Are You Okay?
Experiencing and Coping with Adolescent Anxiety and Depression
in the Music Classroom
By NAfME Member Rachel L. Dirks, Ph.D.
Rachel Dirks presented on “Are You Okay? Experiencing and Coping with Adolescent Anxiety” during the NAfME 2021 PreK–12 Learning Collaborative in February 2021.
My journey as a teacher of adolescents began nearly 30 years ago and has included 25 years in the middle and high school orchestra classroom. Recently I found myself navigating a very serious conversation about depression and suicide with one of my college students. It reminded me of many conversations I had experienced with students in my previous teaching position, and how those conversations were equally frightening and far too frequent. I began wondering if these conversations I had shared with my students, both in high school and college, were just as common for my music teacher colleagues. After digging deeper into this topic, what I discovered was a mental health crisis unlike any I could have imagined.
It’s important to note that adolescence in and of itself is a tumultuous time in a person’s life—a time when one’s physical, biological, neurological, and emotional development is in high gear. Adolescence is stressful! And, because of these natural stressors, teens are more susceptible to anxiety and/or depression. Due to these factors, researchers have studied adolescent mental health for more than 70 years, and prior to 2006 there were no significant changes in adolescent mental health trajectories. However, several recent studies revealed a dramatic shift in adolescent mental health. Between 2008–2017, adolescent major depressive episode diagnoses had increased by 63%, and psychological distress in adolescents had increased by 71%. Due to these increases and the established link between depression and suicidal behaviors, the number of adolescent emergency room treatments of suicidal attempts and suicide ideation had doubled during the same time frame. While these increases were staggering, recent data has revealed that between 2019 and 2020, the number of adolescent emergency department visits for mental health had increased again at an alarming 31% spike.
Once we become aware of these dramatic shifts in adolescent mental health, the natural response is to try to identify potential causes. While some might argue that these mental health concerns are due to an increase in public awareness and discourse surrounding mental health, I contend that today’s teens are grappling with stressors no other generation has experienced before. Whether it’s increased achievement pressures, over-protective parenting, immigration, global warming, cyber bullying via social media, technology, or the global pandemic, today’s adolescents are experiencing a new collection of stressors that, compounded with the natural stressors of adolescence, are contributing to the current mental health crisis.
So, how do we as music educators respond to this crisis? First, it’s important to realize that many of the activities found in the contemporary music performance classroom are already helping. By providing a space where students work together on projects that are bigger than themselves, the music classroom provides a safe haven or “home” for so many of our students. Second, due to these collaborative activities (marching band, musicals, concerts, etc.) our students have the opportunity to build connection and community with each other. Third, due to the unique nature of our curriculum, we have the opportunity to spend more time with our students than most other teachers in our schools. The extra night and weekend rehearsals, as well as the multiple years of participation, allow us the time to build trusting relationships with our students. Ultimately, this trust provides us with the opportunity to have conversations and shared experiences with our students that can positively impact their mental wellbeing.
It’s important to note that while this opportunity exists, many of us feel unprepared or uncomfortable offering mental health specific support. If that’s you, you’re not alone. Studies have shown that while a vast majority of teachers feel adolescent mental health is a serious concern, most teachers feel unprepared to cope with or address adolescent mental health in their classrooms.
“Although we may feel unprepared to cope with specific mental health concerns, we can provide activities that reduce stress and anxiety in our classrooms that are authentic to who we are individually and as a music community.”
Although we may feel unprepared to cope with specific mental health concerns, we can provide activities that reduce stress and anxiety in our classrooms that are authentic to who we are individually and as a music community. We all know that our students can spot authenticity, or the lack thereof, miles away. Our first step then is to identify and embrace who we really are and what is important to us. In her book Dare to Lead, Dr. Brené Brown encourages each of us as leaders in our classrooms to know what our true core values are. By identifying and “living into” our core values, we are able to work with our students more authentically. If you are interested in identifying your core values, I encourage you to visit Dr. Brown’s website which presents a list of core values to choose from. In her book, Brown provides a step-by-step selective process to help identify our core values. The end goal is to settle on two or three values that speak to what’s most important to you.
