May 21, 2005

Curious George - help, help, they're being depressed! I'm a (new) high school teacher. A couple of my teenaged students are visibly very unhappy. Quelle surprise...

No one makes me feel quite as useless as depressed teenagers. Asking how they are doing just irritates them (made that mistake recently). Taking the "buck up, little camper!" approach I already know would be futile, not to mention annoying. Maybe I should give them a Bauhaus cd and a tube of black lipstick? They don't seem to be a danger to themselves or others (although, who knows), and so far, their behavior hasn't been more over the top than the occasional crying jag / temper tantrum. I'm not really close enough to them to ask about their home life. These are 14-16 year olds, btw. Former depressed teenagers (or hey, current depressed teenagers) in the audience: how would you have liked the random adult authority figures in your life to have behaved around Public Displays of Depression?

  • Well, I saved my descent into depression until my 20s, but I have to say, you are in a tough situation. About the only thing that anyone else did that helped was to understand what I was going through. Since you aren't their friend, and aren't in their peer group, it would be hard for you to make any gesture that didn't seem pretty superficial on that level. I can say that if you do manage to do or say something helpful, it may very well cause lots of misunderstanding with the non-depressed people around. After I attempted suicide, my best friend said, "If you ever try that again, just make sure it works, because I don't want to go through this again." Everyone else was horrified, but it really made two things really sink in for me. One, that I was hurting other people (of course I already knew that, but it seemed much clearer now), and, two, that he would in fact be there for me (notice he didn't say he wasn't going to go through it again). That one sentence did more for me than the vast majority of the therapists I've seen.
  • As a former depressed teenager... I preferred people to ignore it. I couldn't help being depressed, but I did as much as I could around it, and I really preferred people to focus on what it was I did do, rather than did not. In the general case, we all preferred to only talk to the people we wanted to talk to. I had friends who were teachers (even while I was still in high school), but anyone who asked what was going on that I hadn't given permission to do so was being nosy. I had a bit of an attitude. :) If they're doing it for attention it's not the kind of thing you need to be giving them attention for, and if they're not, they won't want attention for it. So I'd advise treating them as people and generally not as little kids, and they might decide to talk to you on their own. Also, if you're a Latin teacher as your username seems to indicate, I applaud you wholeheartedly. The world needs more Latin teachers!
  • If you have a really good guidance counselor, then maybe talking to them would help. But that would take a very good counselor, and teenagers are notoriously not open. Other than that, you could just make clear that if they would ever like to talk, you're there. And when they do well - tell them. That might help.
  • As a former depressed teen who has now taught for 8 years (6 of them in high school), here's my perspective: From my understanding, pretty much every teenager undergoes at least one major depressive episode during adolescence. It's normal, believe it or not. As far as what you can do... I think your instinct to avoid "buck up, lil' camper" speeches are correct. However, if you think they might be responsive it would be worth it to ask them if everything is all right (maybe ask them to stay for a second after class). Even if they aren't forthcoming with you as a result, they will often feel better just knowing that someone cared enough to ask. If you think there are serious problems, or if a conversation with them uncovers some huge concern (drug abuse, physical or sexual abuse at home, pregnancy), refer them to the counseling department immediately. I can't stress the following enough: Don't try to take on that responsibility yourself, especially as a new teacher. The image of guidance counselors as paper-pushers is kind of warranted, but regardless there is bound to be at least one person in the department who is very qualified to counsel teens. At the HS I taught at prior to moving to elementary school, there was one counselor whose sole job was to counsel students (her degrees were in social work, and she did group therapy on-campus as well), as opposed to working with scheduling/testing as so many guidance counselors do.
  • I would encourage them in their schoolwork as best you can, and compliment them for good work. You're their teacher not their counselor or confidante, and encouragement from a teacher means a lot to a kid (even if they pretend it doesn't). Work can be very satisfying, and it's something they can control and excel in even when everything else in their life seems unpredictable.
  • I agree to stay away from discussing depression. You might try to help them find the tools to help themselves in a less direct way. My own teenage depression and attempts to understand it, thanks to having interesting friends and role models, led me to listen to more interesting music (however cliched it might seem in retrospect) such as Pink Floyd, Bauhaus etc., and led me to read and write (bad) poetry as well as dabble in philosophy. Most of these explorations were not specifically inspired by depression or the desire to escape it, but they all opened my mind and helped me realize that I was not alone.
