There is a difference between feeling sad, and feeling or experiencing Depression. Often, we use the term depressed to describe the way we feel in a singular moment “I’m depressed about the way my year book photo turned out”, or “I’m so depressed about the weight I’ve gained”. This term truly should only be used to describe a psychiatric disorder that causes severe, prolonged functional impairments that often negatively impact a child’s ability to develop academically, socially and emotionally. Feeling sad vs. having depression is like the difference between having a sprained wrist and a broken arm. While both painful, these two injuries are vastly different right?
Everyone occasionally feels sad or down. Usually these feelings do not last more than a few days in a row. When it comes to our students, Depression is defined as having persistent sad, hopeless or empty feelings. These symptoms can interfere with their ability to sleep, concentrate, participate in class and enjoy life.
Under the Mood Disorder umbrella, where depressive disorders fall, there are a number of possible diagnoses. If your gut feeling is telling you that a student is experiencing feelings of depression, it’s best to reach out to your school counselor or psychologist for support. Depression itself exists on a spectrum of sorts, prolonged feelings of depression surrounding a life transition or change can warrant a diagnosis of an adjustment disorder with depressed mood. Feelings of depression that are persistent for two years or more may be an indication of dysthymic disorder.
Identifying a child who is experiencing feelings that are more severe than the occasional “sad spell” can be very obvious, or may be extremely difficult. Depression tends to be a mental health issue with a great number of symptoms that are internalize, and therefore hard to spot. My rule of thumb is to compare a student’s behavior to that student’s previous behaviors. Is what I am observing out of the ordinary for this particular student? Behaviors to look out for:
Ø Low energy
Ø Trouble concentrating
Ø Depressed motor movements
Ø Fluctuations in sleep (sleeping during class perhaps)
Ø Fluctuations in eating habits (not eating anything at lunch time, or eating more than usual)
Ø Quick to lash out in anger or cry when upset
Ø Hopeless statements “I can’t do anything right”, “I suck at everything”
Ø Thoughts of suicide or self-harm
All of these are of course concerning, especially the last. Anytime a student makes suicidal statements, my advice is to seek out help from your campus counselor. I know, I know, a lot of students (and adults for that matter) make sarcastic or flippant comments about suicide “This pimple is huge, I’m just gonna kill myself so I don’t have to go to school”. I take every single comment about suicide seriously, I tell my students, Unfortunately, I’d rather you be upset with me next week for making a big deal of out of this vs. you not being around to BE upset. Yup…it’s that serious.
Successful classroom or campus interventions for students experiencing Depression really need to be individualized to fit that student’s specific needs. Some students who are seeking treatment for Depression outside of school may be taking medication that increases the difficulty of concentrating or staying awake in class. For these students, reduced workload or perhaps a rest period after medication is administered may be helpful. To help build their self-esteem and help to reduce those hopeless thoughts, providing them with extra time in a quiet space to complete a class assignment may be beneficial. Keep in mind that the emotional tone of a classroom has an impact on students. Making sure that assignments have instructions that are clearly defined and outlined is imperative. Positive feedback, wherever you can find it, also goes a long long way.