Once you have established your values, the next step is to combine those values with activities that bring you and/or your students, joy. By purposefully intersecting your values with activities that are fun for you, you get more bang for your buck. For example, I learned early in my teaching career that one of my core values was community. Knowing this about myself, I built a structure for my curriculum and classroom culture that embodied community on every level. By placing community front and center, my students embraced and designed activities that were all about program community. Some of our more beautiful projects included school trips that were closer to home so everyone could make the journey, service projects that supported local food banks and families in need, and regular orchestra dodgeball tournaments. Each of these activities (travel, service, physical activity) when paired with our core value of community created experiences that were more meaningful, and the payoff was a deeper connection to each other.
While I chose to include my students in embracing my core value of community, you could also explore this activity with your students individually or as a group as a way to identify the core values of your program. Defining these as a group offers your students the opportunity to build even stronger connections to each other and to their music community—your program. From these values you would be poised to identify some stress relieving activities you might like to try together. The activities listed below have been proven by research to help reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. What would you like to try this year?
- Mindfulness and Meditation Activities
- Community Building Activities
- Practicing Gratitude
- Encouraging Student Autonomy and Leadership
- Artistic and Creative Projects
- Physical Activity
- Service to Others
- Establishing and Maintaining Healthy Eating and Sleeping Patterns
Amidst your efforts to help your students achieve mental wellness, make sure you are also looking after your own. Due to the enormous stressors of teaching, especially now as we continue to navigate the pandemic, educators are at an increased risk for burnout, secondary traumatic stress, and compassion fatigue. By taking time to focus on the activities that bring you joy, whether that’s coffee with a friend, running every day, or knitting colorful socks, you will be better prepared to face whatever stressors you need to take on each day. It’s important to acknowledge, however, that if these strategies and activities do not alleviate the stress or pressures you may be feeling, you should not hesitate to seek support for your own mental wellbeing. Whether you decide to establish a support group of colleagues, friends, or family, share your concerns with a mental health team member from your school, or seek therapy from a professional outside of your school district, obtaining the support you need is vital to you, your family and friends, and your students. By identifying strategies and supports that strengthen your own mental wellness, you are modeling how to cope with stress and anxiety in a healthy way. Now that’s teaching at its best.
If you would like to learn more about helping your students navigate stress and anxiety, the following resources represent a sampling of books, websites, and training opportunities offering a variety of perspectives and practices that support student mental wellbeing.
- Music Education and Social Emotional Learning – Scott Edgar
- Dare to Lead – Brené Brown
- Compassionate Music Teaching: A Framework for Motivation and Engagement in the 21st Century – Karin S. Hendricks
- Work-Life Balance for Music Educators – Kimpton & Kimpton
- Mental Health First Aid Training Course
- Psychological First Aid Training
Meditation and Mindfulness Applications and Websites
In closing, I leave you with this sliver of wisdom I have gleaned from my years of teaching and learning: Real and lasting solutions take time. We didn’t reach this mental health crisis overnight. The strategies we implement in response will take a long time to exact significant change. However, if we embrace the idea that we change the world one student at a time, we’re already ahead of the curve.
About the author:
NAfME member Rachel Dirks, Director of Orchestral Studies at Kansas State University, is an active conductor, clinician, and educator. In addition to her work with the KSU Symphony Orchestra, she teaches graduate and undergraduate string education courses, as well as applied cello. Dr. Dirks holds cello performance degrees from the University of Texas at Austin and Bethel College, and a Ph.D. in music education, with an emphasis in orchestral conducting, from the University of Kansas. As a guest conductor Dr. Dirks has been invited to conduct orchestras throughout the United States, including All-State ensembles in Georgia, New York, and Oregon. As a featured clinician, she has presented at the National Conferences of NAfME and the American String Teachers Association (ASTA), the Midwest International Band and Orchestra Clinic, and the state music education conferences of Texas, Oregon, Colorado, and Kansas.
