One in seven school students has mental health issues

Significant absences from school place academic achievement at risk. Photo: Sarah Makse.

One in seven school students were affected by mental health disorders in the past year with mental health issues accounting for 17 per cent of absences, according to a nationwide study published this week.

Data collected from the Young Minds Matter survey by researchers at the University of Western Australia found mental health problems were taking a significant toll on the nation’s school children.

It is the second national survey of child and adolescent mental health and wellbeing since Australia’s world-first study in 1998.

Associate Professor at the University of Western Australia and study lead, David Lawrence said the research showed all mental health disorders were associated with higher rates of absence, causing strain on students performance.  

“We found, particularly in secondary school years, this was quite significant, with an average of 25 days of school missed over the course of a school year for students who have a mental health disorder, compared to an average of about 10 to 12 days for students who don’t have a mental disorder,” he said.

“From other research we’ve done, that level of absence has a significant impact on students’ performance.”

Year 11-12 students missed the most school due to mental health issues, with an average of five weeks off school per year, compared to an average of 12 absent days among students without mental health issues.

A breakdown of the key findings from the Young Minds Matter Survey.
Graphic/Photo: Sarah Makse

Professor Lawrence said it took an average of three years for people with mental health issues to seek help.  

“We know that the typical prognosis of most mental health issues is a gradual onset and gradual onset of severity over months or years,” he said.

“If people wait until the problem gets quite severe before they get help, it can mean the child is suffering from those symptoms for a period of time, perhaps years, and not getting help.

“It also means that by the time you get help, the likelihood of a speedy and full recovery is not as high.”

Senior Manager of Relationships Australia WA’s family mental health service, 4families, Janalie Nelson said when families shared conversations about mental health, they were more likely to seek help.

“While some children are born with the capacity and the potential and they can just develop skills, in terms of resilience and emotional regulation, some kids need more support around that and it is something they have to learn,” Ms Nelson said.

“It’s important for parents specifically to act. A lot of the time, parents have a sense, they feel it in their gut that there is something wrong, but they don’t really want to act on it.

“There is a sense of urgency around having conversations around child mental health and having people ask for support and there is no shame in that.”

Ms Nelson said educators were now more proactive in identifying mental health issues in their students but needed support to bridge the gap between families and services.

“Teachers will pick up things parents sometimes can’t at home. They have conversations with parents, as well as reaching out to services to make sure extra resources are available in the classroom,” she said.

Professor Lawrence said WA schools had recognised the role they played in facilitating mental health support, but the full responsibility should not fall on their shoulders.

“We are not talking about teachers having to diagnose and treat mental health issues necessarily, but just having that basic level of understanding might be a step in the right direction,” Mr Lawrence said.

“In terms of mental health literacy, we are talking about having the skills to be able to recognise the symptoms of an emerging mental health problem, and knowing what resources are available and what actions might be appropriate, who you could mention the issue to and who you might be able to approach to seek help,” he said.

Listen to Professor Lawrence discuss how cognitive bias modification and mindfulness can help tackle mental health disorders in the classroom.