  • Yeah, I second Bone's comments. I've been in the classroom trenches for five years, and this is what works for me: 1. Go above and beyond. The #1 thing every student ever says about any teacher who has ever had a positive impact is that s/he showed that it wasn't just a job to him/her. This can take a thousand different forms; find which one(s) work best for you and them. 2. Get them writing. I have a huge banner in my classroom that reads "WRITING LIBERATES," and it is a maxim I both live by and preach. You don't have to read it -- it doesn't have to be any good. But the process of writing has been liberatory for millions of humans for hundreds of years, from Frederick Douglass to Xanana Gusmao to Aung San Suu Kyi. Even if it's horrible teen angst poetry (ugh), it can serve useful purposes. 3. Share interests -- but NOT because you're trying to share interests. I love the Simpsons because it's the best show that's ever been on TV. I reference it in class every day, but my students can tell that I'm not just trying to glom onto what they're into. Ditto good music. (What if they like music that you don't like? Well, regardless of what they DO like, chances are they don't like Christina Aguilera. So show them this.) Ditto movies (I always start the year with the Oracle's bit about "Temet Nosce"). Ditto All Your Base Are Belong To Us (I got to introduce some kids recently to All Your Smurf). Et cetera. 4. Have patience. No one ever comes out of depression and/or a funk quickly. Bone's absolutely right that most of us go through something similar, and aside from taking action when required (self-mutilation, suicide, abuse, drug addiction), the thing most people pick up on and are grateful for is patient concern. Just be there.
  • They just need the proper mentor. councilors are useless(seperates subject from crowd), heavy bags are good, old style boxing jym could be good answer, but opens teen up to negative class of society. direction in life is good, trade, profession, or brass ring to reach for. proper answer = i could show you how to get there, but couldn't tell. For work, manual labour, subject must be broken like a horse. Sort of a boot camp approach. Importance of school emphasised. High school teachers should have a knowledge(and contacts with trade unions (JAC(electrical) Ironworkers (African Americans excepted) et cetera), grade 12 diplomas needed, back up plan GED from colledge after age 18, like study hall 50 or 60$. Goals(brass ring) are important, I knew one fellow former crack head that had one thing to live for, and that was his car. Instaed of crack, he would buy car parts, worked effective, story ended badly( goverment took his license, he took a baseball bat to the classic). Need effective repioire of one liners. Language is akin to martial arts, different attack counter for every situation. For manual labour tracked students = work is like geting paid to exercise, work martial arts into trades. - "in the old days, a mans sword was his life, lose your sword(you'd forget your head!) and you may lose your life. Your tools, your trade are your lively hood, treat them as if your life depended on them. history of trade or career is good to inspire. Cantabury tales is a good source for history of. Counselor approach alienates subject. cheers
  • theres a big difference between "unhappiness" and "depression" as a medical condition. The former is a pretty normal repsonse from teenagers who spend their days in a place they wouldnt choose to be and their nights living with people they wouldnt necessarily choose to live with. Clinical depression, however, is a serious medical condition that needs to be dealt with.
  • The problem with "dealing with clinical depression" in teens, though, is that for a lot of them the SSRI approach isn't viable. Therapy is absolutely necessary and may help, but an adult in that situation in therapy would almost certainly be on meds, and meds and teenage body chemistry do not go together. So. My suggestion to the initial poster is to try to come up with a few assignments that you think these particular kids will really enjoy. For just a lesson or two, assign something JUST FOR THEM. This is easy if you're an English teacher (pick a novel you'd like to expose just these kids to) but admittedly harder if you teach Latin. Still, there are a large variety of special projects that a Latin teacher can reasonably assign: artistic students can do a mosaic (original or replica), that Latin competition thing where you make a monologue out of a myth and act it out would be good for theatrically-inclined students. Academic-minded students might like to design some kind of tutoring set for learning grammar or studying Latin and Greek roots for the SAT. This stuff is applicable to most subjects... the only one that worries me is math. I think having a cool project to do that is pretty much their own choice and applies their own interest to the subject might make them feel good about the class, at least, and maybe more prone to opening up to you. But by all means, NOT A GROUP PROJECT. I don't think the "asking them to stay after class, and then asking if they're doing OK" approach is bad either. If there's any way you can make your class a bit of a haven for them, they'll love you for it.
