I spend the first four weeks of health education class teaching about mental and emotional health. We cover a lot of topics, but they’re all geared around helping the students get to know one another, clarify their own values and look out for one another. One of the big things we address in this unit is teen suicide. I always tell students to take any warning signs of suicide seriously, and to tell an adult if they notice that someone around them is struggling.
One resource I like to use for teaching about depression and suicide is a video called “More Than Sad” produced by the American Society for Suicide Prevention. As you can see from the clips below, it provides a realistic look at this serious issue, and it encourages young people to seek help if they’re feeling depressed or anxious. It also puts a strong emphasis on the fact that depression is treatable, but that it doesn’t usually go away on its own.
In the fact sheet for teens that accompanies the film, the organization spells out the facts:
“Depression is more than sadness.
Depression is an illness with a biological basis. People who are depressed feel “down in the dumps” and are not interested in the activities they usually enjoy.
Other symptoms that a depressed teen may experience include:
• feeling more irritable or angry than usual
• losing or gaining a significant amount of weight (not due to diet) or dramatic
change in appetite
• having trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
• physical feelings of either restlessness or being slow, sluggish
• not having any energy
• feeling worthless or guilty (with no clear cause)
• not being able to concentrate or make decisions
• thinking about wanting to end your life
If you experience at least five of these symptoms most of the day for at least two weeks, you may be depressed.
Talk to your parent(s), a trusted adult, or your doctor immediately — don’t wait!!”
Teachers, be sure you know your resources before showing this to students. I’ve had more than one student burst into tears when they recognized themselves in this film. I like to follow it up by sharing some information about our local suicide prevention organization, and then doing some activities designed to build up students’ self esteem and their sense of connection to the people who love them.
Several times a year, I get asked to introduce new lessons or to talk about class planning with the health teachers in my school district. Meeting with them is always a blast. In fact, it’s one of my favorite things to do as an educator. Talking about my work and how I structure my class helps me clarify my thoughts, and exchanging ideas with others helps make me a better teacher.
Thanks to a friend in San Francisco’s School Health Programs Department, I recently connected with a new teacher who’s taking on his very first health class ever. We talked for almost two hours, and I gave him every resource I could. I explained how tricky this class can be to teach, because to do a good job the teacher really has to become an expert on a whole slate of topics — nutrition, fitness, body image, sexuality, mental health, stress reduction, alcohol and drugs — and then has to figure out the best way to teach about all of those topics within a tight one-semester schedule.
Of course there’s also the added burden of knowing that if some of those messages don’t get through, students might become pregnant, face drug addiction or contract a fatal disease. That adds just a little bit of pressure!
When I was hired to teach my first high school course 11 years ago, I was on “Emergency Credential,” which meant that I started out with little formal training on the ins and outs of how to run a classroom. I taught during the day and headed to the university at night to finish out my education coursework.
Because I’d worked for several years as an health reporter and editor, I knew the class content pretty well. However, I definitely could have used some more advice about how to best deliver that content to young people.
Now that I have enough experience and knowledge to be a mentor for new teachers, I gladly take on those opportunities when they come. It feels good to help others, and it’s an important part of building a community of expert health educators. With a group of smart, dedicated peers, we can support each other, keep up on the latest information, and advocate for health education to be recognized as a subject that’s crucial for students’ lives that should be taught excellently in every school.