Teach the Teachers

I was recently asked to create a post about how teachers can help their students who they believe are suffering from depression. I had to think about this one a bit, because I never really thought of it. My depression really hit me in university, and I received absolutely no support from my professors. When I missed school because I was spending time in a mental health facility, the most I got from my professors were requests for proof or suggestions to ask classmates for notes. As a result, I never considered that teachers or professors could be a support. Thinking back to when I was in junior high and high school when I faced my first bout of depression (albeit not nearly as serious as it became years later) I think teachers could have made a huge impact.

The first thing that teachers should recognize is this: your class doesn’t matter. That sounds a little harsh, so let me rephrase. When there is a student who debates whether to get on the bus to school or jump in front of it, their unfinished problem set, or incomplete lab report really doesn’t matter. Coming to school depressed, faking that smile and struggling to engage is a huge challenge for many young people with depression, and being told “sorry, no excuses, if it’s late it’s a 0” really doesn’t help things. Of course, it isn’t sufficient to just forget about homework every time a kid says they’re depressed, because it’s a term used very loosely.

Most teachers will know, there are often students who don’t have people rooting for them. For me, encouragement from teachers was huge and I thrived on knowing someone was in my corner – and I had a great family to support me as well!

I would have loved if teachers offered a “talk to me” policy, instead of more strict policies. Everyone has crazy stuff going on in their lives, and if my teachers had a rule where we could work something out if I didn’t finish my homework, I would have learned a lot more. Teachers usually end up staying after school or coming early for tutorials. Instead of giving them an automatic 0, making them feel more depressed and learning nothing, offer to work through the assignment with them in a tutorial.

I was lucky that I had great friends who helped me through every single assignment that I had missed, but university is different. My assignments were bigger and not as frequent – high school has homework due practically every day. I missed countless lectures and caught up on my own, but high school absences go on your permanent record.

Our education system has close to nothing to help students with mental illness. Guidance counsellors serve as university advisors, and students usually don’t want to go to their school nurse or counsellor for help. For many students, they feel like just a number, a crippling idea when you’re depressed.

Not everyone is ready to work and participate every day. Students with mental illness usually aren’t stupid – in fact, it’s more likely that they’re extremely intelligent. In my case, missing school because I was depressed made my depression worse! Offer students options, because it’s okay to miss class if they try to learn or have a concrete reason.

Teachers see their students more than most parents see their kids. If teachers pay a little closer attention, and try to get to know their students as actual people, they could probably make a huge difference. Don’t treat us, especially the ones who may be at risk, as if we are all the same. We’re not. We have different struggles and different reasons, not all of which can be explained by a concrete doctor’s note. I had teachers who I felt really comfortable with, and I did everything I could to do my work even if I felt really depressed. Why? Because they cared, they showed me my voice mattered.

Depressed people often fixate on the negative, so imagine being a depressed student who constantly sees red pen with criticism all over their page. Try positive reinforcement, give compliments, hell, give them a sticker! Encourage more dialogue with your students on a person-to-person basis, not just a “I-write-your-report-card” basis.

Overall, teachers are amazing people who want nothing more than to educate children and help students become the best version of themselves. Those students can’t do that if they’re depressed, but teachers really have the ability to step in, and be a positive fixture in their students’ lives. To this day, I am grateful to every teacher who encouraged me and coached me when I was younger, because it’s how I am in a position today where I can manage a full courseload, a serious mental illness, and make time for whatever else I want to accomplish.

Keep Surviving by Living

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