The link between school attendance and mood disorders

A national survey led by The University of Western Australia last year has found that mental health disorders affected one in seven students during the previous 12 months, with ADHD and anxiety cited as the most common disorders.

The research team analysed school attendance data from Young Minds Matter: the second Australian Child and Adolescent Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing and found that students in Years 1-6 with a mental disorder missed an average 12 days per year compared to eight days per year for students without a mental disorder.

In Years 7-10, students with a mental disorder missed an average 23 days per year compared to 11 days per year, while students in Years 11-12 with a mental disorder missed an average of 26 days per year compared to 12 days per year. Mental disorders accounted for 17 per cent of days absent from school in Years 7-12. Similar patterns of absence were found for anxiety disorders, depression and ADHD.

Lead researcher Associate Professor David Lawrence said previous research had revealed that absences of this magnitude – an average of five weeks during the course of a school year – were substantial and missing so much school could completely change the course of a child’s life.  

Childhood and adolescence are critical windows of development and during this time many common mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety, often arise and can be long lasting. In Australia, fewer than 5% of adolescents eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables. Kids today are much more likely to be regularly eating nutrient poor, high sugar foods such as lollies, snacks and processed foods. But what does this have to do with the mental health of our teens? Researchers from around the world have investigated the relationship between what children are eating, and emotional and behavioural problems, and the results are truly mind blowing. Multiple studies worldwide now show that kids who eat a diet high in added sugar, processed foods and junk food are more likely to suffer from mood disorders including anxiety and depression. And an unhealthy diet has even been shown to shrink the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory. So, junk food literally is shrinking their young brains. The good news is, these studies do show that a good quality, healthful diet – jam packed full of fruits and vegetables – can be protective of kids’ mental health and dramatically reduce the likelihood of mood disorders.

Adolescence is an important time to establish healthy habits, and such an amazing opportunity to educate young minds on nutrition and food. Happily, there is so much evidence now to suggest that eating a healthy, nutrient rich diet can be so protective, and can reduce the chances of developing a mental health disorder.