A couple days ago, I attended a teaching workshop that focused on issues facing current undergraduate students. One reoccurring theme was that today’s students suffer from stress and depression much more than earlier generations. Some of the causes could be heavier workloads, too many other things taking up their time (cell phone, internet, etc.), not taking care of themselves physically (sleep, diet, exercise), and lack of ability to deal with emotions.

A lot of time was spent discussing what the signs are for depression and what can be done to help, such as making students aware of the issues in the first place, knowing who to call for help on campus, and being sympathetic.

Although it was interesting, I was left feeling even more confused on how to deal with these types of situations. How do we as teachers (i.e., not trained psychologists, psychiatrists, etc.) tell the difference between a student who is just having a rough day from one who is truly suffering? What about students who try to take advantage of such situations (for example, I went to school with someone who’s “grandmother” died 3 times – all during exam times)? How are we supposed to know when to just lend a sympathetic ear, or when a student needs more than that?

Has anyone else been to a workshop like this one? Did you get any concrete advice?

Has anyone had to deal with such a situation in their classroom or lab? If so, then what did you do? Did you feel you did the right thing?

In a more general sense – do you believe that more people suffer from depression these days, or is it just more accepted/more diagnosed?

If anyone is interested in seeing more of what was discussed during the workshop, one of the speakers has his PowerPoint slides available here for download.
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Comments on: "Depression at the Undergraduate Level" (8)

  1. I can only speak to this from the public school perspective since that's where my training/experience is, but I'd imagine there are a lot of similarities. The biggest difference would be in the supports in place to help the teacher and student in these situations – the public system would have more.

    When you are teaching a class regularly, you get to know your students and their habits pretty well. After a little while, you start to pick up patterns in their attitudes and behaviours. A rough day is a rough day, but if a kid is depressed, it will show over time. I haven't had to deal with this directly, but I did speak to my associate teacher at the end of one of my practicum placements about a student that I felt he should keep an eye on. If I did have to deal with it, though, I would probably have a private chat with the student where I'd let them know that I've noticed that they seem tired/disinterested/unhappy/anxious, whatever the case may be, and ask them if there is anything going on that they'd like to talk about or if there is anything I can do to help them out. This way, they're not being accused of anything, they know someone is concerned, and they know there is a channel of communication available. I'd also document what I observe and any conversations like this that take place with the student in case a referral needs to be made later.

    One thing you might be able to do to help them be more successful in your class is to break assignments down into small, manageable parts. This could be just an accomodation you make for that particular student and keep it private. People who are depressed can feel overwhelmed and like they don't have control over things in their lives. So, giving them things that they feel they can manage may help. And you can talk about accomodations like that with the student, just ask them directly what it would take to help them get through the material and work with them to accomodate it, within reason.

    Beyond that, I'd have more options than a university/college instructor, I think. I could call the students' parents, refer them to the school psychologist/social worker, and so on. For undergrads, as far as I know, there isn't much more you can do except try to suggest to the student that they see a counsellor at Health Services.

    In general, I think depression is more diagnosed now than it used to be because there is so much more awareness of it. By the same token, it is probably mis/overdiagnosed often too because there are a lot of people who have a few bad days and don't know how to do deal with their negative emotions, so they freak out that they must be depressed…but that's a whole other topic for another day 🙂

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  2. Wow, sorry that turned out so long!

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  3. hm, I might end up writing a blog post about the depression all by myself since it's a quite lenghty thought 😉

    Anyway, I don't think there are as many depressed undergraduates as there are people who haven't faced set backs earlier and then they do at uni and then they don't really know what to do. The grey scale is gone sort of… if that makes sense. The reports, and anecdotal stories, I've heard lately from colleges here in the states are that some of them are “making a ceremony for the parents to leave campus” (not hoovering) which would indicate to me, that these young people have probably not experienced set backs as much as younger ones.

    Then there is my pet peeve about depression. Anyone can feel depressed for a while, a couple of months even, as a reaction to a sad occurance. It's when that feeling of despair doesn't go away and it's been longer and it's hindering life to come knocking on the door again that's the depression. I think many undergraduates today might feel overwhealmed, even sad, and then many more hard things but I am not sure that it's helping to refer it as depression, rather than “life isn't happy all the time, but it's life”, and then tell them to move on with it and give it some time and see if it doesn't solve itself?

    (I wonder if this comes through as I hope. I just don't think it's OK today to not “superpositive” and just have a couple of bad weeks where nothing is really that superfun without being diagnosed as depressed?)

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  4. Thats a tough one.

    When I was an undergraduate appeals for “extenuating circumstances” were dealt with by an external committee – not the professor. This seems like a good practice, until you realize it adds a lot of extra stress to the bereaving, sick, or depressed student.

    It is good that professors are aware of depression, but I think it is just as important that fellow students are too. Roommates and classmates spend more time and are usually closer each other than professors.

    Judging a students claim to depression causing a bad grade is dodgy ground for an unqualified person. If it is affecting their ability to handle the course load then they need referral and someone more qualified than myself.

    I would make it a stimulation for any student requesting allowances for depression that they see the campus counsellor.

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  5. I think the meaning of “depression” has become lost and muddled into basically being every sad/bad feeling, bad day/week and stressful event or circumstance. I think we are too flippant with the term of depression and apply it to many innocuous everyday trappings of real life. And because of this label, we sort of start to feel helpless or accept that its out of our control to fix.

    Then we dont have the coping skills necessary anymore to deal with every day life because everything just gets “too big.”

    True depression does exist for many people but too many healthy people have taken it on to label everything that may be negative in their life. This is a disservice to those that are truly depressed as well as the healthy who are stunting their coping skills by using that label.

    My very muddled observation, lol! I feel like I was rambling on and on there….I would say that if a college prof suspects depression or a student voices depression, then its beyond the scope of the teacher and their training in my opinion and a referral should be made to a campus counsellor, medical professional or other mental health professional. The best thing you can do is to watch for the signs of true depression, connect with the student, know your community resources and then make the referral.

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  6. Very interesting comments – and never worry about writing “too much” 🙂

    Andrea – I think you hit a good point when you mentioned meeting regularly with a class. I think one of the problems that could arise in university is the classes are huge (especially in 1st year). So, it would be much harder to pick up on changes in behavior.

    Chall – I agree that depression is overly diagnosed. I wonder if it stems from the relatively new expectation in our society that we must be happy all the time, and if we're not, then we must have some serious issues?

    Dr. G – I agree that someone other than the prof should be dealing with these situations. Professors just need to know who to contact/who to refer the students to in times of need.

    Ruby – ITA that depression is often mislabeled! You make a great point that, once something is labeled as depression, we feel more helpless and out of control. We can deal with being “sad” or “down” for a while, but we see depression as something far more serious and we feel we don't have the tools to cope.

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  7. Alyssa> I think it might be more bouts of depression nowadays than “earlier”, maybe mostly because we have more time to think and feel and – as you point out – be happy all the time.

    Not to mention that whole “being perfect” and “trying to succeed and be adored.

    I listened to the radio on the weekend where they mentioned the idea that before “you could only compare yourself to the people in the village and the smaller communities, whereas now we compare with the creme de la creme of the world”… and guess which is overwhealming (and especially as a younger person?).

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  8. Chall – interesting that you mentioned that, because I heard the same thing about a week ago. The situation was a bit different (it was about physical looks) but the premise is very much the same. Interesting how the globalization of our community can make us feel crappy about ourselves!

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