Preventing depression among students

SPRINGBOARD

Preventing depression among students

The classroom and school environment can be a springboard against depression among students by enhancing their mental health, and the teachers have a significant role to play in it, observes Sonia P Thomas

Depression is characterised by and expressed through sadness, loss of interest in usually satisfying activities, a negative view of the self, hopelessness, passivity, low energy, poor concentration, indecisiveness, suicidal tendencies, loss of appetite, weight loss, sleep disturbances, and other physical symptoms.

Depressed students display behavioural symptoms such as weeping, fighting, and shouting; physiological symptoms such as disruption in eating, sleeping, and fatigue; and cognitive symptoms such as helplessness, worthlessness, and pessimism. Research studies in India show that the most common symptom of depression among students is somatic or physical in nature. Depression in students is often underreported and students who suffer from it are less likely to seek help or even talk about their mindset. A research study from Chennai, India, estimated the prevalence of depression rate as 37.1% mildly depressed, 19.4% moderately depressed, and 4.3% severely depressed among X, XI, and XII standard students.

Vulnerability factors

Psychologists have conducted research studies and identified the following factors which predispose students to depression;

* Attachment vs autonomy: The struggle between attachment and autonomy is one of the major causes of depression among students. A strong and positive attachment between students and their teachers reduce the likelihood of depression among students. On the other hand, if the level of attachment between teachers and students is too high, it can affect the academic excellence of students.

* Physiological changes: Thephysiological changes that begin to appear at puberty combined with society’s demands on them for adult behaviour affect students’ daily routine and produce a state of confusion, which in turn may cause depression.

* Lack of communication: The dysfunctional pattern of communication between students and teachers is a major risk factor for developing depression, which can alienate the students and make them feel low.

* Negative life events: Negative life events such as divorce of parents, death of a parent, and illness of family members, events related to self (serious illness or hospitalisation) are significant contributors for depression among students. But these negative life events can be counteracted or compensated by the accessibility of social support.

* Lack of social support: Lack of social support is found to be a significant contributor to student depression. Often, the family environment and the school environment can have a significant contribution to depressive symptoms. It is in the school environment a student creates wider social relationships, acquires social support and derives achievement gratification. A supportive family and school environment with teacher support help to protect a student from being depressed when negative life evens are met with.

Consequences

Depression among students is related to many negative consequences such as the following:

* Withdrawal: Social withdrawal, lack of ability to concentrate and suicidal ideation are a few of the withdrawals from life. According to the statistics of National Crime Record Bureau, during 2011, the numbers of suicides among children up to 14 years were 3036 (1575 males and 1461 females). Probing further, NCRB points out that majority of suicides among the children were related to school and family problems.

* Health risk: Depression is also associated with many health risk factors such as use of violence, substance abuse, and obesity. Depressed students are more likely to smoke and less likely to exercise and uphold a nourishing diet.

Classroom as a springboard

Besides being a medium for gaining academic skills, school is a venue where emotional and social competence is taught and developed. Preventing depression among students is a challenge which requires serious planning and effective execution.

A plethora of studies during last 20 years have revealed the impact of prevention programme for depression among children and adolescents, to promote mental health in young people consistent with the recommendations made in the World Health Organization’s Global School Health Initiatives. Despite this increased interest, the logical rigor of these endeavors have been weak, making it difficult to draw firm conclusions about effectiveness of prevention due to the lack of cooperation from school authorities and the very structure of Indian school curriculum.

The classroom environment could be used as a primary prevention platform and a mental health enhancer in three ways;
* Teachers can observe students on a daily basis over a time to compare the behavior of individual students to a large number of the same group students.
* Students can be taught to identify and replace their negative thinking patterns with positive and realistic thinking.
* Students can be helped to develop a stronger problem solving competence to enable them to be immune to depression in the face of negative life events.

Guidelines to support students

* Understanding the behavior: At school, the teachers need to understand students’ behaviour by looking at higher mental processes and view them as active seekers, creators and information processors. The students’ behaviour in the school is the result of an interaction between the events that occur at school, the way the students’ cognitive strategy processes those events, and their reaction to the events. Teachers need to include depressed students for more class room interactions. Students who feel the lack of opportunity for classroom interactions develop a pervasive worthlessness and behave in low self-worth manner.

* Understanding the cognitive process: Students’ cognitive structures often break down incoming information into meaningful pieces of information and selectively attend to certain stimuli in the school environment. These structures allow the students to make predictions about the self, world and their future, and this in turn help them identify information, fill in missing information and select a behavioral plan. These thinking patterns of students allow them for a more efficient way of organizing and processing information, but the tradeoff is the occasion for the development of misrepresentations and maladaptive biases in thinking, resulting in an inaccurate representation of reality.

For example consider five students who experience the same event of having a teacher treat them inconsiderately. Potentially they have five different emotions depending on the way they think.

One might think, "My teacher has no right to treat me badly, who the hell is he or she?” and the student feels angry.

Another student may think, “I don’t desire to be treated poorly because I always do my best," and he or she may feel hurt. A third may think, “My teacher has done a bad thing to me in this way and I don’t expect this to happen,” and he or she feel annoyed.

The fourth concludes that the lack of consideration means that the teacher does not love him or her and feels depressed. The fifth may think, “This inconsideration is an invitation urging me to do better,” and feels happy.

Here, all five students process the information in five different ways and respond to the same event but produce entirely different emotions. Depressed students view their environments as defeating, burdensome and hopeless. Therefore, each teacher should act as a mental health enhancer for the students; identifying their thinking pattern and helping them think and feel better.

n Understanding the emotions: Depressed students interchange between strong elation and despair, and that is manifested in anger, anxiety, and sadness. The profound sense of unhappiness, inferiority and rejection appears to be so incorporated; they respond with isolation to any interpersonal relationships. Good interpersonal relationship from the part of teachers can decrease the feeling of isolation and victimization.

These encounters of the teachers invariably have a positive impact on the emotions of students. Thus, an appropriate action by the teacher can be an important component of identification and prevention of depression among students.

(The writer is a psychologist and a student counsellor)

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