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It is undeniable that our children are experiencing a mental health crisis. Many believe this crisis was underway prior to the pandemic, as rates of mental illness were already on the rise, but the pandemic has had a significant impact. Navigating childhood and adolescence is already a time of change, transition, worries, distress, and developmentally expected challenges. All of this combined, it’s a complex picture, and children are suffering. With children and adolescents spending the majority of their waking hours at school, it only makes sense that we would explore how our children’s mental health is impacting their school lives.

How Does Mental Health Impact School Performance?

School-aged children and adolescents with mental health concerns most commonly present with depression, anxiety and ADHD. Unsurprisingly, there are strong associations between poor academic outcomes and mental health challenges. Access to treatment services have been shown to increase academic achievement and students’ ability to engage well in school. Early detection and treatment, ideally in a proactive way, lends to the best outcomes and the possibility of interrupting the progression of long-term mental illness. While each child’s presentation is different, there are some shared experiences that are often observed.

Children and adolescents who are contending with mental health struggles, on top of all the developmental tasks of growing up, may not be able to dedicate the necessary time, energy, and effort to their academic demands. The cognitive impact of mental health challenges can show up in a variety of ways, including the struggle to maintain attention during the school day, challenges around problem solving, limited ability to tolerate challenging academic situations, and trouble with recall, all of which can result in lower test scores and decreased grades overall. If these problems persist over time, they can impact graduation rates and college attendance.

Many students with mental health challenges will have school absences. Sometimes this is due to illness, anxiety associated with school attendance and/or school avoidance. School avoidance is a complicated presentation that can often spiral into a much larger issue and a massive hurdle for students to overcome. In more severe cases, lack of school engagement can result in suspension and expulsion. Mental health challenges not only impact performance in the classroom but can also affect engagement in sports and extracurricular activities.

Difficulty with mental health is likely to have an impact on the student’s friendships. Some of these challenges are encountered naturally by virtue of missing school. Additionally, friendships can be impacted if the student withdraws from peers or becomes frustrated by peers' lack of understanding of the challenges they are navigating.

How Does School Impact Mental Health?

While there is significant focus on how mental health challenges can impact academic success, it warrants mention that school can also be a source of stress for some students. Children and adolescents may encounter unkindness from their peers, escalating to bullying. Peer pressure and social media present real challenges and can have a direct impact on mental health. Some students are particularly vulnerable to feelings of overwhelm and anxiety as a result of academic pressures. Many students are not getting adequate sleep due to heavy course loads and corresponding homework and pressure to build a resume of extracurriculars for college. Furthermore, students in school environments where mental health challenges are stigmatized, and services are not readily available, will be less likely to reach out for support and, ultimately less likely to receive critical services.

Alternatively, schools can be profoundly protective spaces for children and adolescents. Schools offer a safe place for students to express themselves, where they can find trusted adults who are invested in the overall wellness of students, and where they can develop a sense of connectedness and belonging. It is critical that schools offer access to mental health support so that students can engage in learning the coping skills that will benefit them academically and socially, and as they progress into adulthood.


Mental Health & Academic Achievement Issue Brief

Learn more about Huddle Up for your students.