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School Truancy: Could Depression or Anxiety be the Cause?

School children working in a classroom at desks. School Truancy, School Avoidance, School Anxiety, School Refusal

What is the significance of truancy?

When students are repeatedly absent from school, the potential consequences are endless. Lower achievement, higher risk of dropout, legal troubles, and suffering relationships are a few on the individual level. On the national level, truancy means a less-educated and less-prepared workforce. Less education has implications for our communities when there are fewer people able to address the needs within it.

We hear about what many schools are doing to fight the problem—prosecuting parents, suspending or expelling students, and creating policies which are ever more punitive. Some of these solutions can prove effective short-term fixes. More often, however, they characterize students as delinquents. Once a student is deemed a criminal, it becomes much more difficult to get him or her back on track.

A more effective solution involves taking a closer look at the underlying reasons youth are skipping school. Mental health issues are one of the biggest reasons, and they are responsible for a variety of behaviors which manifest inside and outside of school. They also are often minimized and downplayed, or missed entirely. For the health and well-being of the student, it is worthwhile to explore this possible connection.

Is it really anxiety or depression?

Not all anxious or depressed students skip school, and not all students who skip school are anxious or depressed. As a parent or educator, you may be tempted to look at what the student is doing while not in school for the answer, but this is unreliable. A student who is socially anxious may be just as likely to skip with friends than a student who is not. So how can we tell?

  • Does the student have the signs and symptoms?

Loss of interest in hobbies and activities, isolation, irritability, and changes in sleeping and eating patterns are symptoms of depression. Headaches, stomachaches, fidgeting, and compulsive behaviors can be indicative of anxiety. It is also worthwhile to think back to just before he or she began skipping—were any of these signs and symptoms present then, too?

  • Does the student have supports?

This involves looking at other areas of the student’s life. Does he/she have a strong support system? Positive friends? Is the family invested in his/her education? If not, poor social skills, academic difficulties, or any number of other setbacks could result in mental health struggles. If the student lacks protective factors, avoiding school may be the adolescent’s only way of coping.

  • What does the student tell you about why he/she is skipping?

It may seem obvious, but sometimes all it takes is someone asking the student directly if he/she is anxious or depressed to make the pieces fit together. A student may not realize that his re-occurring headaches may mean he has anxiety. Many adults are afraid that asking this question could give students an excuse, which is why appropriate follow-up action is important.

What are the next steps?

If you suspect mental health issues may be a factor in a student’s truancy, there are a number of avenues to explore for more information and help:

  • Medical professionals

Doctors can help rule out physical illness as an explanation for many of the physical symptoms of depression and anxiety. They can also screen for mental health disorders and, if necessary, prescribe medication.

  • School social workers

Social workers are becoming more common in school districts. They are able to conduct basic screenings for depression and anxiety (although likely not diagnose), teach coping skills specific to the student’s situation and environment, and provide information on helpful community resources.

  • Therapists or psychologists

Mental health professionals who can diagnose and treat depression and anxiety are available in many different settings. Some schools contract with outside agencies for therapists to visit regularly and see students within the school. There are many types of therapy for treating these disorders; a therapist or psychologist will be able to narrow down a specific diagnosis and identify the right type of treatment.

  • School attendance programs

Many communities have incentive-based programs which work directly with students who are truant. These are often free, and a professional will work with the student at home or in school. Talk to a counselor or social worker to find out what kinds of programs are available in your area!

Students can’t do it alone.

Very rarely will adolescents reach out to someone on their own if they are struggling with depression or anxiety. They may not have the knowledge to identify what they are feeling, or if they do, they may not know where to look for help. Social stigma plays a role in seeking mental health treatment; they may be embarrassed or ashamed, or have family who are unsupportive. Despite all of this, sometimes all it takes is one caring adult to take notice and point them in the right direction.

If you or someone you know experiences mental health problems, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialist can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.

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Author Bio:  Victoria VanTol has a Master of Social Work and over four years of experience providing therapy to adolescents and families. She is also a freelance writer and enjoys writing about a variety of topics, but especially those related to juvenile justice and mental health.”

The opinions and views expressed in this guest blog do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc.

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