Master Teaching

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When Depression Sits in your Classroom

by Amy Young

I think most of us went into teaching because we are interested in our subject matter, enjoy teaching, and care about our students. What you probably didn’t anticipate (at least I know I didn’t) was the need to become aware of so many aspects of a student’s life beyond mere subject matter.

Right now in your classroom you have students who are facing emotional and psychological realities that make learning at best low on their list of priorities and at worst impossible. While you are not expected to be an expert in all of these areas, let’s look at depression and suicide, helping you be a bit more informed. Later in this article I will share three practical steps you can take.

Depression can be broken down into two broad categories: situational and clinical. Situational depression refers to situations that are depressing! If you have a student who failed a major exam, has a parent who has been diagnosed with cancer, or has recently broken up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, they most likely will experience situational depression. You will probably notice some change in their behavior in your class or on their homework, but after a reasonable amount of time, most likely they will come out of it. Your primary role as a teacher is to be aware and sympathetic checking in with them from time to time and monitoring to see if it is getting better or turning into clinical depression.

Without getting bogged down in definitions, clinical depression occurs when a person’s blood chemistry has gotten out of balance. They no longer respond to things that used to help them feel better and probably won’t “get better” without some sort of outside intervention. Some basic symptoms to look for are changes in sleep patterns (getting more or less), changes in weight, and an overall lack of interest in life in general. You can find more symptoms here.

One aspect of depression I would like to point out to you as a teacher is that most of what we know about depression we have learned from studying females. While much of what we know applies to males as well, there is one key difference in the symptoms of depression in boys and girls: anger. If you have a student who is showing more signs of anger than before, instead of just assuming it is a behavior problem, check to see if they may be experiencing some depression.

At its most extreme, depression can lead to suicidal thoughts and actions. Warning signs might include writing or commenting on death, a change in mood because they have decided to kill themselves, commenting on life not being worth it, giving away special items to classmates, or telling you good-bye in such a way you sense it is different. If you sense one of your students is suicidal, please ask them directly if they have thought about hurting themselves. If they say they have, ask if they have a plan for how they would hurt themselves. One of the greatest misnomers is that asking the question will plant the idea. It will not. Here is a more extensive list with signs of suicide. I like this website because it has a list of questions to ask yourself or your student.

What can you do?

  1. The greatest thing we can do is to bring our students before the Lover of their Souls. At least once a week walk through your classroom, touching each desk and petitioning for your students.
  2. Be aware of the resources available at your school. The time to find out procedures for working with a depressed or suicidal student is not when you have one. The time is now. Does your school have a counselor? If so, talk to them this week!
  3. Be an engaged teacher. Pay attention to your students so that you notice when they are not quite themselves.

Further exploration

What’s your perspective?

  • What sort of services does your school offer for depressed students?
  • What’s your experience with depressed or suicidal students in your class?
  • What was something new you learned about depression or suicide after reading this article?

Post Author

c7906-amy2Amy’s first classroom was filled with two students who did not want to be there, seeing as they were her younger sisters. Thankfully, things have looked up for her when it comes to teaching! She’s taught junior highers all the way up to visiting scholars from China. She has masters in both TESL and counseling and sees strong connections between the two disciplines.  She blogs at the Messy Middle.


Photo Credit: McBeth via Compfight cc

3 comments on “When Depression Sits in your Classroom

  1. Anonymous
    October 2, 2014

    How can you offer “outside help” in a country such as China that has very little resources for students who are going through this?

    Like

  2. Amy Young
    October 2, 2014

    What a great question! And you're right, context will be a guiding factor. I know in some countries, teachers have been advised to not acknowledge or discuss if a suicide has occurred on campus.

    So, in answer to your question, in some contexts, if possible, hold some sort of group event (be it a meeting with all of the students or all the students in a class or grade) — both preventative and debriefing.

    Now, this type of approach will NOT be possible (or wise to push too much for — I think it's fine for you to make a proposal with what you might do in a group event, understanding it most likely will not be accepted. But we are living with a long term perspective, so just because they say “no” to you now, who knows the seeds you are sowing for future students.). Instead, this doesn't mean you can do nothing, it just means the scale will need to altered significantly.

    For instance, you might be able to come to class earlier, stay later, or hang around where students hang more than you normally would. If a conversation is initiated by a student, have thought through ways you can help (i.e. be familiar with symptoms, or be willing to talk about non-alarming topics such as “how's your sleep.”). Or you have looked up or found resources in the local language. This might involve you working with a local teacher now, ahead of needing it, to find articles or tips in the local language. Though many countries still might have very limited resources, the internet has been a small leveler (meaning, there ARE resources, you just might need to hunt for them.).

    Did I get to the heart of your question? If not, please ask a follow up question!

    Like

  3. Melissa K. Smith
    October 2, 2014

    When a suicide attempt happened a few buildings over from where I live in China in a very public way–he had to be rescued from the top of the building, I followed Amy's advice with a group of teachers. “Suicide” became the next topic for my Teachers English Corner. I learned some interesting things. For one, there's a counseling center on our campus (connected to a degree through the Education College in counseling psychology).

    There are also an increasing number of family members and foreigners becoming trained in counseling…even in rather remote areas like mine.

    If you ask, you might be surprised at the resources you find. 🙂

    Like

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This entry was posted on October 1, 2014 by in Amy Young, students who are depressed, students who are suicidal, types of students.

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