About Depression, Bipolar Disorder and Anxiety Disorders

Depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety disorders share many common symptoms. Often symptoms of begin to surface in young adults, as the hormonal changes of adolescence and the academic and social stressors of high school converge. As a teacher, you’re in a unique position to identify the signs early and help your students navigate their way to better mental health. Again, you are NOT responsible for diagnosing or treating a mental illness, but you can be a valuable source of support for a student who may be struggling.

REMEMBER: You are not expected to diagnose mental illnesses or provide therapy.

You’re a teacher. Whether the subject is math, English or mental health and wellness, your job is help students build the skills needed to achieve their full potential. This can also include learning to recognize unhealthy or harmful responses and behaviors and replacing them with healthier ones. Those skills aren’t just for students in distress – everyone can benefit from devoting energy and engagement to developing them – even you!

Know the signs – telltale emotions, behaviors and physical symptoms

Listed below are just a few of the most common feelings, thoughts, physical symptoms and behaviors that point to the presence of depression, anxiety disorders or bipolar illness. You can find more information about these conditions including more comprehensive lists of symptoms and links to related resources on the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) website. A brief description of bipolar illness can be found here.

Since the young people in your class may not be able or willing to put their thoughts and feelings into words, it’s important that you pay particular attention to changes in their physical condition and behaviors to look for clues that a student might be in distress. All students may exhibit one or more of these symptoms for a short period of time - however if you notice these changes over a prolonged period (2 weeks or more), it may be an indication that additional support or professional treatment is needed.


  • Enduring sadness, despondency
  • Sulking, irritability
  • Rapidly changing moods, from euphoria to agitation
  • Impatience
  • Anger
  • Hopelessness
  • Fear
  • Loss of interest in people or activities that used to be positive/pleasurable


  • Trouble concentrating, remembering or making decisions
  • Racing thoughts or difficulty focusing
  • Excessive worrying

Physical Symptoms:

  • Tiredness or lack of energy
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Changes in appetite / weight loss or gain
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Rapid heartbeat, sweating, lightheadedness, dizziness, shaking or hyperventilation

Behaviors (especially if this is a change in behavior):

  • Seeming quiet or withdrawn, attempting to isolate, sitting in the back of the room
  • Speaking more, or more rapidly
  • Missing or arriving late to class
  • Inability or unwillingness to start or finish assignments or meet commitments (sports, music, clubs, etc.)
  • Falling grades
  • Restlessness, fidgeting or hyperactivity
  • Disrupting class or acting out
  • Crying over seemingly minor things
  • Changes in physical appearance, grooming or hygiene
  • A negative outlook; verbalizing negative thoughts
  • Engaging in impulsive, reckless or destructive behaviors (including self-harm)
  • Engaging in repetitive or compulsive behaviors (hand washing, counting, checking, etc.) in an attempt to control anxious feelings
  • Expressing indifference or futility (“Who cares?”)  when confronted with concerns
  • Expressing disturbing thoughts and feelings through artwork -- some people express themselves through art -- including both visual arts like drawing and painting, and other art forms like music and poetry. A student whose artwork begins to center around dark themes like violence or death may be struggling with difficult or painful feelings.