The Epidemic of Teen Depression
We all know that the teenage years can be tough, but some students seem to sink deeply into depression when the going gets tough. Are schools causing student depression? Why is there so much teen depression, and what can concerned teachers do about it? When you and your colleagues talk, have you begun asking, Teen Depression (Are Schools To Blame?)
Is Teen Depression an Epidemic?
Many teachers have noticed higher rates of depression among their students. This is often linked to the stresses of their family life, anxiety over test-taking and worries about interpersonal relationships. It seems clear that school has become more stressful for both teachers and students.
On the other hand, adolescence is typically an emotional storm that many teenagers just need to weather until they reach adulthood. It’s important for teachers to understand the difference between adolescent moodiness and true depression.
By the Numbers
Is teen depression growing? The answers from the experts indicate that it is.
A study published in the journal Pediatrics found that, “Between 2005 and 2014, the percentage of teens who reported having a major depressive episode in the past year increased from 8.7 percent to 11.3 percent.”
The Center for Discovery cites some disturbing statistics:
- Every 100 minutes a teen takes their own life.
- Suicide is the third leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24.
- About 20% of all teens experience depression before they reach adulthood.
Why Is It Happening?
The rise in student depression is real. What could be causing it?
According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, today’s teens are facing pressures that are more intense than those faced by previous generations.
Most teens use social media of all kinds. Unfortunately, all that time they spend connecting online leads to higher levels of anxiety and less time connecting in real life. People who spend a lot of time on social media suffer from high levels of depression, anxiety and low self-esteem.
This is even more true of vulnerable teenagers who typically rely on social media to a larger degree than adults do. You can read more about this problem here.
Parents are the only people who can control teens’ use of social media. In school, teachers can insist on a “no cell phone” rule during classes.
Friendships and Romantic Relationships
The teenage years are when most people have their first romantic relationships. They’re also when friendships become markers of social acceptance. Cliques often form in schools, and teens often divide into certain groups of friends.
Friendship and romance can be sources of great emotional support, but they can also lead to broken friendships, betrayals, cheating and other sources of emotional distress. These can all contribute to depression.
It seems self-evident that children who are bullied would suffer from depression. Bullying can lead to a sense of isolation and low self-esteem in the child who’s being bullied.
Once again, social media plays a key role here. Some experts say that cyberbullying is even more dangerous in its effects on student depression.
Lack of Coping Skills
Many teenagers simply don’t have good coping skills. They may not have strong support networks at home, at school or in their community.
Teens who feel lost and disconnected are more likely to feel depressed than to take it in stride when something bad happens. Some ways to build a support network are joining clubs and groups, getting involved in volunteer activities or getting involved in church groups.
Nature Deficit Disorder
Richard Louv, founder of the Children and Nature Network, coined the term “nature deficit disorder” in his 2005 book The Last Child in the Woods. Louv believes that today’s teens are suffering from spending too much time indoors and online.
As Louv writes, “Nature has the power to make children healthier, happier and smarter. But over the last few generations, childhood has moved indoors, leaving kids disconnected from the natural world. This worldwide trend has profound implications for children’s healthy development and the future of our planet.”
In a recent article in Medium, charter schools proponent Michael Strong argues that public schools are causing the rise in student depression. Strong cites research showing that many students feel disconnected from their peers, teachers and others at school.
His solution is to allow schools and teachers to develop creative approaches that aren’t tied to a single curriculum or testing regimen.
“In order to create fundamentally new kinds of schools, educators need freedom from all existing curricular constraints, licensing constraints and testing constraints,” Strong writes. “As long as opportunities for ‘innovation’ in education are constrained by the same constraints faced by public schools, innovators only have small parameters within which to innovate.”
School Can Be Stressful
Strong is an advocate of charter schools, and his opinion reflects a bias against public schools. That said, even teachers in the best schools can relate to the problems caused by overcrowded classrooms, an overemphasis on student testing and the anxiety students feel when they hear about school shootings in the news.
You can read more about the problems school lockdown drills cause here.
There’s no question that schools have become stressful places for both students and teachers.
How Should Schools and Teachers Respond?
The first step in helping students with depression is identifying it. Many teens can be angry, emotional and given to dramatic pronouncements. How do you know what’s normal and what might be a warning sign?
Is It Depression or Just Moodiness?
How do you know if your student is suffering from depression? There’s no clear way to know without a professional diagnosis, but most experts agree that you should look for the following signs. These should especially be cause for concern if they are new behaviors for the teen in question:
- Constantly being irritable and angry.
- Avoiding parents and teachers.
- Risky and dangerous behavior.
- Poor academic performance.
- Talking about suicide and death.
What Can Schools and Teachers Do to Help?
Depression is a highly treatable mental condition. Most people can recover from it with psychotherapy. In extreme cases, a psychiatrist can prescribe mood-altering drugs. I wonder, though, about the accepted practice of medicating an individual but not changing anything else. If the input caused the problem, shouldn’t we alter the input?
Maybe we need to ask more questions while remembering that teachers are not doctors or psychotherapists. You can be on the lookout for signs that concern you. You can talk to parents, school counselors and the school principal. Above all, you can be a source of support and empathy for all your students.
Most depressed students are not a danger to others. They usually take their depression out on themselves. If you sense that a student is in serious trouble, you should talk to the student and the school counselor, social worker or crisis counselor as soon as possible. The best way to combat depression is to diagnose it and treat it early.
Teachers have a front-row seat to their students’ daily lives, mood swings and behaviors. You’re in a good position to judge whether a student needs more help than you can give. Be alert to any troubling signs, and act quickly when you see them.
How do you feel about the additional responsibility that’s been added to your job description? Is it just a part of the job, or does it leave you feeling ambivalent?
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