Students who miss a lot of school often have symptoms of psychiatric disorders, according to a new study.
The study of more than 17,000 children found that a high rate of absenteeism is linked to a higher prevalence of mental health problems later on in adolescence.
The research also found that mental health problems during one year predict missing additional school days in the following year for students in middle and high school.
“We’ve long known that students who are frequently absent from school are more likely to have symptoms of psychiatric disorders, but less clear is the reason why,” said Jeffrey Wood, associate professor of educational psychology and psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, who led the study.
“These two aspects of youths’ adjustment may at times exacerbate one another, leading over the course of time to more of each.”
The researchers looked at children in first through 12th grades using three sets of data: the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a study of a nationally representative sample of adolescents in grades seven to 12; the Johns Hopkins Prevention Intervention Research Center Study, a study of classroom-based interventions involving children in grades one to 8; and the Linking the Interests of Families and Teachers trial, a study of children in grades one through 12.
Researchers interviewed students and parents annually or biennially, and they gathered information from school attendance records. In addition, students, parents, and teachers filled out questionnaires.
The study found that between grades 2 and 8, students who already had mental health symptoms, such as antisocial behavior or depression, missed more days over the course of a year than they had in the previous year and than students with few or no mental health symptoms. Middle and high school students who were chronically absent in one year of the study tended to have more depression and antisocial problems in subsequent years.
For example, 8th graders who were absent more than 20 days were more likely to have higher levels of anxiety and depression in 10th grade than were 8th graders who were absent fewer than 20 days, Wood says.
“The findings can help inform the development of programs to reduce school absenteeism,” Wood said. “School personnel in middle schools and high schools could benefit from knowing that mental health issues and school absenteeism each influence the other over time.
“Helping students address mental health issues may in turn help prevent the emergence of chronic absenteeism. At the same time, working to help students who are developing a pattern of chronic absenteeism come to school more consistently may help prevent psychiatric problems.”
The study was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, with cooperative funding from 17 other agencies.