We have all heard stories from teachers about how one of their students suffered from depression…and that student took his or her own life. Or maybe you have had that experience yourself. One of your students dying by suicide might not happen often, maybe only once a career, but for anyone who has had that experience, the refrain is always the same: “I wonder if I could have done something. If only I had known.”
That thought in itself is disturbing. The school administration and those concerned about liability tell us that we should not get involved if one of our students opens up about depression. “Take a hands-off approach” they say. “Don’t do anything. Send the student to the counseling center and let the professionals handle it.” Indeed, it is important for us to understand our limitations and call in professional assistance, but that student came to you and sought your help. She trusts you. She thinks you understand her. So, how can you do nothing? And, in fact, evidence shows the majority of health centers in Japanese schools fail to identify or provide treatment for students suffering from mental illnesses and at high risk of suicide (Lamis et al., 2014). According to Uchida (2010), only 19% of Japanese students who became suicide victims sought help from their university health centers, and only 19% of those had received psychiatric diagnoses and treatment. As such, you might be the only one who can throw, into her sea of distress, a buoy.
You might not be trained in dealing with depression, but it is hard not to feel the “hands off” policy is too sterile, desecrating our deepest convictions. And so, the refrain, “If only I had known.”
Let us know. While this article does not provide training or a solution to the “hands off” conundrum, it might equip you with a deeper understanding of student depression. What you learn here might prove useful when that time comes. Let us look at: 1) the prevalence of depression among students; 2) the type of learner that is most vulnerable; and 3) what role we, as language teachers, might play in ameliorating the problem.
The Prevalence of Student Depression
First, let us consider how big a problem student depression is. I wrote above that having one of your students die by suicide might happen only once during your career, but that is hardly an accurate marker for the prevalence of depression, since those suffering from it tend to hide it. Rates of student depression vary across countries but, since most of our readers are in Japan and East Asia, and Japan is a bit ahead in the research, I will use Japan as the benchmark. There is some evidence that rates of student depression are higher in Japan than in other countries, but that should not diminish the value of what one can learn. In fact, almost half of all suicides–the world’s 13th largest cause of death, and number 1 cause of student death–happen in Japan, India, and China (Bailey et al., 2011).
The first thing we can see about Japan is the steady rise of depression as students go from primary school to college. The frequency of depression in Japanese high schools, 5.6% among 13- to 18-year olds, is double the frequency of those under 13 (Mizuta et al., 2017). First-year high school students seem particularly vulnerable. After all, the first year of high school in any country entails the toughest challenges of adolescence: profound physical change, emerging sexuality, tougher academics, identity formation, and a whole new set of peers at the same time social signal sensitivity is booming. But the numbers get worse when students enter college. The rate of depression rises at the end of high school when students are taking entrance exams, and continues to be high through the first half year of college. In a study done with 116 college students, over 20% were shown to have experienced a Major Depressive Episode in this one-year period, as defined by criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (MSD-IV). The pressures of Entrance Exam Hell, followed by the challenge of adapting to a new college setting, carry severe social-integration and self-esteem risks. Of particular significance is the rate of depression among female students who, for various reasons, are more vulnerable to these risks. The rate is 28.4% for female students, almost three times the 10.2% of their male peers.
The Consequences of Depression in Students
That 20% of Japanese students experience a Major Depressive episode in the year they enter college shows the magnitude of this problem, but it is one that most teachers seem to be unaware of. Not good. Depression is not just a passing sadness; it has both life-changing and life-threatening effects. Having a depressive episode early in life greatly increases the risk of having further depressive episodes later, across the entire lifespan (Tomoda et al., 2000), and depression is the greatest cause of that most tragic of occurrences, a young person taking his or her own life. U.S. figures show that depression accounts for 30-50% of the reported causes of student suicide, and that 1 in 12 students have made a suicide plan (Bailey et al., 2011). The rates are almost certainly higher in Japan (Lamis et al., 2014). Hopelessness and depression are the two most important factors in college student suicide.
What Kinds of Students Are Most Vulnerable?
Who is vulnerable and what should we, as teachers, be on the lookout for? Several risk factors have been identified. Japan’s 2010 National University Health Facilities Council Committee on Mental Health reported these warning signs: dropping out of school, failing classes, difficulty finding a job after graduation, long study hours, hopelessness, mental illness (including depression, schizophrenia, and sleep disorder), loss of family, financial stressors, and alcohol abuse (Lamis et al., 2014). Fortunately, Mizuta et al. (2017) were more succinct: economic status, not having a best friend, and experiencing an unforgettable stress (like the one described by Harumi Kimura in this issue) are the main causes.
