Depression Special Needs Factsheet

What Teachers Should Know

It’s normal for students to feel sad, angry, or moody occasionally, especially during the teen years. Setbacks such as getting cut from a sports team, doing poorly on a test, or having a conflict with a classmate can stir strong emotions — and that’s normal, too.

But when a depressed mood lingers for weeks, months, or even longer, and affects a student’s ability to function normally, it might be depression.

Depression usually isn’t caused by a single reason or event — it’s often the result of several factors, such as:

  • significant life events (death of a loved one, parents’ divorce, moving to a new home or school)
  • stress (related to school, extracurricular activities, or problems at home)
  • chronic illness
  • being bullied

Levels of brain chemicals (called neurotransmitters), hormones, and genetics also play a role in depression.

Whether or not stressful events lead to depression can depend on how well a student is able to cope, stay positive, and get support. Kids and teens who are depressed are more likely to use alcohol and drugs as coping methods than those who aren’t depressed. Teens who are depressed are at higher risk for suicide.

The good news is that mental health professionals can help. Depression can be successfully treated — with psychotherapy, medicine, or a combination of therapy and medicine — in most cases.

In addition, school psychologists or school counselors can provide emotional support and help students learn coping skills. Teachers can also provide support during the school day.

Students with depression may:

  • show a lack of energy, be irritable, and seem down in the dumps for no reason
  • withdraw from friends and family
  • not be able to concentrate in class
  • be defiant to teachers and other school staff
  • ask to go to the school nurse often
  • show significant weight loss or gain in a short period of time
  • talking about death or suicide
  • engage in risky or self-destructive behavior (drinking alcohol, taking drugs, or cutting, for example)
  • need additional time to complete classroom and homework assignments
  • miss class time due to doctors appointments, hospitalization, or inability to attend classes because of depression
  • need to go to the school nurse for medication
  • need short breaks throughout the day to avoid feeling overwhelmed

Teachers should be aware of suicide prevention methods, because schools have been sued for negligence for failing to:

  • notify parents if a student appears suicidal
  • get help for a student at risk of suicide
  • adequately supervise an at-risk student

It’s important to know student behaviors that can be warning signs for suicide, including:

  • talking about suicide or death
  • hinting that he or she might not be around anymore
  • writing songs, poems, or letters about death, separation, and loss
  • giving away treasured possessions
  • losing interest in school, classmates, sports, or other activities
  • engaging in risky behaviors

What Teachers Can Do

Depression can interfere with your student’s day-to-day activities. Your student may need additional assistance completing assignments and interacting with peers.

Let your depressed student know you are available for help. Be supportive and look for opportunities for your student to succeed in the classroom.

Incorporating physical activities into daily classroom instruction can help ease a student’s depression symptoms, as well as energize all of your other students.

If you suspect a student is struggling with depression, talk to a parent or guardian and contact the school psychologist or counselor for assistance in setting up a support system at school and at home.

If you suspect a student is at risk of suicide or possibly hurting himself or herself, immediately escort the student yourself to a member of the school’s crisis team, or notify the principal, psychologist, counselor, nurse, or social worker.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: September 2014