Approximately 1.2 million U.S. teens drop out of high school every year. Reversing this trend — and keeping more kids in school — requires a better understanding of why teens drop out, experts say. One new study offers this helpful insight: Older teenagers dealing with untreated depression may be much more likely than their peers to leave school before graduation.
Canadian researchers asked nearly 7,000 high school students — all from 12 high-risk schools around Montreal — to fill out screening questionnaires at the beginning of each school year between 2012 and 2015. The questionnaires tracked the students’ socio-economic status, family structure, and employment history. A representative sample of students — as well as all of those who dropped out of school during the study period — also participated in face-to-face interviews to assess their mental health.
Almost a quarter of the 183 students who dropped out reported feeling depressed, and students who had dealt with clinically significant depression in the year prior were much more likely than their non-depressed peers to drop out, the researchers found. The teens who dropped out also had a slightly higher risk of conduct disorder, but it was unclear whether that was a significant factor. ADHD — which has been linked to high dropout rates in the past — was not found to be any more likely in the teens who had left school.
Untreated depression can have serious, life-altering effects, including substance abuse, relationship problems, and difficulty maintaining employment. Similarly, teens who drop out of high school generally make less money than those who finish, and are much more likely to become involved in the criminal justice system. Still, the link between depression and dropping out has not been fully explored.
“This is the first study of its kind to look at depression symptoms in the year before dropout,” said lead author Dr. Veronique Dupere in an interview with Reuters Health. “The role of depression in deciding to drop out was underestimated in previous studies because the timing was not properly considered. Depression is not stable. It tends to come and go.”
The results should encourage more schools to make students’ mental health a priority, the researchers and other experts said.
“Depression and other mental health issues can sometimes fall through the cracks,” said Dr. Tamar Mendelson, of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who was not involved in the study. “Administrators may not understand all the issues and the best course to take. Data like this is helpful in highlighting the risks associated between depression and school dropout.”
The study1 was published in November in the Journal of Adolescent Health.