The survey found that poor mental wellbeing is a major reason for the post-Covid increase in school absenteeism.
“What can start as a few days off school can quickly spiral into persistent absence. Without specialist support, which is both expensive and time-consuming, some children and young people will have their education, and through this their life chances, significantly impacted." Dr Nihara Kause, founder, stem4
More than a quarter of secondary school pupils are avoiding going to school because they feel that attending would make them anxious, a new survey has found.
The survey, which was undertaken on behalf of stem4, a youth mental health charity, found that poor mental wellbeing is a major reason for the post-Covid increase in school absenteeism. Of the 1,025 12-18 year olds surveyed, 28% said they had not attended school over the last year because of anxiety.
Nearly half of those surveyed reported mental health difficulties. These included anxiety, depression, body image difficulties, eating disorders, self-harm or behavioural problems. Of those with mental health difficulties, half said they avoided going to school because they felt unable to cope. Just over one in ten (13%) young people with no mental health difficulties, however, avoided going to school or college so as not to feel anxious.
Dr Nihara Krause, the founder of stem4, urged schools, the NHS and ministers to increase support for anxious and distressed under-18s because “emotionally-based school avoidance” is leading to pupils being off for long periods. “School and the challenges it sometimes poses can increase anxiety in some young people, making them feel overwhelmed and unable to cope,” she said. “Emotionally-based school avoidance is a very worrying, growing phenomenon. It is different to school absence due to truancy. It is when a child or young person experiences extreme anxiety or distress relating to attending school. This fear can be so great that they avoid going to school.”
Krause, who has developed five apps to help troubled young people manage their mental health, said that 24% of those avoiding school said they did so because of family difficulties, 18% due to bullying or friendship issues and others because of exam stress.
“These findings are very alarming as they show the far-reaching impact untreated anxiety and other mental health difficulties can have on a young person’s life.
“What can start as a few days off school can quickly spiral into persistent absence. Without specialist support, which is both expensive and time-consuming, some children and young people will have their education, and through this their life chances, significantly impacted,” she said.
One young person quoted by stem4 said: “During the Covid lockdowns I was stuck in the house like everyone else, but I felt isolated, depressed and alone, with no help or support to overcome my problems. When I returned to school, I thought things would improve, they didn’t. I still can’t get help and I now feel anxious, depressed and alone all of the time. The only place I feel safe is in my room.”
In a survey of 2,012 parents with at least one child aged 12-18 living at home, also carried out for stem4, over half (55%) say at least one of their children (20%) is experiencing mental health difficulties, of which only three in ten (31%) are able to access the mental health treatment they need.
One parent told stem4: “We have been desperately trying to get mental health treatment for my eldest daughter. In the ten months she’s been on a waiting list, she’s left sixth form, even though she got 9 A*s for GCSE. No one seems to care.”
Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “Schools have seen more children struggling with their mental health in recent years, especially since the pandemic, and this impacts not only their learning but also their attendance and behaviour.”
He asked ministers to ensure that every school had a mental health support team, and said that all schools and colleges could provide counselling.
The charity is calling for a number of measures, including clear guidance on strategies schools and colleges can implement, and parents and carers can adopt at home; clear guidance for the prompt assessment of undiagnosed special educational needs (SEN) such as autism, ADHD or dyslexia; and the establishment of drop-in community family hubs, acknowledging the need for support to counter the impact of anxiety disorders on families.
The steep rise in school absences since the pandemic is a major cause of concern for government, schools and parents. The finding that this is being driven, to a large extent, by mental health problems, and a belief that school attendance would increase anxiety, is worrying. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact reasons for such a rise in mental health problems in a relatively short period of time, but it needs addressing as a matter of urgency. The charity stem4 is right to call for better mental health support in schools as well as better resources for diagnosing special educational needs and the creation of family hubs to support the wider family when a child has mental health problems.