How can I support students experiencing depression?

8 min read
December 7, 2022

It’s not out of the ordinary for teens to feel down once in a while. Adolescence is filled with many changes and uncertainties, making it a potentially challenging and stressful time. These changes can be related to numerous aspects of a young person’s life, whether physical, emotional, social, or psychological.

Depression has become increasingly common among American teenagers and the recent COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the growing youth mental health crisis. In a study conducted by the National Alliance for Mental Illness, among U.S. adolescents aged 12-17:

  • 1 in 6 experienced a major depressive episode (MDE)
  • 3 million had serious thoughts of suicide
  • There was a 31% increase in mental health-related emergency department visits

What does depression feel like?

Depression is more than just feeling “down in the dumps”. Those with depression may feel easily overwhelmed, frustrated, or confused. This condition, if gone untreated, can be debilitating for some. Depression can make everyday tasks, like getting out of bed, eating, or taking a shower extremely difficult. Also, those with depression can feel constantly irritated and anxious, and this can make someone unable to focus. Sadly, depression and depressive conditions can make someone uninterested in things that they would usually love like hobbies or hanging out with friends.

How does depression affect teens?

Anxiety and depressive disorders can significantly affect school attendance and schoolwork. Specifically, depression can result in unique problems related to focus and learning. Depression and anxiety share some of the same symptoms, including rapid and unexpected changes in mood. Those experiencing anxiety and depression might isolate themselves because they might be experiencing common symptoms like poor self-worth/self-esteem, fear of rejection/failure, and feelings of shame and guilt. Social withdrawal can profoundly exacerbate loneliness and put students experiencing depression at a disadvantage, especially since learning in schools is usually social in nature. Depression can also lead to fatal outcomes like suicide. 

Some individuals may have an increased risk for depression, including girls, students with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ youth. In fact, teen girls are almost three times as likely as teen boys to have had recent experiences with depression. Unfortunately, most of these teens experiencing depression do not receive treatment or proper interventions for their disorder.

How can you help?

  1. Develop a good relationship with your student

Start by building a sense of trust and understanding between yourself and your student. Don’t be afraid to talk about what they are feeling and going through and don’t be afraid to talk to them specifically about depression. Asking how a student feels can help show them that you’re there to support them. Be direct– ask questions like, “Are you feeling depressed?” or, “Are you thinking about ending your life?”

Sometimes, teens have a hard time reaching out for help and it may make a huge difference when someone they know recognizes that they are struggling. Remember that it may take some time for a student to come to you, so be consistent in checking in on them and give them the opportunity to open up on their own terms. 

  1. Make accommodations for assignments or exams

Teachers can support students with depression by working with them to make adjustments to deadlines or procedures surrounding school work. This doesn’t mean giving grades that are not earned or lowering expectations– this means helping your students reach their potential and understanding how their experiences with mental illness affect their daily life and functioning. 

You can give students more time to complete a task, break an assignment or exam into smaller pieces, offer extra tutoring or help outside of the classroom, or give flexibility for assignment deadlines. This looks different for each student, so it’s best to create plans that suit your student’s individual needs.

  1. Promote social interaction

Students dealing with depression can face problems maintaining friendships because of their tendency to perceive interactions and relationships negatively. This may be due to mood fluctuations and low self-esteem. You can facilitate increased social interaction by including social-based group activities in your curriculum. You can even create groups based on who you think your student might have a connection with. Group work is a great way to promote teamwork and collaboration. 

  1. Suggest your student find hobbies they enjoy

Research shows that people with hobbies are less likely to suffer from stress, low mood, and depression. Group hobbies, like team sports or school clubs, can be a great way for young people to meet new people. Social interactions can help provide opportunities for friendship and support. Scientists have also found that engaging in a creative activity, like painting, drawing, or playing a musical instrument leads to increased well-being that can last until the next day.

  1. Communicate with any school support staff and the student’s family

If you think that a student may be experiencing symptoms of depression, reach out to school counselors, psychologists, or social workers and the student’s family to inform them of your concerns and talk about how you can work together to ensure that the child gets the help that they need. You can start a system that can facilitate regular communication between you and your student’s family, or refer them to medical treatment. 

When addressing any concerns you may have with a student experiencing depression, remember that you are not alone. You can reach out to other teachers, your school counselor, or your school psychologist if your school has any or your principal. You can also look to credible, evidence-backed organizations for more information and resources like the National Alliance on Mental Illness or Mental Health America

Tip: Brain Health Basics is a free 1-hr program that you can easily adopt in your classroom to help students understand their mental health, build the vocabulary to talk about it, and self-advocate.

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