Study: Improve attendance by addressing student mental health

Attendance Institute
Posted Jan 19, 2018

A new study on the effects of untreated mental health disorders on attendance and other academic indicators among Australian students highlights an area ripe for improvement among schools even in the United States, where nearly half of adolescents experience issues with mental health.

Without treatment, Australian students with mental disorders such as depression or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder often faced poorer academic outcomes than their peers–largely due to the amount of school days they miss, according to a national survey led by The University of Western Australia.

Students with a mental disorder missed an average 12 days per year in between grades 1-6 compared to eight days per year for students without a mental disorder. In grades 7-12, students with a mental disorder missed an average 24 days per year, compared to 11 days per year for those without mental disorders.

As early as third grade, students with mental disorders were, on average, seven to 11 months behind students with no mental disorder. By grade nine they were an average 1.5 to 2.8 years behind.

According the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, mental illnesses are common, and include many different conditions that vary in degree of severity, ranging from mild to moderate to severe. National survey data estimates that 49.5 percent of children between the ages of 13 and 18 had any mental disorder–and among them, more than 22 percent had a severe impairment.

Districts from California to Maine have sought to improve student mental health by hiring school psychologists, partnering with local community organizations to expand resources, or increased teacher training to help educators spot when a child may need to be referred to a mental health professional.

Researchers in Australia say closing the achievement gaps highlighted in their study can be accomplished by also focusing on addressing student mental health needs early in their schooling.

“Given many mental disorders including ADHD and anxiety start early in life and persist for many years, we need to improve early childhood interventions as a way to close initial gaps in academic performance between students with and without a mental disorder,” David Lawrence, one of the lead researchers, said in a statement. “There’s a need to improve the effectiveness of interventions to reduce the prevalence of mental disorders in children experiencing socio-economic disadvantage and to improve the effectiveness of programs to help students.”

By the time students reach middle school, researchers noticed that different disorders could lead to more missed school days in left untreated. For instance, in grades seven through 12, students without a mental disorder missed an average of 11 school days per year.

Among that same grade range, students with anxiety disorders missed 27 days per year, those with a major depressive disorder missed 26 days, and children with a conduct or behavioral disorder missed nearly 28 days.

And gaps could be found regardless of socioeconomic status. Low-income students with untreated mental disorders were more likely to miss school than their low-income peers without a mental illness, for instance, and the same held true for upper- and middle-class youth.

The study also showed that about one in 10 students reported having self-harmed at some point in their life, with around one in 12 saying they had done so in the past year–but even those numbers could be too low, authors of the report noted. As part of the survey, students had the option of not answering the questions on self-harm, and about five per cent took this option, meaning the number of children who had ever self-harmed could be higher than indicated in the survey results.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., the suicide rate among 15- to 19-year-olds declined between 1990 and 2007, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but has since risen 31 percent between 2007 and 2015. And preliminary findings from a Vanderbilt University study released last year show that the percent of youth ages 5 to 17 hospitalized across the U.S. for self-harm or suicidal thoughts or actions doubled between 2008 and 2015.

Policymakers throughout the country have sought to reduce the rates of suicide among school-aged kids by improving teacher training to help educators spot warning signs and notify the proper people. Many are also targeting subgroups facing higher rates of depression or bullying that lead to higher rates of suicidal thoughts or actions, including Native American youth and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.

Ben Goodsell, a senior researcher on the Australian project, said that too often, schools are not always able to meet the demand for increased student mental health needs alone, and that building “support networks to meet the demand will be crucial.”