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Teaching Elementary School Students about Depression

Popular works of fiction like 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher, Looking for Alaska by

John Green, and Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chibosky have started an

avalanche of discussion about the truth behind depression and suicide. Unfortunately,

even with the impact these books have made, the subject of depression is still considered

taboo. There is a stigma and a lack of general education on depression and other mental

illnesses that often deprives many people from getting the assistance that they need.

According to a survey from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), 16.2

million adults in the United States (4.3 percent of all adults in the US) have experienced a

major depressive episode (“Major Depression”). A major depressive episode is defined


A period of two weeks or longer during which there is either depressed mood or loss

of interest or pleasure, and at least four other symptoms that reflect a change in

functioning, such as problems with sleep, eating, energy, concentration, self-image or

recurrent thoughts of death or suicide. (“Major Depression”)

The NIMH reports that 37 percent of these 16.2 million people received no treatment for

their condition. Shockingly, 3.1 million adolescents (ages 12-17) have experienced a

major depressive episode and even more concerning is the fact that 60 percent of these

young people have not received treatment (“Major Depression”). This alarmingly high

number of individuals not getting treatment for depression comprises a large portion of

the American population. While there is still a large population of adults who do not

seek help, it is evident from the NIMH study that the predominant issue is that a large

population of adolescents are suffering from severe depression with an even larger

percentage not receiving the potentially needed treatment or assistance.

Depression has many side effects, including but not limited to: physical fatigue, a

decrease in productivity, trouble sleeping, and social withdrawal (“Depression”). Not

only does depression have these direct symptoms, but there is also a strong correlation

between depression and suicide. The American Association of Suicidology states that

“depression is the psychiatric diagnosis most commonly associated with suicide.” In

addition, according to a Mayo Clinic Study, “2% to 9 % of people that have been

diagnosed with depression in their lifetime will go on to complete suicide” (American

Association of Suicidology). The symptoms of depressions make those affected by the

disorder much more susceptible to suicidal thoughts. People with depression are 25 times

more likely to commit suicide (American Association of Suicidology). Treating

depression can not only improve day to day mental health, but can actually save lives.

Just like other physical illnesses, depression is a disease. Harvard Medical School

states that “depression doesn't spring from simply having too much or too little of certain

brain chemicals.” Causes of depression range from genetics to stressful life events

(“What Causes Depression”). Harvard references a study from the Journal of

Neuroscience which states that some people with depression have a smaller

hippocampus, a part of the brain that is essential in regulating moods. This research

concludes that depression is much more than a simple chemical imbalance.

The most effective solution to this problem would be to introduce information about

depression into health classes starting at an elementary school level. The mental illness

education would be annual and age appropriate starting early in elementary or primary

schools. Children would learn about the science of mental diseases and understand the

basic physiology behind the psychological effects of depression. In addition, the students

would be exposed to the attitude that it is acceptable to have depression as it is a medical

condition which requires proper medical assistance. This would better prepare young

people on how to handle depression and other mental illnesses if they are afflicted with

them currently or later in life.

Some school systems do already have depression awareness activities, but these

would be more effective if implemented for students at a younger age. Programs such as

the Adolescent Depression Awareness Program (ADAP), which teaches high school

students and parents about depression, are spreading across the country (Mennitto). In

general, prevention and identification measures in school systems take place only at the

intermediate and high school level, as this is when adolescents tend to start to display

symptoms of depression. What the current programs fail to understand is that attempting

to treat the issue after the symptoms have already started is much too late. Educating

students starting at a young age is essential. Although the majority of the population that

is depressed is of adolescent age or older, depression can affect anyone at any age, even

in the first years of primary school (Huberty). For this reason, education on depression

must start at a relatively young age, in order to prepare children before symptoms occur.

Not only does educating students on depression in elementary school prepare

children for the onset of symptoms, but teaching information about mental illness to

young people is also essential to changing the stigma that surrounds the discussion of

mental illness. According to Psychologist Michael Friedman “the majority of people

hold negative attitudes and stereotypes towards people with mental illness.” Friedman

describes that children and adults alike use words such as “crazy” to describe anyone

with a mental illness, and often feel that regardless of the illness, those affected are

unstable or dangerous. This stigma towards mental illnesses often leads to what

Friedman describes as social distancing. Those affected with mental illnesses are often

socially ostracized and made to feel even more isolated. The fear of this social rejection

is instrumental in developing a “self-stigma,” which lowers the afflicted persons own

feeling of self-worth (Friedman). Both the social and self-stigma surrounding mental

illness causes many people to be afraid to admit to themselves and others that they are

unwell and in need of professional help. Education, especially starting at a young age is

the best time to change societal perspectives. According to Christopher Lucas, an expert

in cognitive development at the University of Edinburgh, children are more open to new

ideas than adults due to how human brains develop. Young children’s brains are so

focused on learning and developing, they are more open to accepting the fact that mental

illness is not something to be ashamed of but something to seek medical assistance for.

For some people affected by depression, it is not only the societal stigma that stops

them from getting help, but also their lack of knowledge on the subject. Often times,

people with depression do not truly realize that they are sick. Psychologist John Mayor

observes that people with depression may notice the symptoms, but they think that the

negative symptoms are their fault and they fail to understand the biological root cause of

the issue (Miller). Similarly, many people lack accurate knowledge on the subject of

treatments for depression. Psychologist Alicia Clark describes how often those afflicted

by the disease may not believe there is any treatment that will work or they feel that they

do not deserve treatment (Miller). Discussing depression and mental illness in

elementary school health classes would allow children to feel more comfortable in

admitting to themselves that they could be sick and need to seek treatment. By dealing

with mental illness as a disease and teaching the science behind it, children will not be as

confused about what is happening to their body. If a child ends up being afflicted with

depression or mental illness, they would think of it simply as a disease that they learned

about in school and seek treatment in the same manner they would for any other disease.

