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Depression: the role of schools in identifying the problem

DEPRESSION: THE ROLE OF SCHOOLS IN IDENTIFYING THE PROBLEM"Depression: lost, no compass, in the dark". "Take it easy", "it will pass", "don't think about it", "you'll see it's nothing", "it's not really like that" or "you'll get over it" are common expressions we use to help someone who is going through "a hard time". But these may not be the most appropriate words.

Physical and emotional changes, peer pressure or fear of not living up to expectations are all part of a period in everyone's lives, especially as teenagers. For some young people, however, these feelings take the form of deep sadness and a general loss of interest, affecting their whole life. It is therefore increasingly important to be alert, to learn to identify the warning signs and to ask for help. Schools play an important role in this process.

Susana Frade"In every school, they come to the Psychologist’s office, recommended by teachers or at the request of parents. They come out of nowhere, on a desperate day, for simple things, such as the phobia of presenting an assignment, the inability to communicate with a teacher...". And this often ends up being "the safe harbour for a first step, which is to ask for help", explains Susana Frade, Psychologist at the Colégio Internacional de Vilamoura (CIV).

"The signs can be in changes in the way of thinking, acting and feeling. Mental illness ends up being the inability to deal with the ordinary challenges of life, because life always has challenges and obstacles. And the same diagnosis can result from a different experience. That's why mental health is so complex, and so difficult to treat," she says.
Cases have been growing, also within the school cluster. "It's been a busy year, a year of action, of containment rather than prevention. And this has been the case across all levels of education It's been a full year of action, for all levels of teaching - particularly among older pupils, where issues of anxiety, of phobia - depressive, or linked to depression - more serious than used to be common in schools, were registered", Susana Frade adds.

It was to understand a little better the "triggers" of these problems that a team of 12º ano students set out to develop their annual research project on mental health. With the help of CIV’s psychologist, Cíntia Dourado, Maria Carolina Freitas and Sofia Carvalho prepared a survey to find out how secondary school students perceive depression, anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). They also promoted, in the group of 12º ano, the viewing of the documentary "Summing up the mind: Anxiety", also applying a survey before and after its viewing, in order to assess the possible impacts of it on the perception of this particular topic.

The project also included the scheduling of the on-line lecture "Dealing with Stress", given by Professor Manuela Neto, from the Faculty of Human and Social Sciences of UAlg, and a collaboration with the project "UAlgoritmo - A ciência trocada por miúdos" (science for kids), through the revision of the article " Effects of a Brief Mindfulness Programme on Depression, Anxiety and Stress in University Graduates", which will be released in the new issue of the magazine at the end of the academic year.

The "Boomerang" project, presented by CIV's ex-student, Beatriz Ribeiro, and her colleague Tomás Gonçalves (now attending the 3rd year of Medicine at the University of Lisbon) was therefore very well received among secondary school students. Conceived by the Department of Public and Sexual Health (DSPS) of the Students' Association of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Lisbon (AEFM), this project's mission is to deconstruct prejudice, to clearly and scientifically approach subjects where misinformation is a source of serious problems and to lead future doctors and nutritionists to form more informed adults.

The approach, using games under anonymity, and far from the presence of adults, as well as the age of the speakers, not far from that of their audience, brought to the CIV a presentation that was winning. For the students, "it can be very distressing not knowing what to say or how to act when faced with a panic or anxiety attack". "I learned," says Raquel Figueiredo (10º ano), "that there are several expressions that I use when faced with a problem and that you shouldn't say.

"Words of comfort can bring more anxiety. The person doesn't want to feel that way and sees that the time of depression is not the real time. There is no time in depression", explains psychologist Susana Frade. "Besides teaching us how to help ourselves", says Madalena Brito (11º ano), "the Boomerang session taught us how to help others. We have all been through something similar, we are not alone". Besides, "it is never too much to be reminded of these themes", highlights Tiago Peres (10º ano). André Martins (11º ano) goes further and considers that "this type of information could well be part of some subject in the curriculum". For Madalena B., it would be something positive to add "to the basic life support we are taught".

The students also considered it important to find relaxation strategies. "Many young people our age doesn’t believe that meditation can bring any results, but sometimes it is so important, for example before a test, to stop and concentrate for five, ten minutes, calm down, breathe. We should start to consider this type of exercise more", considers Tiago Peres, who has already resorted to meditation in periods of greater stress as a professional football athlete.

Stress vs anxiety
"In our research project we found that the students we questioned had more knowledge about anxiety than about other areas of mental health", says Maria F.. But, according to Cíntia D., this is still easily confused with stress. "The association with misconceptions is relatively common. Students have revealed that they think anxiety is a problem, but it is something natural, even healthy, because it defends us; and only when it becomes constant does it become a disorder", says Cíntia. This confusion can, however, lead to other types of problems. "There are many students who, by having anxiety at some point, self-diagnose themselves as anxious on a pathological level," reports Sofia C.. "By saying they suffer from anxiety," she adds, "they believe that this can serve as an excuse to justify some attitudes."
For the high school seniors, this behaviour may originate "especially from bloggers and influencers who, out of habit, tell of having already been through a lot, having suffered from anxiety, among other disorders." "One must not forget," argues Maria F., "that to suffer from some disorder, it always needs to be diagnosed."

Lost, no compass
"The last two years have brought many challenges to health and education professionals", recalls the CIV Psychologist, with "a growth in emotional and behavioural disorders, psychoses, self-injury and/or risky behaviours". Therefore, it is fundamental to pay attention to the "five warning signs, in ourselves and in others: to notice if the behaviour is constant, if it is not part of one's pattern. Mood swings, sleep cycles, not taking care of oneself and self-destructive behaviour, like drug and alcohol consumption, are other symptoms", warns Susana Frade. "Depression is a tunnel. We are lost, without a compass, in the dark."

"The truth," adds the mental health professional, "is that we have always heard the phrase 'healthy mind in a healthy body', but apparently it will be more 'in a healthy body', because the mind has not been given equal rights." "Mental health has always been the 'poor cousin' of health, for all the stigma it carries... There is always a stereotype of someone who is incapable, who can be dangerous, to themselves and others, and that is a far cry from what mental health as defined by the World Health Organisation is."
This notion that stigma is still present is revealed by all the colleagues interviewed by the three finalists. "There is a tendency to view the problems that go on inside our mind as something that everyone can fight..." (Maria F.). But this is not so. "A mental illness is the same as a physical illness", mentions Raquel F.. "Before, it was believed that it was nothing but 'monkeys in our head', but mental illness can be even more serious, because it affects us on all levels. It is therefore necessary to learn to demystify it."

 W: https://www.civ.pt/en

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