Schools can boost attendance by improving mental health

Schools can boost attendance by improving mental health

(Australia) Without treatment, Australian students with mental disorders such as depression or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder often have poorer academic outcomes than their peers–largely due to the amount of school days they miss, according to a new report.

A national survey led by The University of Western Australia found that 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.

Researchers say closing those achievement gaps can be accomplished by 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.”

Authors of the report analyzed educational outcomes from Young Minds Matter: the second Australian Child and Adolescent Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing conducted between 2013 and 2014, which included interviews with more than 6,000 families from across the country.

The survey found that mental disorders affected one in seven students throughout the country at some point during the previous year, and children with mental disorders scored lower on average than their peers in reading, writing and mathematics across grade levels.

Perhaps more unsettling, researchers also found 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.

In addition to improving early childhood interventions to close gaps in academic performance between students with and without a mental disorder, authors also recommend schools regularly evaluate and improve mental health support programs, and expand access to school counselors with specialized mental health training.

“Teachers are not mental health professionals and should not be expected to diagnose and treat mental disorders,” Ben Goodsell, senior researcher on the project, said in a statement. “Regular evaluation and continual improvement of mental health support programs should be implemented and school counsellors should be given more support to expand their services.”