Along with her work at Kansas State, Dr. Dirks serves on the national ASTA committee on health and wellness with a focus on mental health. Her writing has been published in the American String Teacher, the Kansas Music Review, and Volumes 1, 2, and 4 of the instructional publication, Teaching Music Through Performance in Orchestra. Throughout her work, her fundamental goal is to encourage musicians to seek and create community through music.
 Ellis, R., Seal, M., Simmons, J., Whittle, S., Schwartz, O., Byrne, M., & Allen, N. (2016). Longitudinal trajectories of depression symptoms in adolescence: Psychosocial risk factors and outcomes. Child Psychiatry Human Development 48(4), 554-571.
 Costello, E., Erkanli, A., & Angold, A. (2006). Is there an epidemic of child or adolescent depression? Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 47(12), 1263-1271.
 Twenge, J., Joiner, T., Duffy, M., Cooper, A., & Binau, S. (2019). Age, period, and cohort trends in mood disorder indicators and suicide-related outcomes in a nationally representative dataset, 2005-2017. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 128(3), 185-199.
 Bhandari, M. (2016). Anxiety and depression among adolescent students at higher secondary school. A Multidisciplinary Journal of Science, Technology and Mathematics, 14, 103-109.
 Burstein, B., Agostino, H., & Greenfield, B. (2019). Suicidal attempts and ideation among children and adolescents in US emergency departments, 2007-2015. JAMA Pediatrics, 173(6), 598-600.
 CDC (2021)
 Costello et al. (2006)
 McAlister, A (2018). The ABC’s of Gen X, Y(P), Z: Teen girls: The pressure of perfection. American Music Teacher, 68(1), 40-42.
 Parasole, R. (2017). The epidemic of higher levels of depression and anxiety in each successive generation of youth: Proposed causes, detrimental effects, and the introduction of positive psychology in the classroom. Florida Law Review, 69(4), 1157- 1180.
 Siemons, R., Raymond-Flesh, M., Auerswald, C., & Brindis, C. (2016). Coming of age on the margins: Mental health and well-being among Latino immigrant young adults eligible for Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals (DACA). J. Immigrant Minority Health, 19, 543-551.
 Smith, T.D. (2021, April 16). Music education for surviving and thriving: Cultivating children’s wonder, senses, emotional wellbeing, and wild nature as a means to discover and fulfill their life’s purpose. Frontiers in education.
 Crone, E., & Konijn, E. (2018). Media use and brain development during adolescence. Nature Communications. 9, 1-10.
 Twenge et al., 2019
 Adderley, C., Kennedy, M., & Berz, W. (2003). “A home away from home”: The world of the high school music classroom. Journal of Research in Music Education, 51(3), 190-205.
 Abril, C. R. (2012). Perspectives on the school band from hardcore American band kids. In P.S. Campbell, & T. Wiggins (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of children’s musical cultures (pp. 435-448). Oxford University Press.
 Carter, B. A. (2011). A safe education for all: Recognizing and stemming harassment in music classes and ensembles. Music Educators Journal, 97(4), 29-32.; Gregory, A., & Ripski, M. (2008). Adolescent trust in teachers: Implications for behavior in the high school classroom. School Psychology Review, 37(3), 337-353.
 Froese-Germain, B., & Riel, R. (2012). Teachers’ perspectives on student mental health in Canadian schools. Perspectives, 8, 1-10.
 Moon, J., Williford, A., & Mendenhall, A. (2017). Educators’ perceptions of youth mental health: Implications for training and the promotion of mental health services in schools. Children and Youth Services Review, 73 (2017) 384-391.
The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.
July 29, 2021. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)