Best Practices for Supporting Learners with Depressive Disorders

Apr 28 2022

Key Takeaway:

Schools can work across the intervention spectrum to promote emotional health and prevent the onset of depression, as well as intervene with students once they have been diagnosed with a depressive disorder. One essential support mechanism is building relationships between students and teachers that can support wellbeing reciprocally. —Frankie Garbutt

There has been a significant increase in numbers of students who are identified with major depressive disorder (MDD)—in Australia about 5% of students and 7.5% of students in the United States. Therefore, it is paramount that schools consider how they will support students with mental health challenges, ensuring they consider the “academic, behavioural, social and emotional implications of the disorder.” In his article, John Burns (Macquarie University, Sydney) outlines “what constitutes best practice” in relation to supporting our students with depressive disorders.

The article adopts a framework that helps in “considering how school-based intervention occurs across the four domains of mental health promotion, prevention, case identification and treatment, as well as maintenance of students with or at-risk of depression.” It sets out to guide practitioners with checklists to identify and support students in a school setting. As outlined in the article, this framework is part of an overall drive to allow students to learn about managing their own physical and mental health in a holistic approach to education. 


It is argued that although prevention for a whole cohort can reduce signs of depression in students, individualized or small group settings have a higher prevention rate. Moreover, “interventions based on cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) have the strongest evidence of efficacy.” According to Burns, one central prevention strategy schools ought to implement is anti-bullying programs alongside the inclusion of parent meetings and increased playground supervision. 


Before students can receive adequate professional treatment, their symptoms must be identified. Often, trained mental health professionals do not have the capacity to see all students, hence it is vital that all school staff are trained and educated in identifying the signs of depression in adolescents. “This has been best articulated within the suicide-prevention model of teachers being ‘gatekeepers’ who can identify at-risk students and then ensure these young people are linked with appropriate follow-up.” Additionally, schools can use screening systems to identify at-risk students among their cohorts. 


Schools can support students by ensuring open dialogues among the parents, students, and any mental health professional working on the student’s case. This should happen alongside a carefully set-out plan for the student on how to manage their symptoms throughout the school day and where to seek support if necessary. However, the student should not attend school if they display elevated signs of suicide risk as this has to be managed externally by relevant professionals.

In regard to academic management, “best practice will require classroom teachers and school systems to make suitable adjustments and accommodations to the academic program that allow the depressed student to fully access the curriculum and demonstrate their learning during assessments.”

The article emphasizes that it does not outline how to support students who self-harm or are suicidal—both signs of depressive disorders—and professionals are advised to select further reading as recommended by the author. Finally, with teaching being such a stressful occupation, there is a correlation between teacher wellbeing and student wellbeing. “Better teacher-student relationships, facilitated by higher teacher wellbeing, becomes a key component to reducing the likelihood of student depression.”

Summarized Article:

Burns, J. R. (2021). Towards best practice in school management of students with depressive disorders. Journal of Psychologists and Counsellors in Schools, 31(2), 246-259.

Summary by: Frankie Garbutt – Frankie believes that the MARIO Framework encourages students to become reflective, independent learners who progress at their own rate.

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