Help them to lift the shadow

The school years are a particularly vulnerable time for young people who are prone to depression and they need teachers' support, says Mark Loftus

IT'S not an issue that teaching staff may feel they have to deal with too often, but depression in children and adolescents is a growing problem. A recent study of 3,000 school-age children showed five had some degree of clinical depression. In a class of 30, one or two may be affected. But what actually is depression, and how can it affect the role of the modern teacher?

Depression, as you would expect from the common usage of the word, is a state of generally low mood. We all at some time will have a bad day, but this does not constitute a state of depression until it has occurred over a duration of at least two weeks. Symptoms include disrupted sleep patterns and a feeling of constant tiredness, restlessness, disruptive or violent behaviour, lack of concentration, weight loss, irritability, loss of confidence and guilty, self-critical thoughts.

In more extreme cases, suicidal thoughts, self-harm and suicide may occur; though fortunately these extremes are comparatively rare in children and adolescents.

Many of these symptoms can be interpreted as disruptive behaviour, and as such a disciplinarian approach is often taken rather than providing an environment where these individuals can express their true emotions, and receive the medical help they often so badly need.

Such an approach can store up serious problems as young people move towards their adult lives and begin to feel more and more isolated from society. Teachers may feel that depression is not their responsibility. However, depression will not simply go away. The more the problem is ignored, the worse it will become. Every teacher can help in the battle against depression by helping to detect the problem early.

I have suffered from depression for as long as I can remember; maybe things would not have been so bad if my problems had been picked up sooner. These started in primary school. I cannot remember exactly when, probably towards the end. It continued throughout high school and on to university. Despite years of deliberate self-harm, no one picked up on my problems. I have been through the lot: years of depression, self-harm and several attempted suicides.

However, like 88 per cent of sufferers I eventually made a full recovery through medication and counselling. For the remaining 12 per cent, the symptoms can be suppressed by medication allowing them to lead a more normal life.

But who is most at risk, and what causes depression? We are all at risk from depression; it can strike at any time, often unexpectedly, though the chances of it occurring are often influenced by our childhood experiences. The characteristic low mood associated with depression is often due to the individual having a poor self-image. We form our own images of our self throughout our lifetime, based on our experiences and the feedback we receive from others.

No time is more important than during our school years, where we begin to discover who we are and how we fit into society. That makes it an especially vulnerable time. Events such as the death of a relative or friend, or perhaps the break up of their parent's marriage can have major consequences for the child's future mental health.

Other factors such as being pushed too hard by parents or teachers in a subject they show flair in, or bullying by their peers, can also contribute, and every care should be given to ensure these individuals are not building up a negative self-image.

Help and information can be obtained through the Depressive Self-help Group, 21 Morningside Gardens, Edinburgh, E11 5LE, or through Childline.

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