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Mental Illness Leads to More High School Dropouts

Older teens living with depression are twice as likely to drop out of high school than their peers without depression, Canadian researchers report. This was the first study of its kind to assess depression symptoms among high school students the year before dropout. (“Depressed High School Students More Likely to Drop Out,” Psych Congress, December 11, 2017).

“The role of depression in deciding to drop out was underestimated in previous studies because the timing was not properly considered,” said lead author and associate professor of the school of psycho-education at the University of Montreal, Dr. Veronique Dupere. “Depression is not stable. It tends to come and go.”

Nearly 7,000 students from 12 underserved high schools with high dropout rates in Montreal, Canada, were asked to complete a screening questionnaire at the beginning of the school year that collected sociodemographic information and measured risk for dropout. One year later, a subset of those 7,000 students – those who dropped out and those who did not – participated in in-person interviews assessing their mental health. Researchers compared the groups and found more than a quarter of the 183 students who dropped out months before being assessed were clinically depressed.

Although no cause-and-effect relationship can be concluded from this study, there is ample data showing that teens have increased risk of depression. About three million teens aged 12 – 17 in the U.S. had at least one major depressive episode in the previous year according to the National Institute of Mental Health in 2015. Approximately one in five youth aged 13 – 18 will experience a severe mental disorder at some point during their life.

These numbers equate to more than 17 million young people who meet criteria for disorders that affect not only school dropout rates, but also the ability to learn, behave and express emotion. That’s why it is crucial for everyone – including teachers – to know how to recognize signs of mental health and substance use problems in young people. Youth Mental Health First Aid teaches people how to do this by teaching risk factors and warning signs for mental health and addiction concerns, strategies for how to help someone in both crisis and non-crisis situations and where to turn for help.

Too often, depression and other mental health challenges fall through the cracks. When people know what to look for and how to help, it can be the difference between life and death for someone experiencing a mental health or substance use challenge. While this study shows that depression is only a small indicator of dropout rates, it is hoped that it will inspire schools to prioritize mental health services.