Discussing Depression Through Poetry

Generate honest conversations with your class by examining how different poets respond to depression.

By Elijah Ammen


Sad teenager

As a relatively young person, I'm a bit closer to my high school days than the average teacher. So, perhaps I've just repressed my memories, because I forgot the suffocating amount of angsty drama that comes with the high school territory. 

It's easy to overlook it when you're teaching sentence structure and ACT prep, but then you move into poetry, and the emotions come pouring out. Then the memories come back and you remember the insecurity, the awkwardness, the acne, the constant fear of rejection. While I fully understand that high school does not have a monopoly on depression, it seems to be the perfect incubator for anxiety at a time when young people are least equipped to cope with these emotions.

There are very few good discussion starters to talk about depression, suicide, or anxiety in the classroom. I've seen many valiant attempts—discussion questions, small groups, suicide-prevention training for teachers—but the majority of these seem artificial or forced. While websites like the Jason Foundation are educational for teachers, most activities only reach teenagers who are already willing to talk. They have a difficult time reaching the ones who are more reserved and less willing to share—the people who need help the most are often the ones most difficult to reach. 

Enter poetry. As anyone can tell you, the best poetry comes from a deep emotional place in a writer's life. I don't mean the artificial, "tortured artist" persona that so many grad students adopt, but rather a true expression of deep connection to the world around the poet. The greatest poets felt the most deeply—they were tuned to both the joys and sorrows of life. 

Whether by correlation or causation, some of the greatest poets struggled with depression. This is a springboard for conversation with your classes that allows pupils to talk about these issues without fear. Often, many of the activities about depression and suicide get too personal too fast. As humans, we give better advice to other people than we give to ourselves. By allowing your class to analyze these poets and the emotions that drive their poetry, you are organically giving them an opportunity to apply the lessons to themselves and open up gradually. 

Obviously, if you believe that a young person is experiencing clinical depression or suicidal urges, it is your responsibility to put them in touch with someone who is trained to deal with this situation—whether an administrator, counselor, or parent. But for the majority of young people, an honest and candid look at depression and suicide is important. A common fear is that talking about suicide will put the idea in the minds of young people, but the exact opposite is true. Treating depression and suicide as taboos only create fear that prevents people from seeking help. 

Depression Is Not a Choice

You could pick any three authors of your choice, but I like to discuss Sylvia Plath, William Wordsworth, and Emily Dickinson. They are spread far enough across time and location that you can establish the universality of depression.

An important thing to realize is that depression is not a choice. Often we try to get people to snap out of depression with banalities like, "Try to think cheerful thoughts" or "Do something to take your mind off it." That's as inane as going up to a person with the flu and telling them to think about not being sick. It places the blame on the victim and only makes them feel more inadequate because they can't shake off depression. 

It's also important to discuss the difference between being depressed and having depression. This is a great conversation for your class because it's a differentiation that's easy for young people to make and allows them to use personal examples if they choose. This also opens the door for research into what constitutes depression. 

I usually start with "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" to introduce the concept. Many lessons focus on the theme of happiness in the poem or just focus on a purely poetic analysis. My college professor would talk about how it's all about "emotion recollected in tranquility" and then we would disappear into a rabbit hole of Coleridge and literary criticism.

But for the purposes of our discussion, let's keep it to the text. This poem is not merely about happiness. The narrator begins wandering "lonely as a cloud" and even after his emotional mountaintop experience of seeing these daffodils, is still susceptible to being in "vacant or in pensive mood." Even after this extreme moment of happiness, the poet still experiences these dark moments.

This brings up another crucial component of depression: many times the signs of depression are overlooked, because people think, "Look how happy and excited they were just the other day." The implication is that clearly they have the ability to be happy, but are choosing to be depressed. On the contrary, many people who suffer from mental illness have emotional swings from one extreme to the other. They experience all emotions very intensely, for better or worse.

Your Response Is a Choice

If your discussion ends with "Depression is not a choice," then you have probably done more harm than good. It's the next step that is the most important, but it's also important that you are honest with your kids and address the very real fact that depression can destroy lives.

This is where I bring in Sylvia Plath—one of my favorite authors and a woman who struggled with depression, anxiety, and mental illness her entire life. There are a variety of texts to choose from, including her superb novel, The Bell Jar, which is heavily autobiographical. I usually choose "Daddy"—her poem about her father that clearly shows her dark, troubled relationship and all the emotional trauma that goes along with parental abandonment. (Definitely recommended for older groups.) As you analyze the poem, you see how Plath allowed her father's abandonment to control her life. She marries a man like her father, and even when she says that she has let go, she still clings to resentment and bitterness. 

You can listen to her narrate the poem, and there are plenty of great resources if you want an in-depth analysis. John Green (of The Fault in Our Stars fame) has an insightful biography of Sylvia Plath on his Crash Course YouTube channel. If you know anything about Sylvia Plath, you know that her depression ultimately resulted in her suicide.

By itself, the life and death of Sylvia Plath is heartbreaking, especially when you see the heights of joy and optimism in some of her other work. But that's the reality of depression. It's not something that you permanently defeat or recover from, like you would recover from an illness. It's a continual choice and struggle to not be defined by your lowest moments and to continue to hope and persevere when everything in your brain tells you to give up.

This is where I bring in Emily Dickinson's short but powerful, "Hope is the Thing with Feathers."  Dickinson uses a metaphor to describe hope as a bird that sings through a storm. In the same way that Wordsworth uses the memory of the dancing daffodils, Dickinson finds a focal point in this bird to ground herself when she experiences these problems. The difference between Wordsworth, Dickinson, and Plath is hope—that remembrance that beauty and light exist even when everything we see, feel, and experience seems dark and hopeless. 

Further Research and Analysis

If you want to spend more time on direct research about depression and suicide, there are a variety of resources. You can study the signs, origins, and effects of depression in this health lesson

You can examine the myths and facts around suicide to clear up misconceptions. There are also discussions and worksheets about the topics, and students can learn the warning signs of depression and suicide.

Just remember that worksheets and lessons are pointless unless they are grounded in honest conversation and dialogue. It's incredibly frustrating to tell someone who struggles with depression that their problems are temporary or easily solved. Minimizing the severity and difficulty of depression is counterproductive and sets people up for failure. Instead, it's important to find the reason for hope that gives one the drive to persevere.