in 50 elementary and middle school students, and more than 1 in 16 teenagers (some sources say more than 1 in 10), may have depression serious enough to constitute mental illness. Chances are a student with such a problem will be in one of your classes sooner rather than later—and you shouldn’t dismiss warning signs as “none of my business.” Untreated depression can lead to academic failure, social ostracism, even suicide.
What Causes It
While medical depression has no single cause, risk factors include:
- Trying to meet impossible standards
- Living in a dysfunctional home
- Suffering a trauma
- Smoking or using drugs
- Having close relatives who suffer from depression
The risk may also be increased if your school is academically demanding or competitive; has problems with crime or bullying; or contributes to a high-stress atmosphere in any other way.
How to Recognize It
A student may have major depression if several of the following symptoms persist for more than two weeks:
- Making little effort at volunteering or participating
- Withdrawing from others
- Becoming irritable or tearful over little things
- Looking-for-a-fight behavior
- Marked changes in grooming or eating habits
- Seeming unusually tired or restless most of the time
- Constant self-criticism
- Increasing focus on the negative
- Rejection of compliments, or otherwise belittling positive comments
- Noticeable decline in academic performance, especially in areas where s/he was doing well
- Complaining of unexplained headaches or stomachaches—or being “out sick” with unusual frequency
- Any “wish I were dead” remarks, or frequent talking about death in general
Note that many of these red flags are characterized by changes in behavior. Get familiar with what’s “normal” for each of your students, so you’ll recognize such changes early.
What to Do
Especially with someone you see only a few hours a week, it’s easy to dismiss depressed behavior and simply hang the label “uncooperative” or “bad attitude” around a student’s neck. Don’t. Antagonizing behavior is often a disguised cry for help.
Here’s what you can do:
- Ask the student directly if he or she is having difficulty with anything. But keep it low-key: if other students think the “troublemaker” is being singled out for special attention (negative or positive), they may make things harder.
- Call the student’s home and ask if any recent major changes have affected family or child. Again, avoid being too direct at the start: if depression is connected to any form of abuse, things may get worse if an adult suspects the child has been talking to outsiders.
- If the parents are willing to help work out a solution, schedule an appointment to discuss facts and options in detail.
- Mention any specific concerns to your school’s counseling program. If you have reason to suspect actual abuse, report it to the law.
- Remember that while it’s not your responsibility to solve anyone’s personal problems, an empathetic listening ear is always appreciated. Be that ear whenever you can. You may be the only kind and understanding person in a child’s life—and kindness can save lives.