Education has been proven effective in changing behavior of students on other topics.

One of the more recent additions to health classes has been sex education. According to

the National Campaign to End Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, in a study of 48

comprehensive sex education programs:

● 40 percent delayed sexual initiation, reduced the number of sexual partners, or

increased condom or contraceptive use.

● 30 percent reduced the frequency of sex, including a return to abstinence.

● 60 percent reduced unprotected sex. (“Comprehensive Sex Education”)

Sex education has proven effective in changing the behavior of students. The

effectiveness of education seen in this study, would also apply to depression education.

Not only would this policy be effective, but it would also be an affordable

solution. Education is under state jurisdiction so there are no national standards

mandating specific health programs. This would allow for a flexible approach to

incorporating the teaching of depression and mental illness. As many elementary schools

do not have a specific “health class,” depression could be taught by teachers in science

class, or in a special lecture. In addition, many elementary schools have counselors who

come to talk to students about behavioral interactions, these counselors could be tasked

with discussing mental health as well. The way that the information is taught could be

left largely up to the school and thus can be adapted to best fit the needs of the students,

while still meeting basic curriculum requirements. Teaching nutrition is handled in a

similarly flexible manner. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 99

percent of public elementary and secondary schools have some sort of nutrition

education; nutrition is taught in health classes, health programs, science classes, or

incorporated into the general curriculum (“Nutrition Education”). The flexibility of the

inclusion of depression into the curriculum would allow the school or state to find the

most affordable options. The biggest overhead cost would be writing the basic

curriculum. Luckily, school curriculums are being constantly rewritten and so would not

likely cause any major financial burden. The small cost of writing new teaching plans

and health program curriculums is undoubtedly worth saving the lives of the many

adolescents who take their own lives every year.

The people most likely to oppose this policy would be the parents of the students

receiving the education. Common fears such as the idea that suicide education “gives

students ideas” are sure to be present. In addition, parents may be uncomfortable with

the idea of their young child learning about suicide. To combat this issue, a letter

supported by research by psychologists like Steve Scholzman that disproves the myth that

depression or mental illness “gives ideas” to students about suicide would be sent home

to parents (Scholzman). In addition, the letter would describe the age appropriate

curriculum while simultaneously providing information on why it is effective. The final

fear that parents might have is that by adding more information into the current

curriculum other valuable information will not be taught to the children. In the letter sent

home to the parents, the magnitude of the importance of this education would be

emphasized as well as the fact that it will not take up much time. Hopefully this letter

and other sources of open communication between the school and parents would address

these concerns.

If this policy were instituted, students in elementary school would understand that

depression is a disease; they would have basic knowledge about the symptoms of

depression and what physiologically is happening in the brain. When some students

become afflicted with depression in the future they will understand what is happening to

them and know the steps they should take to get the treatment they need. These students

will be able to talk to their friends about what is happening to them, and their friends will

be able to help and not judgmental due to their understanding and acceptance of

depression as an illness. This policy will slowly end the stigma associated with

depression and will lower the suicide rate by helping to get people the treatment they


Depression is a disease that affects a significant portion of the American

population. Not only does depression have negative consequences on the daily lives of

those afflicted, but it is a significant cause of suicide. Many people do not get the

professional help they need for this disease because of the stigma that surrounds mental

illness and due to a lack of understanding of the nature of depression. To remedy these

issues, education on depression and other mental illnesses should be incorporated into

health classes starting in early elementary school. By educating children early in their

lives, the stigma against mental illness will decrease, children will understand depression

as a disease, and they will be able to better prepared if they become afflicted. This

solution is feasible, effective, and should face minimal opposition. Instituting this policy

would change and save countless American lives.

Word Count: 2089

Works Cited

American Association of Suicidology. Depression and Suicide Risk, 2015.PDF,

“Comprehensive Sex Education: Research and Results.” Advocatesforyouth.org, Sept.
2009, www.advocatesforyouth.org/publications/1487.

“Depression (Major Depressive Disorder).” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical
Education and Research, 3 Feb. 2018, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-
Friedman, Michael. “The Stigma of Mental Illness Is Making Us Sicker.” Psychology
Today, Sussex Publishers, 13 May 2014, ww.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/brick-
Harvard Health Publishing. “What Causes Depression?” Harvard Health, Harvard Health
Publishing, June 2009, www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/what-causes-
Huberty, Thomas. “Depression: Supporting Students at School.” National Association of
School Psychologists, 2010,https://www.nasponline.org/Documents/Resources%
Lucas, Christopher G, et al. “When Children Are Better (or at Least More Open-Minded)
Learners than Adults: Developmental Differences in Learning the Forms of
Causal Relationships.” International Journal of Cognitive Science, 2013,
“Major Depression.” National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Department of Health and
Human Services, Nov. 2017, www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/major-
Mennitto, Donna. “Adolescent Depression Awareness Program (ADAP).” Learning
About Teen Depression (ADAP) at Johns Hopkins, 13 Apr. 2017,
Miller, Korin. “Why So Many People Don't Get Help for Depression.” SELF, SELF, 29
June 2017, www.self.com/story/why-so-many-people-dont-get-help-for-
“Nutrition Education in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools.” Highlights, National
Center for Education Statistics, nces.ed.gov/surveys/frss/publications/96852/.
Schlozman, Steve. “Student Suicide & Depression Awareness Guide.” Psychology,