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:
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:
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.