Mental health issues holding students back

The extent to which mental health disorders are affecting student outcomes is concerning, but it’s not just up to teachers to address the issue, Journalist Sara El Sayed writes.

A recent study conducted by the University of Western Australia (UWA) found that students with mental disorders were more likely to have poorer academic outcomes, more absences from school, and were more likely to self harm.

The survey found mental disorders – including anxiety disorders, major depressive disorder, conduct disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – affected one in seven students, and students with mental disorders scored lower on average than students without mental disorders in every test domain and year level.

Dr David Lawrence of UWA said that if mental disorders persist throughout school, the gap in achievement widens significantly.

“Particularly for children with ADHD, when the mental disorder persists, the gap in performance is quite significant – they are, on average, years behind students without mental disorders.

“Mental disorders are so common – an estimated over half a million Australian children and young people are affected by a mental disorder every year.”

Students with a mental disorder in Year 3 were found to be, on average, seven to 11 months behind students with no mental disorder.

By Year 9 the gap widens, making 14 year-olds with mental disorders 1.5 to 2.8 years behind their peers.

School attendance is also affected, with students in Years 1–6 with a mental disorder missing an average 12 days per year compared with eight days per year for students without a mental disorder.

Students in Years 7–12 missed an average 24 days per year if they had a mental disorder, compared with 11 days per year for those without mental disorders.

“What we also found was that about one in 10 students reported having self-harmed at some point in their life, with around one in 12 saying they had self harmed in the previous 12 months.

“However, the students had the option of not answering the questions on self harm and about 5% took this option, which means that the number of young people who have ever self harmed could be higher than indicated in our survey.”

These figures, while deeply disturbing, would unfortunately come as no surprise to many working in the education sector.

Teachers aren’t mental health professionals

Lawrence said teachers are not trained mental health professionals – and shouldn’t be expected to operate as such.

“People don’t become teachers in order to diagnose and treat mental health conditions.

“It’s not really reasonable to give teachers that role.

“But mental disorders are so common that anyone who works in the teaching profession for a sufficient length of time is going to come across students with mental disorders.”

Lawrence said there are capacity issues when it comes to early intervention and specialist psychological services available in schools.

“There is often a significant gap of many years between when symptoms of a mental disorder first appear and when appropriate treatment commences.

“Sometimes we miss the opportunity to intervene early at the time when treatment would be most effective and also at the time when it would be possible to limit the impact that it would have on the child’s development.

“If a student develops a mental disorder, for example, two years before they receive any help, in that time they can fall behind in their schooling to a degree that they may not be able to catch up even if they receive treatment for their mental health condition.

“The more we are able to identify mental health problems when they first emerge, the more we have the ability to minimise the impact that they are going to have on academic achievement and, of course, through life.

“From that perspective it’s very important to try and get on top of that within the school setting.

“School psychologists play a very important role; however, there just aren’t enough school psychologists to be able to deal with the number of children who have serious mental disorders.”

Ben Goodsell, senior researcher on the project, said the current systems in schools were not always able to meet the demand.

“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,” Goodsell said.

People don’t become teachers in order to diagnose and treat mental health conditions.

A space for help at school

Amanda Pashen, IEUA-QNT member and Student Welfare Worker at Grace Lutheran Primary School in Queensland, said mental health struggles are prevalent in school communities, and support services would benefit from increased staff hours and resources.

“Teachers want to support their students, and the more opportunity they have to work with mental health professionals in the school context, the better the outcomes will be.

“In my experience, my teacher colleagues have been more than willing to discuss how they can best support students who are struggling with mental health concerns, and appreciate the need to support students with these struggles in order for them to learn.”

Pashen explained how providing the space for students to discuss their mental health can make a real difference.

“Many children feel alone and voiceless and respond positively to having the opportunity to be heard.

“A few years ago I met with a boy who started crying halfway through our session as he debriefed the anxiety he had struggled with.

“After our session his mother called me asking what I had done as her son’s happy disposition had returned.

“Listening and empathising with a student’s plight is the first step in addressing the issue,” Pashen said.

Promising practices

Lawrence said the survey that was run in 2013–14 was the second time an Australia wide adolescent survey on mental health and wellbeing had been conducted since 1998, and it did find that the number of children and the number of families seeking help had increased significantly in that time.

That more and more children and families are actively seeking assistance is positive, and shows there is space for more services to address the issue.

School staff, students and families can access helpful resources to address mental health needs at school at