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Learn How to Recognize and Help Depressed Students

One fifth of high school females feel depressed, but a one-on-one talk with a teacher can help.

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One fifth of females between the ages of 14 and 17 reported feeling severely depressed at some point, according to a recent Department of Education report, and there are many factors of high school life that can lead to such feelings. Teachers, who often see these factors firsthand in classrooms and hallways, should know how to interpret the signs of their students' depression.

The Department of Education report shows that 21 percent of high school females reported having a Major Depressive Episode (MDE) at one point in their lifetime, which it defines as a "period of at least two weeks when a person experiences a depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure in daily activities, plus at least four additional symptoms of depression (such as problems with sleep, eating, energy, concentration, and feelings of self-worth.)" Only 10 percent of males in the same age bracket, the report states, have experienced one of these episodes.

"There are some significant gender differences in the way that psychological distress gets manifested," says Amber Douglas, assistant professor of psychology and education at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. "Traditionally, we tend to think about females—women and girls—internalizing their symptoms, and boys and men externalizing their symptoms."

Males, particularly adolescent men, are more likely to act, rather than reflect, on their feelings, and those actions can sometimes lead to behavioral problems or the student being labeled as "destructive," says Douglas.

For example, while twice as many young women than men in the Department of Education report experienced a Major Depressive Episode, the same report shows that greater percentages of males in grades 9 through 12 have reported high-risk behaviors, such as getting into physical fights, drinking and driving, and carrying a weapon. The report also shows that, in 2007, male students were suspended from school at twice the rate of their female peers.

[Learn why teens who sleep less are likelier to lead risky lives.]

Douglas says that there are many factors that explain why students may begin to feel angry in their teens, whether they're internalizing or externalizing those feelings. Students are developing their identities and shifting their support systems from family members to peers, she says.

"Those peer relationships become very important," says Douglas. "[Students are] learning how to negotiate what it means ... to be a good friend, what it means to be loyal, what it means to successfully negotiate conflict, and also figuring out romantic relationships as an additional layer to all of this."

Sometimes, academic pressure in high school—particularly the stress surrounding standardized tests—can make some students angry and depressed, Douglas says.

[Some ask if multiple choice questions pass the test.]

"It's great if kids are taking pride in their work," she says. "It's not so great if they're becoming overly stressed and obsessed with perfection."

But it can be hard to diagnose overwhelmed and depressed students. Douglas says teachers should keep an eye out for a change of behavior in the student, such as being less responsive, acting more withdrawn, or associating with troublemaking peers. Then, Douglas says, the teacher should privately talk to the student in a "non-threatening" way.

[Learn how some teachers use hip hop to engage students.]

"I think that if the teacher is really concerned, then sure, get the parents involved," she says. "But I think a lot can be learned by having a one-on-one conversation."

In this discussion, Douglas suggests that teachers take into account the changes their students are going through.

"As students are moving toward adulthood, I think it's important that you as a teacher are recognizing that the students get to make some of their own decisions and they're negotiating some important stuff."

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