Background Depression and anxiety manifest in different ways for different people. It can cause one to lose their appetite or become disproportionately irritable. One may feel more dull than sad; another may experience the complete opposite. Some may stop meeting with their friends and withdraw from socializing. Another may lose motivation and develop absenteeism, causing them to fall behind in academics or stop attending school. Statistics show that depression is becoming increasingly prevalent in children, adolescents, and young adults. Both depression and anxiety are most common within ages 12 through 17.
When observing the increasing presence of mental illnesses such as depression or anxiety through a quantitative lens, one can find it difficult to grasp the struggles of the students as they are reduced to be viewed as a statistic and not as individuals with a variety of experiences that often differ from one another.
A Student’s Perspective
Within the diverse and wide range of symptoms that depression and anxiety are defined under, a pattern visible to those surrounding the individual is the development of absenteeism. I would like to reiterate that not all with depression or anxiety experience this; however, many begin to withdraw from social activities and isolate themselves, which, for a student, can correspond to absent days and truancy. A study conducted in U.S. secondary schools found a clear correlation between absenteeism and depression; it describes the increase of missed days as both a possible cause and a symptom of depression.
This correlation made between truancy and depression is one that I can vouch for, as my absences occurred parallel to my mental state. Such patterns are visible to those who are responsible for your academic learning (teachers, counselors, administrators, etc.) or anyone who tracks your attendance, and as one begins to miss school, it can become increasingly difficult to complete schoolwork consistently and return to normalcy in attendance. Though studies and data collected through experiments are helpful in understanding and identifying common patterns that can be attributed to anxiety and depression, they do not focus on the specific reasons as to why such a habit is developed or what a student, teacher, or another academic supervisor can do in breaking this cycle. In order to bring the focus from visible movement on a graph to a more specific point of view, I think it is important to understand what can be inhibiting a student’s ability to attend school– specifically, the external factors that may contribute to such patterns.
Teachers and Other Supervisors
For a student with depression and/or anxiety that has assumed a pattern of absenteeism, there can come a point at which those who are not their parents, close friends, or people they are necessarily comfortable with in sharing mental struggles with begin to question the absences, consequently causing them to receive pressure both from themselves and external sources.
In a self-reporting questionnaire survey conducted in Shizuoka, Japan, it was found that many high school teachers were hesitant in intervening with mentally ill students and attempted to resolve issues in the contained environment of school, as opposed to reaching toward mental health professionals. A conclusion drawn from this study emphasized the importance of building closer relationships and improving communication between teachers, families, and psychiatrists in promoting mental health in an environment as such.
In many schools in America, the atmosphere surrounding mental illness in academic environments differ greatly when compared to the atmosphere of the schools in Japan. A guide created by Education Funding Partners (based in the US) lists six steps that are necessary in creating an environment in which mental wellness is made the priority. Their focuses include reiterating the validity of their students’ concerns, encouraging students to take classes that they genuinely want to take, and educating the teachers and educators on how to recognize mental illness and how to help them feel as supported as possible. This guide and these ideas are what all schools need in order for their students to feel safe and heard.
In many schools, medical certificates are required for the student with the mental health issue to be seen as valid. In environments with strong stigma surrounding mental illness, people may hesitate to meet with a psychiatrist or therapist because of the label that accompanies the diagnosis (if there is a diagnosis). There is a whole new set of struggles one can go through after being diagnosed or being ‘labelled’, as this, unfortunately, can change the way some people surrounding them perceive them.
Another issue that comes with this ‘requirement’ is that it can cause some students who have mental health issues that are not to the extent that it can be diagnosed to want to be diagnosed (or to receive a medical certificate). This can be dangerous as the possibility of developing symptoms of mental illness are increased, and this can cause them to adopt symptoms that they originally did not have before.
Though there are problems with this idea, the ‘requirement’ is understandable. If there were no medical certificate, though invalidating it may be, some teachers and educators wouldn’t be able to differentiate students with valid, debilitating struggles and students who take advantage of the situation with alternate intentions.
The most important concept contributing to the mental wellbeing/issue of students, in my opinion, is the language used and overall attitude toward students. As described by the guide, the ‘taboo’ perception of mental illness needs to change in order to prevent more harm (Educational Funding Partners). The subtleties of language and word choice are critical in creating a safe space in which students feel validated.
What Can Be Done?
- Allow students to feel valid in their feelings and listened to. If students are heard and supported in the school environment, they are more likely to have better attendance and increased test scores (Educational Funding Partners). This will allow for a safer and healthier environment.
- Implement more social work. Mental wellbeing and happiness should be a school-wide priority. Many students, especially high school students, prioritize their academics and test scores above maintaining health and mental health. A culture that places the students’ mental wellbeing at the top of the agenda must be created.
Grabowski, Aleksandra. “How to Make Mental Wellness a Priority for Students: National Mental Health Month.” Education Funding Partners, EFP, 7 May 2018, www.edufundingpartners.com/2018/05/07/10376/.
“Data and Statistics on Children’s Mental Health | CDC.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, www.cdc.gov/childrensmentalhealth/data.html.
Depression, Anxiety, Behavior Disorders, by Age.
Fukuzawa, A, et al. Survey Regarding Mental Health Conditions of High School Students and Attitudes of Students and Their Teachers toward Students’ Mental Health Issues. Survey Regarding Mental Health Conditions of High School Students and Attitudes of Students and Their Teachers toward Students’ Mental Health Issues.Phend, Crystal. “Truancy Signals Depression in Kids.” Medpage Today, MedpageToday, 22 Dec. 2011, www.medpagetoday.org/pediatrics/generalpediatrics/30364?vpass=1.