A Teachable Moment

Former local teacher union pesident Morty Rosenfeld periodically attempts to make sense of the increasingly senseless world of public education.

Depression in Our Schools

A few days ago, a high school student in our district committed suicide. I don’t know anything about her personal circumstances, but in all likelihood depression contributed to her demise.

I’ve been thinking about clinical depression and our public schools for over twenty years. I’ve tried to use my union advocacy skills to encourage school district leaders to understand that clinical depression is more common in our schools than conventional wisdom suggests and that knowledge throughout a school community about depression can spare members of that community unnecessary suffering and even death. I learned that it’s easy to get a school community to think about drug and alcohol use, the dangers to children of unsupervised internet use and universal bus transportation to school. Depression, however, is another matter. We are still discomforted by talk of mental illness.

Some twenty years ago, I was teaching English to a class of students who on the basis of their academic records were likely not to graduate. M y class with them was part of an alternate education program of small classes with teachers who had an interest in working with children who had been dubbed failures. Until I met that group of kids, I had never taught a class in which it was almost impossible for me to get anything accomplished. In this setting, I was the failure. I needed to know why.
During that school year, a union colleague of mine fell ill to depression. Suddenly, this enormously accomplished teacher and union leader began to refer to herself as “pond scum,” often wondering aloud why anyone would befriend the likes of her. To be frank, her behavior frightened me. My lack of knowledge about depression left me without an understanding of what my colleague was suffering and how I was to behave with a person with whom I need to work closely.

I began to read about depression. As I read, I slowly came to recognize some of the symptoms of depression in the students of my alternate ed class. At some point, I came across a screening questionnaire for clinical depression which I decided to administer to my class, telling them that it was part of an assignment for a graduate class I was taking (Today, I would probably be fired for this activity.) After I scored the questionnaire, I was no longer in doubt as to why I was having so much trouble teaching these students. Almost 60 percent of them appeared to be clinically depressed. These kids weren’t failures. We, the adults in their lives, were failing them.

Over the ensuing years of my teaching career, I met numbers of high school students who suffered from depression, many of them undiagnosed. I’m not talking about the intense sadness that adolescents often experience. We know why we are sad. Something has happened to make us feel this way. The depression sufferer doesn’t know why he is profoundly sad, why life has ceased to please, why he is deeply disgusted with himself. In any school you wish to talk about, there are depressed students who are too often talked about as academic problems when their real issue is mental health.
I’m not for a minute suggesting that it is primarily the job of the school to treat these depressed children. No public school I know of is equipped to do so. But we can take intelligent steps to train a staff to recognize the signs of clinical depression. We can also teach students to be aware and to instill in them the need to make contact with responsible adults when they recognize those symptoms in themselves or their friends.

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