Back in mid-May, I visited Four Oaks in Mason City, Iowa, which is a live-in treatment facility for struggling youth. As stated on their website, Four Oaks provides:
“prevention, intervention and treatment programs and services…Some [children] have been in trouble with the law, got into drugs or ran away from home; that’s when we work with them to teach them a better way to live. Others have challenges in the classroom; we teach them in a way that works for them. And when kids need a safe, secure home, we find foster care or a forever family.”
Visiting Four Oaks was a part of my two-week Multicultural class, focusing on diversity in education. I shamefully admit that when I first saw this visit on our schedule, I didn’t understand why going to Four Oaks would be relevant to becoming a teacher. Looking back, I think my naive perspective comes from the fact that people don’t openly talk about things like mental disorders, emotional issues, broken families, or what I’ve nicknamed the ‘d’ word: depression.
I’m going to focus on depression, since after visiting Four Oaks, depression has become very relevant in my personal life, as I’ve watched individuals close to me struggle. I’ve realized, since stepping foot in that treatment facility, that depression / emotional issues are very relevant in the classroom.
There’s a few things I’ve learned that I want to share:
- Depression is serious. And real. Those that suffer from it are not making it up, and are not doing it for attention. Yes, sadly, there are individuals that may act out in this way for attention, but you can tell the difference by reading body language, looking for changes in effort, achievement, attitude, or alertness, and in talking to that student individually. If you see changes and signs of depression in one of your students, take it seriously. Even if they are doing it for attention, it’s better to be safe than sorry when it’s someone’s life at risk.
- Do something. As a teacher, you are second in line after family as a student’s defense and security net. If a student comes to you, reveals something to you in a paper or assignment, or shows serious signs, reach out to them and contact a school counselor.
- That being said, it’s not all on you. You are a teacher, not a psychiatrist or counselor. Don’t take on all the responsibility for a student’s well being. You can be open to them if they want to talk, but don’t give them counseling advice–that’s the counselor’s job, who is [no offense!] better qualified. Make sure you alert a counselor at your school so that they can talk to the student directly. Don’t feel that you’re not doing enough–you’re doing all that you can, and getting that student help will make a difference!
- Also, remember to be approachable. Your job as a teacher is to be someone that students trust. And that extends beyond their grade in the classroom. Be someone that your students feel comfortable talking to. That doesn’t mean you need to act like their buddy or friend; it means smiling and showing them that they can come to you when they need to.
- And finally, educate others. You’re a teacher and your job is to educate. Don’t shy away from the ‘d’ word. Teach your students about depression and about the signs / symptoms. It’s not taboo. People suffer from this disease and the only way we can prevent it, or help those struggling with it, is to educate others.