Moderate Depression with Mindfulness Methods
for K-12 Students
The holidays are happy times for many students, unhappy times for many others. That makes it a good time to load you up with brand new strategies for depression and sadness.
If you keep up with the latest in K-12 education, you know that social-emotional education and mindfulness instruction are really popular right now. I'm Ruth Herman Wells, Director of Youth Change Professional Development Workshops. We've been offering social and emotional strategies for more than two decades, and many of our approaches are very similar to the mindfulness methods you may have encountered.
Below you will find intervention strategies to help you manage student depression and sadness whether you are a teacher, counselor, foster parent, guidance counselor, therapist, MFT, social worker or school psychologist. While the very simple strategies included here can be useful to almost any student who struggles with their emotions, be sure that you carefully observe for safety issues and immediately consult with your supervisor if you find any. In addition, non mental health clinicians should always seek guidance from a mental health resource person when working with troubled students.
Mindful Methods to Mitigate Depression
in Adolescents and Children
You Are Not Your Brain
For many students, depression means trying to cope with swirling thoughts that are sad, fatalistic or worrying. Mindfulness methods emphasize teaching children and teens that they are "not their brain'" so that they recognize that they can control their thoughts and potentially feel less victimized and trapped by them. Building this separation between the student and the brain is a key element of Mindfulness.
Introducing the idea that students should not believe everything they think, can be a powerful tool assisting depressed, sad and anxious youngsters. Neurobiologists have noted that this strategy builds new brain pathways. They report that by limiting negative thoughts, the negative pathways can be reduced. They also note that by increasing positive or neutral thoughts, more positive pathways are built. They compare it to shrinking a freeway and building a new, more positive one. Use this image to demonstrate the concept more concretely to students.
Productive or Destructive
Another key concept from Mindfulness is to work to limit time devoted to thinking non-productive thoughts. Students may worry about tests or grades or Dad's drinking or Mom's hitting. In some youngsters, these negative thoughts can trigger depression– especially if the student has profoundly upsetting or persistent thoughts. Many Mindfulness methods offer potential relief.
A simple technique to use is to ask the student to consider if the upsetting thoughts are productive or destructive. They can be asked to specifically identify the benefits and consequences of persistent negative thoughts. Most students can be assisted to realize that they are experiencing significant consequences from frequent negative thoughts while few positive benefits are found. To make this strategy work with younger students and others, have them make a list. Have them start by writing down a frequent negative thought then sorting the Benefits and Consequences in columns.
Accepting the Hand You're Dealt
Some students have trouble accepting the ups and downs of life and become depressed when life isn't what they imagined. You can use card games to teach them to accept the hand they are dealt. Also use card games to explore if becoming sad or depressed fixes or improves anything. To help cement in the message of acceptance, offer and discuss the meaning of the words shown on our Poster #334: If the leaves didn't fall, there would be no spring.
Thoughts Are Just Visitors to the House
Mindfulness expert Jack Kornfield has shared a very sweet but effective strategy that stems from Buddhist practice. To implement this simple intervention, simply tell students that they can imagine that upsetting thoughts are like visitors to their home. Next, ask your youngsters to imagine that the visiting thoughts are coming in through the front door of the house. Suggest that instead of screaming at this visitor, cooking for that visitor, or hiding from this other visitor, that students simply watch the visitors and what they do. This wonderful emotion management technique helps students become more detached and distanced from the negative thoughts that have been upsetting them.
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Turn Down the Voices Inside My Head
"Turn Down the Voices Inside My Head" isn't just a line from a popular Bonnie Raitt song, it's a very quick and effective technique to help students manage troubling emotions like depression. Ask the student to imagine that there is a volume control and that they can turn down the volume on upsetting thoughts, or even mute them. For younger students, help the child create a drawing of the volume control knob working to help them better manage their upsetting emotions.
Fight-Flight-Freeze or Flow
Many Mindfulness practitioners and other mental health clinicians believe that humans have four basic states: Fight, Flight, Freeze or Flow. Mindfulness is an emerging counseling style with distinct Buddhist roots and current neurobiology as its base. Distilled down, it means paying attention to the present while observing thoughts and feelings in a non-judgmental manner. It has been clinically demonstrated by neurobiologists to help improve depression and other problematic emotions so you can rest assured the kind of techniques suggested here have wide acceptance and a strong research foundation.
To help students who are depressed or facing similar negative emotions, teach them about the four states and encourage them to move towards Flow. The more students can identify their current state, the better the chance that they can manage that state rather than be swept along by out-of-control feelings. This is part of what is meant by "Name it to tame it." Emotions have less power on people when the emotion has been identified. Conversely, students can feel "freaked out," "crazy" or like they are spiraling down when the emotions seem to be this powerful, frightening unnamed thing that's in charge.
Help students become familiar with each of the four terms by soliciting examples of each. An example of Fight: Verbally sparring with your mom. An example of Flight: Running out of the room when bullied. An example of Freeze: Seizing up and not being able to talk after a car accident. An example of Flow: Pure happiness and joy when swimming.
Distraction is Subtraction
Distraction is a fantastic initial strategy to help children and teens manage problem emotions. You can teach them that "Distraction is Subtraction," meaning that by re-focusing, the student can sometimes subtract or reduce the problem emotion. Suggest that students find three things they see in the present and then find three things they like about each. Not only does this simple strategy interrupt what may have been on-going negative thoughts, it also re-orients the student to the present. Being oriented to the present moment is a key principle of Mindfulness, and has the benefit of being a perfect antidote for depression, sadness, anxiety and other troubling emotions that may be impairing students' functioning.