  • Foster an evironment of respect and openness in your classroom. The depressed students are frequently on the social fringes of high school society, and unfortunately a lot of classes are run in a way that reinforces this. You can't singlehandedly fix whatever is making these students unhappy but you can make your class be a place where they aren't marginalized. Many teens lack an outlet for their frustrations, and angst and depression are one result of bottling up negative emotions. Giving them a forum where they don't feel the need to withdraw is a valuable gift that will allow them to start healing themselves. Once you know the students well, you can inquire after class as to their well-being. I'd be careful about doing this before you've established a camerarderie with the class, though. Pushing too quickly on the boundaries that your students have established might push some further into their shells.
  • This isn't really a constructed series of points, just observations I've made. I apologize for the rambling and back-and-forthin' in advance. As a teenager whose every major friend over the past 3 years were clinically depressed: Having a teacher think you're depressed (or crazy) makes you really mistrust them and/or get sort of antsy around them unless you're already close. "Yeah, Madame X thinks I'm bonkers." Most teens prefer being ignored when it comes to this, and unless they talk about it first, having you bring it up will provoke a general fuck-you feeling. Even if they snarl at first, they'll probably appreciate it (much, very much) later unless some outside force--parents, therapists, children's aid, etc. get brought in. The whole outside-force thing just makes kids squirm with discomfort and makes them very anxious and makes them feel betrayed. But again, this varies case to case. Some won't ever get over the breach of trust and will feel worse. On the other hand, I know in my district, if you, as a teacher, suspect something, you HAVE to tell. So I'd say drop some hints to the best guidance counsellor at your school to look for them, but don't force them to guidance (unless it's a major problem causing it or they're risking their own safety) as they'll reveal nothing. It's rough, as a bad guidance counsellor can make things infinitely worse. One famously bad example was a girl having her mother tell guidance that her daughter was going through a rough patch etc. etc. Guidance calls her in, says, "Are you cutting?", pulls up her sleeves, grabs her wrists to inspect them, generally treated her like crap. Things can get especially bad if the guidance cousellor Brings in the Parents, which is almost unanimously a Bad Thing. Random Capitalisation. Yay. Getting off of that tangent, generally... I'd say try to gain their trust by being you, and doing things that bring them out of their shells. Trying to force them to talk about their depressive qualities will only push them further inside themselves. So basically, what rhiannon said, with verbminx's individual fun projects, and DEFINITELY listen to scartol. Do not try to deal with it yourself, as much as that sucks to say. If all else fails, and you're trusted and the class feels less like a class and more like a group of people, talk to their friends. If their friends give a rat's ass, and if YOU'RE a sympathetic person who they can trust, they'll do what they can--a teacher who one of my friends confided in recently did that to me, and I actually appreciated it. The key here is gaining the trust, but as a new teacher, you're in a fix. The teacher who did that to me has been teacher for decades and is head of a department, and generally is very accessible to kids (she seems like one of us sometimes, if you add 40 years... she freely tells her embarassing learning-the-language stories in a very easy going tone, makes cool references, etc. etc.). The friends and the student will be more angry if you're not trustworthy enough and you're prying. Good luck. I really don't know what you should do, it's all on a case by case basis...
  • All I can say is I'm glad you're not my teacher - solicitng advice on how to deal with depression in kids from strangers on the internet - bizarre.
  • No strangers here, just strange monkeys. And stranger monkeys.
  • All I can say is I'm glad you're not my teacher Wow. Sounds like the Wedgie of Grump is just jammed up there.
  • I don't have much that's useful to add, other than seconding the advice to casually ask how things are going. A high school aged cousin of mine (who was on anti-depressants and had had a bit of therapy) killed himself last fall, and after the fact my family were amazed at how little help is available at the school to deal with depression. I can understand why you're asking for help, because if your school is like this one, your efforts as a teacher aren't backed up a whole lot in the mental health arena. My sister (who goes to the same school) and all of my cousin's friends needed a lot of help with their grief after the fact, and the school (a large, semi-wealthy one) was completely unprepared and seemingly unwilling to help with that. I think my cousin stuck around as long as he did because of his friends, some of his family and a teacher or two that he loved and that encouraged his writing. ...sorry about the rant...