Personality traits are also linked to depression. Of the Big Five personality traits, high Neuroticism is the greatest single indicator of Major Depression across the lifespan (Matsudaira & Kitamura, 2005). Neuroticism describes how well someone reacts to ordinary stressors. People high in Neuroticism respond poorly, with higher levels of anxiety, frustration, anger, fear, jealousy, guilt, and loneliness. We often characterize them as being “overly-sensitive” or “touchy.”
Personality can be broken down into two parts, temperament and character. Temperament represents one’s natural and generally fixed tendencies that shape how a person reacts to the world: being generally positive or negative, being quiet or rambunctious, being easygoing or apprehensive, and so on. Character, often referred to as “personality” in everyday speech, is built on temperament, but it is not fixed. It is formed by the lessons of life: those of culture, experiences, and social interactions. Development of the higher cognitive processes that compose character go into high gear during adolescence.
When it comes to temperament, students high in harm-avoidance are the most likely to suffer from depression. They tend to be tense in unfamiliar situations and shier when meeting new people. They tend to be worried, pessimistic, and easily fatigued (Matsudaira & Kitamura, 2005).
In character, low self-directedness is the best indicator of possible student depression (Matsudaira & Kitamura, 2005). Self-directedness means willpower, the ability to take control of one’s life and pursue personal goals. Low self-directedness is associated with a feeling of being controlled, rather than being in control, with a tendency to blame others, blame bad luck, or be apathetic.
Personality traits show the potential for student depression, but maybe the single greatest indicator and cause is something that overshadows those personality traits: Not having a friend. “Not having a best friend is the largest factor of depression, and might have a greater inﬂuence than family” (Mizuta et al., 2017, p. 216).
What Role do Teachers Play?
Fortunately, there is hope. We can have an impact. The Mizuta group’s study (2017), conducted in Shizoka, found that a supportive attitude from a homeroom teacher helped reduce depression in high-school students, but other teachers had an effect, too. If the student perceives any teacher as willing to help, that student is less likely to become depressed.
We can assume that teachers who care, who check on the well-being of their students, who pay attention to learner peer relationships, might be a seawall that helps curb the tsunami of student depression. I wonder how much higher and thicker this wall would become if teachers were given even the slightest amount of training in dealing with depressed students. The time for greater collaboration between health professionals and teachers has come.
Consider this, too. Accenting failure and shaming a learner in front of peers can be the trigger that sends a student over the edge, and these practices are not uncommon in the classroom. Teachers tend to be oblivious to the danger. Yet there are other classroom practices that can reduce the likelihood of depression. Any activity that engenders positive affect–more chances to succeed, more praise, less failure, and less criticism–has that potential. Iwata and Buka (2002) believe that, compared to Japan, the lower rates of depression in North and South American schools come from that very factor, more expression of positive affect.
Of course, if you are the kind of person who reads articles like this, then you probably already know this. You are probably sensitive to how a teaching style can make students feel good or bad about themselves, and you are probably already engaged in promoting good feelings. And I suspect you are also aware of the importance of your learners having friends, especially in that very difficult first year of high school or college. So just do more of what you are probably already doing.
For every language topic, work on personalization. Give students as many chances to interact with other students as possible, and not necessarily always in English. Then too, let them work with different partners sometimes. Having them stand and repeat an interaction with numerous partners in dyadic circles (or lines) is perfect for first-year students, and my own students’ favorite. Now I know why. I also know why, in a questionnaire I once gave, the number one reason my students gave for coming to school was “to meet my friends.” Honor that need. Ride that wave.
Choose tasks they can succeed in, at least partially. Avoid public criticism; don’t hold back on praise. Keep in mind that scolding one means scolding them all, and praising one, if done right, means praising them all. Accept that bad behavior is usually done to impress peers rather than spite you. Smile. Understand. If students sleep in class, before you order them to wake up, think about using those three magic words: “Are you okay?” Be the one who cares about them, more than about the lesson, more than about yourself. If you follow these principles and teach with love, you might never have to say, “if only.”
So now you know.
Curtis Kelly (E.D.D.), the first coordinator of the JALT Mind, Brain, and Education SIG, is a Professor of English at Kansai University in Japan. He is the producer of the Think Tanks, has written over 30 books and 100 articles, and given over 400 presentations. His life mission, and what drew him to brain studies, is “to relieve the suffering of the classroom.”