Ask a student how he or she feels after a hard test and they may respond that they’re depressed. To Stan Kutcher, that’s unfortunate.
The professor of psychiatry at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and founder of teenmentalhealth.org, believes students need to understand that life is not always a series of daisy chains and rainbows. Instead, there are down times and hard moments — and that isn’t the same as clinical depression.
“It’s like knowing the difference between a cut finger and cut off finger,” he said in an interview. “Kids feel upset and say they’re depressed. Kids have a test, and they say they’re anxious. We have copied the language of pathology to describe normal human behavior, and we now see kids using words of mental health disorders.”
In a time of increased attention to students' mental health needs, teachers also need to understand the difference between the two areas as well, notes Kutcher. Two states, New York and Virginia, have recently adopted requirements that mandate mental health curriculum in schools. But if the classes aren’t taught by educators who themselves are literate about mental health, the courses may not be as effective as curriculum designers hope, he said.
For example, giving students a checklist of questions, or signs and symptoms of depression, is not helpful if students don’t actually understand what the words themselves mean. Instead Kutcher said that mental health literacy has to be presented to students in a way that is both contextually and developmentally appropriate for them to understand.
“I have seen curriculum resources that are actually unhelpful,” he said. “It’s contingent upon policymakers not just to make policy, but ensure on the best available [curriculum.]”
Like Kutcher, Patricia Kostouros, who co-authored a 2017 study, “Caring About Post-Secondary Student Self-care,” believes that teachers should not try to teach a strategy or method that they do not understand on their own, she said in an interview. As they craft lessons, she encourages administrators to reach out to experts who can themselves help educators understand how to use a certain method or practice before they bring it into their classrooms.
That’s not to say there aren’t some simple steps educators can use to help students with basic stress on a daily basis, Kostouros said. She suggests small activities like encouraging students to take small breaks, even color and doodle during class, practice deep breathing exercises, “…or get up and walk up and down the hallway.”
“If someone is having a difficult time concentrating, trying harder to concentrate does not work,” said Kostouros, who is an associate professor in the Department of Child Studies and Social Work at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. “They need small breaks. Therefore weaving short activities at various times helps everyone, not just those who might struggle with a mental health concern.
In a second yet-to-be published study, Kostouros has also found students actually want self-care tools they can use — and also want to be able to use them while they’re actually in class. These exercises don’t have to take up much class time — perhaps no more than two to three minutes a day, she said.
Stress is also normal
Kutcher, however, thinks it’s important for educators and students to recognize that stress is not always a negative feeling. Just as students need to learn the difference between sadness and depression, they also need to uncover the difference between normal and toxic stress, as well. Kutcher said that 80% of stress is actually coming from normal, positive stressors around them.
For example, the stress that comes from taking an exam? Students are taught to call it exam anxiety, he said. But instead, those feelings are likely a normal response, and not actually negative. Stress actually teaches individuals to adapt to the circumstances around them, Kutcher said. So if students are stressed about taking an exam, it may be their brain sending them a signal to study a bit more.
“Students are growing up where negative emotions are seen as pathology,” he said. “But most of our negative feelings are completely normal.”