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After each new violent school shooting tragedy that shakes the nation, we experience a tidal wave of renewed attention on mental health in schools. Teachers are used to this. We know that we should always look for students who seem disconnected and try our best to “check in.” However, what exactly are we looking for? What does “checking in” look like?

We are overworked and exhausted, making it sometimes hard to notice anything at all. On top of that, many mental health issues are hard to spot. I’m sure I’m not the only teacher that has ever been shocked to find out that a certain student was in the hospital for mental health concerns. Often it is the student you least expected – the one who sat quietly doing their work. I can’t be the only teacher who has ever asked myself, “Why didn’t I notice anything?”

Concerns related to depression have been rising over the past decades, but depression in childhood tends to be either overlooked or misdiagnosed. But research on this topic shows that depression in childhood is a real concern and that intervention, once signals are noticed, is not only helpful but essential for the safety of the student and others. Here’s how teachers can identify students in crisis and create a plan that addresses students’ social and emotional needs.

How Common is Childhood Depression?

According to WebMD, up to 3% of children in the US have depression. Under age 10, it is more common in boys, but by age 16, there is a higher prevalence in girls. Research also shows that queer students have a higher prevalence of depression. A 2017 study found that 85% of queer youth rate their average stress as a “5” or higher on a scale of 1-10. Studies also show that children with significant medical conditions may be at greater risk. I never thought about this until recently, as I am a mostly healthy person who did not experience significant health issues in middle school. Teachers tend to plan for things they can specifically relate to, and like me, many have likely not had that experience. The overwhelming prevalence of depression in childhood serves as a reminder for teachers that the structure of education in our country, which has been slowly shifting, needs to change drastically to meet these young people’s needs.

Depression in childhood is understudied. Nationwide, there is a disturbing lack of understanding. One of the reasons for this, as WebMD mentions, is that childhood depression may be either misdiagnosed as or masked by other conditions such as ADHD or OCD. Students who display distracted behavior or disruptive tendencies tend to often be labeled, even unofficially, as ADHD, creating a problem when it comes to treating the child’s exact needs. Misconceptions about depression also serve as barriers to support. For example, there is a misconception that children can simply “get over” depression and that it is synonymous with simply feeling down, as children do from time to time. Many feel that children have no reason to be depressed. They perceive childhood as a carefree time that cannot allow for the real, diagnosable illness of depression. These are barriers that have inhibited study into the topic of childhood depression. They have also resulted in potentially life-threatening situations for children across the world.

How Can You Tell If a Child is Depressed?

Research shows that depression in childhood may manifest differently than it does in adults. Younger children are more likely than adults to experience symptoms such as irritability and anger. Like adults, children may lose interest in activities they previously enjoyed or wish to withdraw from social activities. However, children and adolescents may also show a desire to run away from home. Another manifestation of depression for children may be aches and pains or fear of being separated from a parent. One study by Turkish researchers stated that “weight loss is one of the most obvious symptoms of depression [;] it turns into not reaching the average weight in children and moreover, somatic symptoms and social isolation are more frequent in children compared to adults.”

Another important signal for me has been student work. I have noticed that students who are depressed tend to show it in small ways in writing assignments, artwork, and other creative projects. This may include a heightened presence of death or blood or even simply a dark tone. It’s important for teachers to have an awareness of these symptoms. We are around these children as much as (or more than) their parents are. So when it comes to observing behaviors and identifying possible dangerous situations, we have the ability to help. It may be unfair if that responsibility falls solely on us, but we still need to do what we can.

How Educators Can Help Children with Depression

Educators and administrators are slowly catching up with students’ mental health needs. Some schools for younger children are further ahead, focusing on social and emotional needs, but programs for older children generally focus more on academic needs. This raises the question of what more we can do now, as teachers, to support our students’ social and emotional needs

One solution is to offer visible, vocal support. For example, when I get end-of-year letters and cards from students, many thank me for teaching them about music (my primary subject). But even more thank me for being a good listener and for making them feel welcome, accepted, and supported. One study found that “a supportive figure that provides emotional, instrumental, or general support on school grounds in times of need… can attenuate depression scores in middle school students.” Thus, positive teacher-student relationships are essential for promoting a mentally healthy environment for children in schools, even if it just means the student is aware of your presence and willingness to help them. 

The rise in awareness of childhood depression has also resulted in teachers turning to alternative practices. Yoga is becoming more popular and can serve as a therapeutic outlet for children who experience anxiety and depression. Studies show that yoga can help young people regulate their emotions and that it may have positive outcomes, such as “reduced symptoms of anxiety, depression, [and] stress.” Reducing these symptoms may allow students to experience school in a more joyful and mentally healthy manner. One letter I received from a student at the end of this past school year specifically thanked me for including stretches and meditation in our daily routines, saying that it helped her feel more calm and comfortable in our group.

Depression in childhood is common, dangerous, and above all, noticeable. Teachers do have the ability to be one step ahead of its potential consequences. The literature above shows that students will not just “get over” it. Real intervention is needed to address these problems once the symptoms are noticed. We need support, resources, and a society that assists us in our efforts to “check in” with our children. But while school programs are catching up with the mental health needs of children, it is every teacher’s responsibility to be aware of the signals. Teachers cannot do this work alone, but we must do what we can. We cannot wait for the next tragedy to happen before we take action to improve mental health in our schools.

Faith Brown is a writer and educator with a Bachelor’s degree in music education from Moravian University, where she also received multiple prizes for academic essays. Throughout six years of teaching, she has worked on an initiative for social emotional learning, served as an active member of her district’s equity council, and led multiple professional development sessions on mindfulness. She is currently working on her 200-hour yoga teacher certification and continues to teach music.

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