  • We're not strangers here. Maybe dangerous and unstable, but not strangers. The best teacher I had in high school (I was a menace and chronically bummed out) simply treated me with respect and as an adult even though I didn't really deserve it at the time. He didn;t make a big deal out of my successes or faliures. He let me see that he saw in me something I couldn't see in myself: that high school was not where I would succeed but that I would do well later on. His words to my mother were "Your son is the kind of person that universities are built for." I dropeed out of high school in grade 11, attended University as a mature student, and graduated Summa cum laude. He was with me all the way and attended my graduation party.
  • I spent my last year of high school plotting how I could steal a car and drive it very, very fast into the outside of the gym on Grad night, therefore coming to a symbolic and fiery end. Man, was I a fuck-up. Good times.
  • I second the_bone and scartol. I have taught HS for 10 years in various places from "juvie hall" to experimental inner city pilot programs, to you typical run of the mill suburb. Relating to a kid who is completely uninvolved in what is going on in class is extrememly frustrating. In all honesty, the Bauhaus CD might not be a bad idea. I had one student years ago who appeared to be the same type of "depressed" that you describe. She had Marilyn Mason written on her notebooks and book bags and such. I just walked over one day and asked her if she had tickets to the show since he was in town. Of course, she was not going b/c she was too young to go by herself. But the fact that I was aware of some art of her social life outside of school (regardless of my personal preference) brightened her day and we had a very positive relationship after that. Another student who went through a battery of tests for depression, ADD and the like repeated a grade b/c he was so "depressed" that no one could convince him to perform academically. Lucky for me, I got him as student. Turns out, he just wanted to talk about ska music and punk rock with someone other than his older brother, I obliged and he ended up proceeding to the next grade. Not that i saved him, but he was much happier to see someone who validated his personal interests. All that being said, the fact that you are aware of this puts you on the top 10% of all teachers in the world. Just wanting to help and not ignore it says something about your passion for the job. Welcome. We need more people like you in our profession.
  • Just make sure the little fucker's aren't hitting up the queen and hanging out with the emporer.
  • Perspective. Perspective. Perspective. I wish someone had told me that high school is not the be-all and end-all of all existence. Seriously. The prom was treated like the Most Important Day of Your Life Except Maybe Your Big Froofy Church Wedding. Graduation is The Symbolic End of All Things. The last decision you will ever have to make is which college you go to and your major, at which point the Rest of Your Life will naturally unfold and carry itself out automatically. You're done, then. The rest just happens. Since I was unhappy in HS, I assumed that this meant that I would always be unhappy (since the entire world is just like HS, right?) and that since I didn't fit in there, I would never fit in anywhere. Basically I had an incredibly narrow worldview and didn't realize that life after graduation wasn't a footnote in the yearbook and a vague fade to gray. Most of this was my fault, but I don't think anyone did anything to disabuse me of this notion, and the HS == LIFE bit was expressly pushed by nearly everyone around me. Not to mention that when I didn't automatically get a job in college, I didn't know what to do, because my getting a posh sciencey job was always taken for granted. I didn't know how to work for anything. Even now I feel like I have no value to my family, because I was bred to grow up, be a doctor and make boatloads of money. That was assumed from Day One, no question about it, not even worth thinking about alternatives. There were no alternatives. That's what's going to happen; that's what you're for. Therefore: Perspective. You can't push this on anyone, though. I guess Random Authority Figures could just lightly encourage a variety of interests, so as to reduce tunnel vision. I think it's common enough to get self-absorbed at that age (I was, most people I knew were), so things that pull them out of themselves and into the world is a good thing. Also? Don't use therapy/institutionalization as a threat, anyone. Thx.
  • Some good advice here, but I thought I'd bring a few things to the table that have worked for my husband, a 6th grade teacher. His students grow plants in the classroom-- from large sunflowers in pots to basil and rosemary; even the kids who don't want to be directly involved seem to visibly unwind as they enter the "green" classroom. And while the kids still address him with his formal title, he bends just a bit to let them see his real side-- i.e., he talks about how he needs his coffee, how he's not a "morning person". The kids started relating about how they are, and this non-threatening bit of sharing helps them start interacting. (Heck, by the end of the year, his kids started a communal green tea and coffee fund, keeping mugs in the classroom; he also managed to get them hooked on bossanova). Sorry to babble here; I suppose my point is to engage the kids, rather than focusing on and exacerbating the natural bent toward depression and drama...
  • Wow. Sounds like the Wedgie of Grump is just jammed up there. )) BANANAS! ((
  • God bless you for dealing with these troubling kids. I have no advice other than go with your training and instinct.