Students with anxiety and depression: How teachers can help

  • The statistics tell the story: More students of all ages – from elementary through college – are living with anxiety and depression than ever before, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The statistics are worrisome:

    • Children between the ages of 3-17: At least 1.9 million have been diagnosed with depression (3.2 percent of the general population) and at least 4.4 million have been diagnosed with anxiety (7.1 percent), according to the  CDC.
    • Children between the ages of 6-17: In 2003, 5.4 percent had been diagnosed with either anxiety or depression; in 2011-12, the rate had risen to 8.4 percent.
    • As students get older, the numbers increase. The National Institutes of Health says that nearly one in three – 33 percent – of all adolescents between 13 and 18 will experience an anxiety disorder; that number went up 20 percent between 2007 and 2012. And sadly, the rate of hospital admissions for teens who are suicidal have doubled over the past decade.

    Think about the changing world we live in. There have always been parents who pressured their children to succeed; there have always been bullies; and there have always been children who come from economically disadvantaged homes. But today, add these things to the mix: students are urged to get ahead earlier and earlier (the number of standardized tests has increased, not to mention  elementary gifted programs and high-school advanced placement programs); bullies use social media and texting now to help them prey on others from a distance (cyber-bullying affects more than 50 percent of students today, and 25 percent have been bullied this way repeatedly); the divide between the upper, middle, and lower classes is far wider; and immigration has put the spotlight on cultural differences.

    And there’s a significant danger that today’s students experience that their parents didn’t: the threat of mass shootings in their schools, churches, malls, and movie theaters. Children and adolescents regularly practice active-shooter drills in the classroom, internalizing the thought that locking doors, turning lights off, huddling in an out-of-sight corner, and using a backpack as a shield might be the difference between life and death. The message they get – your school might not be safe – adds to the normal stress and anxiety of being young.

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    A 2019 Pew Research Center report asked teens to estimate whether certain things were major problems, minor problems, or not a problem. About 70 percent said anxiety and depression were a major problem. Bullying was a major problem for 55 percent. Both ranked higher than drug addiction, drinking, poverty, teen pregnancy, or gangs.

    “Honestly, I’ve had more students this year hospitalized for anxiety, depression, and other mental-health issues than ever,” said Kathy Reamy, school counselor at La Plata High School in southern Maryland and chair of the NEA School Counselor Caucus, in an interview with NEA Today. “There’s just so much going on in this day and age, the pressures to fit in, the pressure to achieve, the pressure of social media. And then you couple that with the fact that kids can’t even feel safe in their schools—they worry genuinely about getting shot—and it all makes it so much harder to be a teenager.”

    So if you’re a teacher (and/or a parent), what can you do to help, without getting overly personal with students you suspect of having anxiety or depression?

    Healthy Children, a website with the backing of the American Academy of Pediatrics, recommends these actions:

    • Be on the lookout for signs. Notice changes in behavior or mood, grades that are dropping, students who seem overly tired or who can’t concentrate (they may be having trouble sleeping), those who seem to constantly worry; have constant physical complaints (stomachaches, fatigue); or those who suddenly seem to display behaviors consistent with alcohol or drug use.
    • Be aware of their surroundings. What kinds of expectations are you helping set? Do you tell a child to be the best, or to do their best? Have there been recent events in the world to which they seem especially sensitive? Make sure that your students get breaks – they need to relax, play, hang out with their friends. And when it’s time for achievement testing, note how you speak about expectations and performance.
    • Understand that trauma affects everything. If a child has been through something traumatic – a death, the breakup of a family, a car accident, a bullying incident – it can seep into their brain in a number of ways, mentally, emotionally, and sometimes even physically, such as in not being able to sleep.
    • Talk with them. It seems obvious, but we avoid it sometimes with difficult subjects. Talk with them about stressful things in their lives; about bullying; about social media in general. They need to hear about the downsides of too much social-media usage, and too much screen time in general. Explain that even adults get stressed out in today’s world, and that everyone needs ways to cope. And spend some time talking with your students about how balance – good food, good sleep, and play – helps them fight off anxiety and stress.
    • Talk to the parents. If you are seeing worrisome signs in a student, make sure his or her parents know. A pediatrician can screen kids for anxiety or depression, and will recommend the best actions to take.

    And, of course, you need to take care of yourself; as their teacher, you become a support system, and you can find yourself experiencing your students’ worries vicariously. It’s called “compassion fatigue,” which the American Institute of Stress defines as cumulative emotional residue, especially in dealing with traumatized students, that fatigues you and makes you less able to deal with other students’ hardships.

    Dominican University of California’s Online Professional Development Program for Educators is aware of the well-being needs of teachers. Its course, Cultivate Compassion to Strengthen Your Resistance (EDUO 9945), is meant to help you “discover ways you can renew and refuel through cultivating compassion to boost your well-being.”  Enhance your skill set by “exploring research on well-being and strategies to connect with a community, optimize your time and strengthen your resilience. Implement a well-designed plan to renew and refuel your work-life balance.” The course is online and self-paced, and you can earn one graduate-level professional development credit.

    Photo credit: Fizkes via iStock images.