What can a teacher do?
Depending on the situation of the adolescent facing you, you may be able to recognise a probable disorder and facilitate access to care. If the adolescent is approaching you before seeing their general practitioner, you could explore their current situation and form an impression about the symptoms they might have. If required, you could suggest to the family and youth to seek an appointment with their GP. The adolescent might prefer going directly to a specialised doctor as a child psychiatrist or adult psychiatrist. By encouraging a person to seek a clinical diagnosis, you can facilitate the access to care and professional help.
As a teacher, it is neither your role nor responsibility to deliver treatment. However, you can have a crucial role in exploring whether professional help is something that the adolescent needs and would benefit from. The support you and school psychologist provide is of the utmost importance: for the adolescent, being able to confide in a trusted person is invaluable.
A teacher is in a unique position in relation to students and could explore the present situation of a student through a screening question. This screening could address if he/she feels sad, how intensively and for how long.
Listening attentively is very important.
An interested person who listens carefully to a depressed person and is attentive to verbal and non-verbal cues may notice three different areas of problems and changes (see box):
- psychological symptoms – thinking, feeling and motivation are affected
- physical symptoms – such as headache, stomach ache, back pain. Sometimes depression is expressed only through somatic symptoms
- behavioural symptoms – these result frequently from the interaction between psychological and physical symptoms
If you feel that someone might be depressed, try to remember how this person usually behaved six months ago. How were they acting towards you and others? This might help to get a better idea. However, some people also try hard to hide their symptoms because they feel ashamed or feel they will be different from their peers.
Some of the signs and behaviour changes might be very similar to normal suffering and distress. It is therefore important to differentiate between depression and distress or normal suffering such as grief. Some aspects can help to judge the current situation (see image).
If you want to check whether a young person you know might be suffering from depression, you might simply screen depression through filling a test for the person. There is a short self-test in the box 'Recognising Depression' on the left side of the screen that you can fill in for the person.
Referral for medical care
If you think you recognise a depressive disorder, you might want to ask the advice and help from the school psychologist if this service exists. The psychologist will have more in-depth knowledge about depression. In addition, the family could be difficult to engage and you may feel you need a team approach in order to manage referral to medical care.
If a school psychology service does not exist, you could talk to the family and suggest referring the adolescent to medical care where assessment and treatment can be put in place. Therefore, it might be useful to know the primary care resources (even mental health care services) near your school so you will be able to inform the family directly where to go. Being able to inform young people and their family about treatment basics can also be useful.