by Dr. Steve Arnold
According to the U.S. Surgeon General, between 10 and 15 percent of children and adolescents
display symptoms of depression. That means an elementary teacher with a class of 22 may have two
children suffering from depression, and a secondary teacher with six classes of 30 could teach 27
students dealing with depression. That is more than some private-practice psychologists see each
We have only to look at the front page of the newspaper to realize the cause of childhood
depression. Real families are connected to each of the wrecks, bombings, earthquakes, floods,
shootings, diseases and divorces that happen everyday. Unfortunately, adults often want to deny
the impact of these events on students’ lives. We tend to want to say “Oh, she’s over that now.
That was last year,” but brain research has taught us that nothing is forgotten.
All events are stored in the brain and impact our daily lives. Look at how the movie “Saving
Private Ryan” caused thousands of Word War II veterans to remember the feelings and events they
had buried for the past 50 years. Considering that, it’s easy to see how a fifth-grader could
still be influenced by events that are less than 10 or 11 years old.
In fact, a 1997 study found that the average duration of a depressed period for a child or
teenager is four years. Some young people even become so used to their depressed moods that they
do not see them as out of the ordinary and deny depression when asked about them. This is why we
must also have objective data (lowered grades, more trips to the nurse or office, frequent
absences) before we diagnose a child or adolescent with depression. Often we are uncomfortable
knowing children are hurting, so we accept their statements that they are “OK.” We must be careful
with this because denying the realities of the world and the very real pain and emotional danger
with which some of our students are living can compound these students’ hurt.
Recognizing the signs
Some of the signs of childhood depression are predictable: appearing sad, losing interest in
activities that used to please them, criticizing themselves and feeling that others are always
criticizing them. Many times depressed children and adolescents have no sense of future for
themselves, feel unloved and unlovable, make statements about life not being worth living or not
wanting to grow up, and some openly make statements about suicide.
Some young people’s depression first manifests itself as irritability, which can lead to
problems with aggression. They may also become indecisive, lack energy or motivation about
lessons, have problems concentrating, engage in disruptive social talking rather than focusing
their energies, and neglect their hygiene and appearance. They might sleep in class due to
disturbed sleep patterns or because they are fearful of sleeping at home. Depressed students
sometimes also manifest more generalized anxiety issues including somatic complaints (such as
trips to the nurse) and separation issues (for example, from the parent at the start of the school
day or anxiousness over the details of a field trip).
Making an effort to help students
If you suspect a student is in emotional jeopardy, consult the school counselor and psychologist
to poll their observations and knowledge of the child. If they verify your concerns, call a parent
conference to gain more information and discuss combining your efforts for the good of the student
and his education. Then, if you still believe the student is in jeopardy, point the family toward
professional counseling or therapy. Pass along agency resources given to you by the counselor and
help the parents mobilize their energy to take steps to help the child.
If you suspect the cause of the student’s behavior is child abuse, you are required by law to
report your suspicions to Child Protective Services at (800) 252-5400. Of course, you should also
tell your principal and school psychologist/counselor of your suspicions and enlist their
assistance in dealing with the situation. [See
Child Abuse for more
Within your classroom, you can help by giving the student activities that give him some status
or recognition. This won’t “fix” the child, but it won’t subtract from his self concept or add to
the child’s sense that he’s having a terrible day. You can also begin (or continue) to build a
relationship with the student so he will see you as a friendly, caring person he can trust. Even
if the student will not confide in you, making the effort is important because eventually the
student might reach out to a future teacher based on an experience with you or another caring
teacher from the past.
As educators, we have placed ourselves in the middle of the development of thousands of
children. We can make a crucial difference in these children’s lives if we reach out to them when
they need us most.
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