In recent years, the importance of mental health awareness has gained significant attention, highlighting the need for proactive measures to support individuals of all ages. While much focus has been placed on adult mental health, it's equally crucial to address the challenges faced by children and adolescents. Schools play a pivotal role in shaping young minds, making them an ideal setting for addressing and supporting depression in this vulnerable demographic.
On a personal note, I’m particularly interested in sharing these ideas and creating changes in our schools and communities as it was my own childhood depression that led me to become a school social worker. Surrounded by a supportive family and a mom who openly discussed mental health (in the 90s if you can believe it), I struggled immensely to identify and cope with what would eventually be diagnosed as depression. In the decade before I had a diagnosis, the impression I got from therapists and other well-meaning adults was that my behavior was problematic and it was important that I change. When we sought help, there was no discussion about what was happening within me, only shaming for how my behavior was impacting the people around me. I felt ashamed, broken, and helpless. And, again, I cannot stress this enough, I had a fantastically supportive family! As an adult learning about the nervous system, stress response, and characteristics of depression, I was finally able to view younger me with compassion. I don’t want any child, parent, or human, for that matter to feel shame for the workings of their brain. Instead, I hope we all might feel empowered to develop understanding, self-awareness, and the skills necessary to thrive and I believe that can begin in the schools. Below I’ve outlined a few steps that might just get us started.
Understanding Childhood and Adolescent Depression:
Childhood and adolescent depression can manifest differently than in adults,
often presenting as irritability, changes in behavior, academic decline, and physical complaints. When I think back on my own experience, I recognize that my externalized behaviors were intense irritability and outbursts of anger and verbal aggression while I navigated internalized sadness that I did not or could not name, because there was no obvious cause. In my practice as a school social worker, I have seen this often in my students as well: stomach aches, sudden withdrawal, verbal responses that appear disrespectful, elopement from the classroom, avoidance of tasks, and shifts in mood and behaviors.
Recognizing these signs is the first step in creating a supportive environment within schools and can help with early intervention of depression and other brain health issues; however, it can be challenging to differentiate the normal ups and downs of childhood and adolescent development from signs of depression. When striving to support the next generation of students, I’ve combined my lived experience as a struggling child and as a mom with my field experience as a school social worker to consider what I believe are the most important steps we can take to prevent and support struggling youth in our schools today. Each of the strategies below create support for ALL students and can be intensified when behavioral changes are present. Of course, with any concern that mental illness is present, it is imperative to discuss observed changes of behavior with parents and the student and, when necessary, to refer out to mental health professionals for appropriate treatment. Meanwhile, we can make the school a safe place to supplement outside treatment with these eight strategies.
8 Strategies for Supporting Symptoms of Depression in the Schools
1.Promoting Nervous System Awareness:
In my experience, schools that weave emotional awareness into their curriculum through the lens of stress based responses, foster an environment where students can openly discuss and understand their emotions. This not only reduces stigma but also empowers students to seek help when needed. Working with students today, I have witnessed the power of identifying sensations, emotions, and behaviors as they experience them. Learning and practicing coping skills consistently enables them to better address high stress situations. Understanding how the brain works and learning tools to “rewire” the brain is a game changer. Get started by checking out these resources or reach out to me and I’ll happily share my experience and some helpful tools!
2. Training Educators and Staff:
Educators and school staff are in a unique position to observe changes in behavior or academic performance. Providing them with training on recognizing signs of depression and offering appropriate support makes early intervention possible. Regular training can also empower the adults in the building to recognize and discuss their own emotions without judgment or stigma. Bruce Perry reminds us that dysregulated adults cannot regulate dysregulated children. We must train and support the adults in our buildings if we want to best meet the emotional, behavioral, and academic needs of our students.
3. Implementing Well-being Programs:
Introducing well-being programs can create a positive atmosphere within schools. These programs may include mindfulness activities, stress-relief techniques, and workshops that focus on building resilience and coping skills for both students and adults. Well-being programs have been my most recent area of interest. I’ve had the incredible opportunity to partner with two schools in creating such a program for the adults in the buildings and I’m learning a lot about what does and doesn’t work. As is true with everything, there is no “one size fits all” solution. My experience is teaching me that they MUST be permitted, promoted, and practiced by leaders while incorporating the voice of all staff. Boundaries are key and varying levels of support, including lots of opportunities for FUN, are important to creating successful, sustainable programs.
4. Establishing Supportive Peer Networks:
Did you know that the U.S. Surgeon General has declared an epidemic of loneliness in our country? Peer support can be instrumental in combating loneliness and depression. Schools can facilitate the formation of support groups or buddy systems, encouraging students to connect and share their experiences with one another. Dr. James Gordon, founder of the Center for Mind Body Medicine reminds us that “community is the medicine.” Connection is healing and facilitating connection in schools can improve student’s mental health and build their capacity for developing positive relationships. Encouraging students to join, or even start, student clubs is a great way to take that connection beyond the classroom.
5. Accessible Counseling Services:
I recognize that this is easier said than done; however, having accessible counseling services within the school setting is crucial. Trained counselors can provide a safe space for students to express their feelings, offering guidance and support as they navigate through challenging times. Building partnerships with community mental health agencies and local counseling practices can extend the circle of support we offer to students and families while, hopefully, alleviating some stress or pressure from your school counseling teams.
6. Encouraging Physical Activity:
Physical activity has been proven to have positive effects on mental health. Incorporating regular physical activity into the school routine not only promotes overall well-being but also helps alleviate symptoms of depression. The tough thing about depression is your brain seems to fight anything that will help you! Moving your body when depressed might feel impossible, but students can start with a short walk or 2 minutes of stretching.
About a decade ago, I recall reading an article from the Harvard Business Review entitled, Sitting Is the Smoking of Our Generation. That sentiment has stuck with me! We simply don’t move as much as we used to and the impact to our physical and mental health can be extremely detrimental. So, get up and move! Move with your students, move with your colleagues. Walk, dance, run, it will benefit everyone!
7. Creating a Positive Environment:
This probably goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, a positive and inclusive school environment is essential for mental health. Schools must foster a sense of belonging, and promote acceptance and understanding among students. Psychological safety is foundational to our well-being. This means we must create an environment in which students feel comfortable making mistakes, learn how to move through conflict in a healthy way, and develop the skills of self-awareness and expression that support their emotional, mental, and cognitive growth.
8. Collaboration with Parents:
Engaging parents in the mental health journey of their children is vital. It is also not an easy task. Schools can organize workshops, seminars, or support groups for parents to enhance their understanding of childhood and adolescent wellness and learn effective ways to support their children. Parenting is stressful. When we come together to share information and learn together we all benefit, especially the kids! If getting parents involved is a struggle for your school, as it is for most of us, consider how you might share information via videos or even social media! I have this family learning video bundle available if you would like to explore it as an option for your community!
Supporting depression in childhood and adolescence within school settings requires a comprehensive and collaborative approach. By integrating mental health education, training educators, implementing well-being programs, establishing peer networks, providing counseling services, encouraging physical activity, creating a positive environment, and collaborating with parents, schools can play a pivotal role in fostering the mental well-being of their students. In doing so, we pave the way for a future generation that is not only academically successful but also emotionally resilient and capable of facing life's challenges with strength and courage.