Dealing with Distress and Depression in Schools

The Mask You Live In (2015) with Ashanti Branch.

Halfway through the year after students begin to open up, I always run the “mask activity” from The Mask You Live In and Ashanti Branch. Students write on one side of their “mask” how they present themselves to the world — typically you’ll find funny, pretty, loud, shy, sarcastic, and other standard descriptors. Then, after ensuring a safe space, students are instructed to write what they don’t want the world to see on the back side. Completely anonymously, students then crumple up their masks which are redistributed.

Upon opening their new papers, students are usually dismayed, horrored, even relieved: it turns out that most of their peers wrote the same things: depressed, agonized, bullied, tormented, suffering, unhappy, unloved. Each year I’ve done this activity I’ve been shocked by how many students feel depressed — always over 50% — and I’ve always struggled to figure out how to address it in a meaningful way.

Recently I read an article in The Guardian surrounding depression and its misdiagnosis and treatment. It claims that people are consistently misaddressed in their depression, take antidepressants to feel better, and most return to being depressed within a year. In fact, antidepressants might not be a solution at all. More and more people are being diagnosed as perpetually unhappy, and teenage depression and suicide rates are rising.

So, why are thirteen year olds becoming so distressed? There’s a variety of obvious reasons:

  • Social media leads to us either expressing us at our best (and therefore, everyone feels like we’re not at our best since everyone else is doing so well!) and/or us associating with other people that are feeling depressed. An outlet is obviously important, but not endless loathing with others.
  • Our political climate is increasingly polarized and outrageous. Teenagers begin to question the world that they live in — it isn’t the world that they built. They start to wonder why certain laws exist — why people behave the way that they do. With the amount of ridiculous political decisions and actions occurring, there’s no questioning that students begin to polarize themselves.
  • Depression is “cool” or gives one an identity. 13 Reasons Why has the overarching message of understanding and dealing with suicide, however, many students watch films like this and see it as a way of seeking attention. If they don’t feel loved, they use suicidal thoughts and depression as a way to “fit in” or seek help — which in turn literally makes them depressed (or delegitimize those who are).
  • Schools are increasingly outdated and unrealistic. “Why do I need to know this?” a student might ask. Or “Why can’t I use a calculator?” More and more, our schools do not address issues of the modern era. They’re daycares at their worst and 19th century factory worker prep at their best. If a student feels drained after 8 hours a day of useless rhetoric, it will obviously perpetuate their unhappiness.
  • But most importantly (in my opinion): there is little value or sense of identity focused on for students.

What makes people happy? It’s actually very obvious. Outside of basic needs, which are needed to survive, and a basic level of income to afford those basic needs, people need a sense of value and belonging. Without a purpose, people are unhappy. I believe this wholeheartedly applies to the point of schools(one of the core values of the Human Restoration Project is that passion is the core tenant of education.)

So many people hate their jobs. In fact, Gallup found that only 13% of people look forward to their jobs. What a dystopian world it must be to realize that the vast majority of people dislike the majority of time they spend active in life. And of course, this applies to students as well. Students are not valued in schools. This is not to say that they are never loved by teachers or their peers — but — the curriculum is set up in a way where they never obtain value or an identity. How could they? There’s no time to recognize passions or do what you enjoy (that, of course, would be “wasting time.”)

Why wouldn’t schools want to recognize what students love to do? Note: this is not the same as taking what students love and ruining it by applying it to core standards (“You love dancing? Wow, did you know that math is involved in that? Let’s learn equations about it!” This sounds good on paper, but more often than not it’s going to make a student eventually hate dancing, unless the core component is making the student better at dancing and therefore achieving more value.) Why aren’t schools spending the majority of their time seeking out passions of students and giving them time to apply it? Imagine what our world would be like if people did what they loved. How many more innovations would there be in society?

A telling sign of this, also from the Guardian, is research showcasing that people who are working at the bottom (basic employees) are more stressed than those at the top (management). Most people would assume that more work = more stress, however, this is not true. What matters is meaning. There must be a purpose to one's’ job. If there is, then stress is lessened — your life has value.

If we know that antidepressants are not working, that students are being overdiagnosed with mental illness (in general, not just depression) due to how our school system is designed, and we know that people are generally unhappy, then schools are an obvious place to start. We should prepare students to be happy, have value and meaning, and care about each other. This is much more daunting, grandiose, and obvious then focusing on standards in an ever-changing world. The core values that make us human should be a paramount objective.




Students and teachers are human beings - schools must bring this to light. Follow us on our podcast, this blog, and at

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Chris McNutt

Chris McNutt

I'm an educator who wants to reimagine schools. Let's start a movement! Executive Director of Human Restoration Project.

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