School attendance and mental health disorders

Mental health disorders are a significant cause of student absence from school, particularly in the secondary school years, according to a new study published in the Australian Journal of Education.

The study, Impact of Mental Disorders on Attendance at School, found mental disorders are among the most common and disabling conditions affecting children and adolescents.

Lead author of the report, Professor David Lawrence from the University of Western Australia, says oftentimes absence from school is associated either with physical health problems or truancy.

‘I don’t know that we’ve really had too much information in the past about what is the impact of mental disorders on attendance,’ he tells Teacher. ‘So we were able to identify that mental disorders associate with significant absence and particularly so in secondary school.’

The paper, part of a study called Young Minds Matter, examined data from the 2013-2014 Australian Child and Adolescent Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing, and included a random sample of 6310 families with children aged four to 17 years from around Australia.

In the 12 months examined, one in seven Australian school students were found to have a mental disorder, with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and anxiety being the two most common.

The report notes that seven disorders were assessed in the survey. These included four anxiety disorders (social phobia, separation anxiety disorder, generalised anxiety disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder), major depressive disorder, ADHD and conduct disorder.

For each of the mental disorders considered in the survey, students with a disorder were more frequently absent than students without a disorder.

This was particularly noticeable in the secondary school years, where over 16 per cent of all absences from school were attributed to symptoms of mental disorders.

For adolescents in Years 11 and 12 with a disorder, the average number of school days missed was 25.9 — more than five weeks — compared with an average of 12 days for students in the same grades who did not have a mental disorder.

In Years 7-10, the comparison was 23 days versus 10.6 days, on average. For primary school children, there was a difference of 11.8 versus 8.2 days, on average.

It was previously considered, the study reported, that students who are absent infrequently can readily ‘catch-up’ on missed schoolwork on return to school while chronic absenteeism might substantially disrupt students’ education.

‘However, more recent evidence suggests that school performance declines consistently with increasing rates of absence with no evidence of a threshold effect,’ the report reads.

Mental health literacy for teachers

According to parents who were surveyed as part of this study, the person who first identified that a child may have a mental health problem was a teacher, principal, or someone in the school leadership team.

Given this, Lawrence says having a basic level of mental health literacy is really important for teachers and people working in schools.

‘Early identification and appropriate management of mental disorders may help improve school attendance. We don’t expect teachers to be clinicians. They are not expected to diagnose and treat mental health problems,’ he says.

‘But I do think because they [mental disorders] are such common problems  … they’re going to have a significant impact on kids’ learning so at least being aware of them and aware of what sorts of things you might be able to do is really important.’

Lawrence advocates that teachers be supported by mental health first-aid training.

‘It’s just about knowing if there is a problem, who inside the school or outside the school [to contact], what sort of thing you might say to parents, or when it’s appropriate to raise an issue with the school leadership.’

Lawrence’s article reports that health promotion and mental ill-health prevention strategies may help build resilience and advance students’ knowledge and development of strategies for managing and improving their mental health.

‘It’s also helpful for young people, themselves, to know what’s the typical sorts of things that kids are going to experience as they’re growing up and then, when something might indicate that maybe there is a bit of an issue, that they should speak to someone about that,’ Lawrence says.

‘That’s part of breaking down the stigma that’s traditionally been associated with mental health.’

In your own school setting, what supports are in place for students who are absent from school for many days? How do you work with parents or carers to ensure students are supported when they are unable to attend school?

As a school leader, do your staff feel confident they have a sufficient level of mental health literacy? Do you have any programs in place to support teachers in this area?