Aside from physical illness and bad weather, anxiety is the top reason high school students missed school in the past year, according to the results of a student survey from the EdWeek Research Center.
Sixteen percent of students who were absent for at least a day in the past year and missed school for reasons other than physical illness said they didn’t attend because of anxiety, and 12 percent said they felt too sad or depressed to attend.
The results from the survey of 1,034 high school students conducted from Aug. 31 through Sept. 21 underscore the realities of a growing youth mental health crisis, which U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has labeled “the defining public health crisis of our time.” In 2021, results from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey showed that 4 in 10 students felt persistently sad or hopeless and one-third experienced poor mental health, with 22 percent of students seriously considering suicide.
The EdWeek survey results also show how worsening student mental health can contribute to chronic absenteeism, a major challenge schools are dealing with that presents a barrier to students’ academic success. A quarter of the students who responded to the survey said they were absent for a week or more in the past year.
Youth mental health experts say the need for help is undeniable and schools can play a major role in helping students access it. Many students already are accessing mental health services through their school, but staffing shortages and limited funding still get in the way of everyone getting the care they need.
Nationally, there are 1,127 students for every school psychologist, according to the National Association of School Psychologists. The association’s recommendation is 500 students to every psychologist.
“The sheer numbers of children and youth who are needing those kinds of supports are greatly outnumbering the personnel in our schools who are able to provide these kinds of services one by one or in small groups,” NASP President Dr. Andrea Clyne said.
A majority of high school students—52 percent—said they needed mental health services in the past year, according to the EdWeek Research Center survey.
Forty percent of survey respondents said they were able to access services at school. Another 12 percent said they needed mental health programs or services and didn’t receive help from their school, with 28 percent of those students saying their school wasn’t offering services at the time.
While surveys have shown schools have stepped up their mental health service offerings in the past few years, school is also a major stressor for students. Over a third of students in the survey said the stress related to finishing schoolwork or homework had a negative impact on their mental health, and 28 percent said the same about grades and test results.
Twenty-two percent of students also labeled concerns about their physical appearance as having a negative impact on their mental health, while 21 percent said they struggled with anxiety over societal issues and events in the news. Those stressors make it more difficult for students to perform well in school, Clyne said.
“Learning and mental health are really intertwined,” Clyne said. “You ask any teacher out there about students who are struggling with their mental health, which might look like anxiety or depression or a response to trauma, and their ability to function at their highest level in class and their ability to learn and listen and remember, the teachers are going to tell you that one does affect the other.”
For the most part, school mental health programs work, according to the students in the survey. Of those who said they used mental health services at school, 71 percent said the services helped them some, a fair amount, or a lot. Twenty-nine percent said the services didn’t help at all or that they helped only a little.
One of the most common barriers to students accessing mental health services is the stigma around receiving them. Twenty-eight percent of students who said they needed mental health services but didn’t access them at school said they didn’t seek those services at school out of fear that other students would find out, and 27 percent said they had embarrassment and shame around accessing mental health services.
School psychologists and other mental health workers can try to combat this by being an active presence in the schools where they work, Clyne said. Rather than staying in their offices and having students come to them, school mental health workers should participate in school events; host assemblies; help teachers teach lessons about coping with stress, anxiety, and depression; and become a part of the school community, she said.
“It can really help reduce those negative feelings of shame when the school psychologist is seen as a valued member of the school that all kids feel comfortable with in some capacity,” Clyne said.
Most students, 84 percent, said they have an adult at school to whom they feel safe talking when they’re upset, stressed, or having problems. Teachers are the most common adult students go to. Of students who said they had an adult at school they could talk to when they’re feeling down, 39 percent said they feel safe talking to a teacher. Thirty-six percent said they feel safe talking to a counselor, school psychologist, or social worker at their school.
The school psychologists association is working to address shortages in the profession by advocating for more funding and partnering with other organizations to increase recruitment efforts, Clyne said.
Schools, however, can still find ways to ramp up mental health support even if they’re facing personnel shortages, she said.
Schools should look to partnerships with community health organizations, like mental health clinics and therapist offices, to get more social workers and psychologists into school buildings, she said.
Clyne also recommends that schools invest in robust social-emotional learning and other schoolwide initiatives that teach students about emotional regulation, conflict resolution, resilience, and perseverance. Educators also should not shy away from talking about mental health issues and open the door for discussions about the challenges that young people face.
“For us to reduce the stigma around mental health, we need to be able to talk about it more globally,” Clyne said. “We need to be able to talk about these issues that affect everyone without them being within this shroud of shame or mystery.”
Coverage of leadership, summer learning, social and emotional learning, arts learning, and afterschool is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 2023 edition of Education Week as Students Are Missing School Because They’re Too Anxious to Show Up