Depression is Now Part of the School Day
The mental health disorder is a hot topic for parents, teachers, counselors — and most of all, students
Do you talk with your kids about depression? Would they know what it is, what the symptoms are — or how to ask for help if they think they’re struggling?
Two-thirds of all parents want school health classes to begin teaching mental health courses, according to a new poll from the University of Michigan C. S. Mott Children’s Hospital.
Children in middle school accounted for the largest proportion of suicides in the nation: a staggering 56 percent.
Health classes already include discussions on sexual education, pregnancy prevention, exercise, nutrition, and drug and alcohol abuse. But more parents want schools to teach kids how to cope with stress, anxiety, depression, and bullying.
These health classes would include discussions with younger children about the difference between clinical depression and typical sadness. They would encourage students to turn to their friends for support and would foster open discussions about self-harm, eating disorders, stress, anxiety, and depression.
In the last year, 17 percent of students in grades nine through 12 reported to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention that they considered suicide. Close to 14 percent of these students made a plan of how they would carry it out — and 8 percent of students attempted it through drug overdoses, poison, or violent measures. Three percent of those students succeeded.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death for children ages 10 to 14. Children in middle school accounted for the largest proportion of suicides in the nation — a staggering 56 percent — and the rate of suicide within this group has increased 30 percent in recent years.
[Children] are juggling their own pressures at school, but they’re also absorbing the financial stress that many parents face in an uneasy economy.
But it’s not just the risk of suicide. Pressures to perform, compete, fit in with peers, and manage stress have mounted in recent years, according to Dr. Chinwe Williams, associate professor at Argosy University in Atlanta, Georgia. The pressure cooker of modern education is taking a mental and emotional toll on children. Dr. Williams said kids are juggling their own pressures — but they’re also absorbing the financial stress that many parents face in an uneasy economy.
“That’s difficult for them to cope with because they don’t have the language and, in some cases, the cognitive ability — the prefrontal cortex isn’t really developed until age 25,” Williams told LifeZette. “So they aren’t really able to rationalize and be logical about what’s really happening. For some kids, they internalize those emotions without understanding what they mean. We’re more aware of [mental health problems], but also life is harder for kids and for adults.”
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Carolyn Walworth, a high school student in Palo Alto, California, wrote in Palo Alto Online about the stresses she was experiencing in her studies. “You learn that it is OK and necessary to have great apprehension regarding your grades. You focus on getting straight As. You go to bed at 1:00 a.m. every night, only to wake up a few hours later (earlier if you have morning practice for your sport) in an effort to get your excessive amount of homework finished each night.” Weekends bring additional stress with added loads of homework and SAT preparation.
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Add volunteering, time with family, social life, musical lessons, and part-time work into the mix, and it’s a recipe for a mental breakdown.
Walworth mentioned high school freshmen preparing frantically for the SAT and vying for internships with professors at high-ranking universities. “I could go on in detail about the times I’ve had to go to urgent care because my stress and ensuing physical pain have been so concerning. I could tell you how I’ve missed periods because I’ve had so many tests to study for. I could express what it feels like to have a panic attack in the middle of a 30-person class and be forced to remain still.”
Experts from the National Conference on Mental Health have called for teachers to receive more training in how to recognize disorders in their students. For example, anxiety in young children can manifest as fatigue, difficulty concentrating, edginess, restlessness, and unusual levels of anger.
Physical symptoms are often present. “Ninety-nine percent of my clients will share with me that they suffer from some sort of muscle ache or soreness in their neck or back,” Williams said. So if your child comes to you one morning and says she doesn’t want to go to school because of a stomach ache — you may want to find out if there is something at school, such as a big test or a bully, that causes her anxiety.
Teachers can serve as a first line of defense in recognizing mental health problems in students. “This is something school administrators and teachers run into frequently — depression, eating disorders, and other mental health issues — and yet they are not trained to handle situations like these,” said David Kopperud, a consultant in the California State Department of Education, in a media release.
“As a licensed professional counselor,” said Williams, “I am a huge advocate for any type of program that helps children understand that mental health should be a priority — just like any other aspect of their health.”