The sad death of comedian Robin Williams has reminded me of the many times in my professional life where it was up to me to help parents and students find help in dealing with teen depression that often was masked with self-medication by chemical abuse.
Of the 16 years that I was in the public school classroom, 6 were spent in alternative ed. During those years, as well as in a traditional classroom, I had to learn a lot about identifying drug addiction. Often, drug addiction was a sign of deeper issues of depression.
Here is a good definition of depression from the Mayo Clinic web site:
Depression is a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest. Also called major depression, major depressive disorder or clinical depression, it affects how you feel, think and behave and can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems. You may have trouble doing normal day-to-day activities, and depression may make you feel as if life isn’t worth living.
Self-medication is the most common form of “treatment” for students when overly busy parents or overworked single parents miss the signs of depression and students start trying to cope in any way that they can find available to them.
When that happens it is often up to a teacher to identify growing problems and raise a careful, professional alarm to our principal and counselors.
Oklahoma veteran reporter Gerry Bonds did a whole episode of her great news program The Living Room where she interviews several people who have struggled with their own children having depression struggles and an advocate for increased mental health care in Oklahoma. It is an excellent starting resource for any teacher who wants to grow professionally in their understanding.
Teacher — not counselor
Teaching itself takes all of our creative and even physical energy. And we wouldn’t be good teachers if we didn’t deeply care for and about our students. But, we are fooling ourselves to believe that we can also be our students’ counselors.
During my years as a high school public school teacher I did not hesitate to call in targeted professional help. I had learned to do that in my 17 years as a United Methodist pastor before going into teaching. It was the best and most effective thing that I learned post-seminary.
The pastor or teacher is focused on engineering huge processes in their respective institutions that demand all of their time and energy. It is too much to engage in the extra full-time task of counseling someone who is depressed. To effectively do that, there must be focus, discipline, training, and most importantly, peer review.
In both cases, I was a generalist who had frequent contact with people who allowed me to see both positive and negative developments as they began. Professional counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists, and doctors often don’t have that same level of contact. But, once they are in contact with a sufferer of depression, their whole energy is devoted to finding a cure.
It helped me to find out early in my career that often even psychiatrists with long experience call in other team members to develop a treatment plan to match the needs of their clients.
Therefore, it is not a sign of failing or inadequacy to call in other professionals when there are deep issues with a student that are disrupting their lives and perhaps even your classroom. It is just the opposite – A true professional teacher calls for new eyes and expertise when something beyond the classroom is affecting their students.
It starts with a relationship
All of that being said, your effectiveness in getting your students connected to the help that they need will be determined by your daily relationship with them, which is your specialty.
It takes a relationship for us to identify what is going on with our students. But, our relationship is not only valuable for identifying possible problems.
We can use that good relationship with our students to process your intent to call in others to help with their struggles. In many cases, parents and students resist the help that they need because they simply do not understand what will happen next. They also do not understand what that will mean about their future in that school.
By being informed about your school’s policies, procedures, and resources for help that the district offers, you can ease concerns of students and parents that will allow them to be receptive to treatment. In other words, you can be the conduit that finally gets them the help that they need.
It’s one of the most satisfying successes that a teacher can accomplish.