Understanding Depression - How to Recognise & Support

Understanding Depression - How to Recognise & Support

Using the words, “I’m depressed,” when feeling sad or down is as commonly misused as describing feeling hungry as, “I’m starving.” By understanding what depression really is and isn’t, and how it is different from feeling down, we are more likely to recognise symptoms in ourselves and others, and to get the help needed early on.

Depression can be caused by biology, genes, brain chemistry, hormones, environment, experiences, or comes for no reason at all. One in five young people in NZ are affected by depression and/or anxiety before the age of 19.

Everyone feels down sometimes. That’s a normal reaction to life’s difficulties. Depression is more than occasionally feeling down. It’s when the feelings last for a long time and get in the way of everyday life.

Some of the signs of depression are:

  • feeling tired all the time
  • getting too much sleep or not enough
  • feeling worthless and helpless
  • thinking about death a lot
  • having no energy and feelings of low self-esteem
  • loss of appetite or overeating
  • sadness or emotional ‘numbness’
  • loss of pleasure in everyday activities
  • irritability or anxiety
  • poor concentration
  • feeling guilty, or crying, for no apparent reason.

Some of the symptoms you may recognise in your students:

  • lack of motivation, emotionally flat
  • withdrawing from social groups or activities they used to enjoy
  • increased irritability, snapping at others
  • inability to concentrate or complete tasks
  • truancy, tardiness, sleepiness

If you recognise these symptoms in your students who are 13 years old or over, you might encourage them to complete the Mood Quiz at www.sparx.org.nz . It will ask them a range of questions about how they feel, their sleep and eating patterns, as well as their thinking, including self harm and suicidal thoughts. This will direct them to either contact a professional on the free help line, or complete the SPARX free e-therapy tool.

Depression affects people how they think, feel and act:

  • Some behaviour changes include being less active and

withdrawing from activities.

  • Thinking patterns are automatically negative, pessimistic or


  • Feelings are mostly down, low and sad.

Psychiatrist Dr Aaron Beck, conducted research on depressed patients in the 1960s and was surprised at what he found.

Instead of a depressed person’s thoughts, feelings and actions all being symptoms of depression, it was the automatic negative thoughts about themselves, the world and/or the future that were often the root of depression.

Dr Beck found that by helping patients identify and evaluate these automatic negative thoughts, patients were able to think more realistically and positively. As a result, they felt better, were able to engage in and enjoy an active life.

Dr Beck called this “Cognitive Behaviour Therapy,” or, “CBT.”

CBT is recognised as one of the most effective methods of treating depression and anxiety. If you change what you think and change what you do, your feelings will change, too.

Some common negative thinking patterns you may recognise are:

  • Everything’s going to go wrong.
  • Life is unbearable.
  • I can’t cope.
  • Life is too hard.
  • I’m a loser.
  • I’ve made so many mistakes.
  • It’s all my fault.
  • I can’t do anything to change things.
  • I’m stuck.
  • Things will never get better.

There are six main types of negative thought patterns

people with depression may have.

  • Downer – This thought pattern is when someone always thinks nothing good ever happens. They only see things that go wrong and always look for the opposite of the silver lining.
  • Perfectionist – This is when only perfect will do, and they believe it has to be perfect or it’s not worth doing. For example, someone who believes if their team can’t win every game that season, they might as well not even be on the roster.
  • Mind Reader – Mind Reader thinking patterns are when people predict what other people are thinking or what is going to happen in a situation. For instance, “I bet they hate me.”
  • Guilty – This is when one believes they are to blame for negative events that happen, even though they are out of their control. An example would be if a teen felt it was their fault for parents who argued or split up.
  • Disaster – Disaster thinking pattern is seen in someone who believes and worries that something bad is going to happen.

They always expect the worst.

  • All or Nothing – Those with this thinking pattern speak in absolutes, using words such as always or never to discuss a situation. Life is viewed as either wonderful or terrible.

Rather than empowering and focusing on the negative thoughts, a counsellor can help them acknowledge what they are feeling and help them replace negative with positive and helpful thoughts.

Not every student has access to a counsellor, or wants to talk to someone. Students who are feeling down, worried or stressed, can play SPARX to feel better. SPARX looks like a game but is a self-help tool, designed to help rangatahi with mild to moderate depression. Those using it get to learn and practice skills in a fantasy environment (game world) with the help and guidance of their Guide. SPARX is Ministry of Health funded and free for all living in New Zealand.

As written for Teachers Matter Magazine (Issue 50) 

Back to blog