Mental Health’s Impact on Students’ Academic Attainment

By Clare Kennedy

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

Mental health is a powerful determinant of academic retention and achievement. Behaviors and conditions consequential of mental health disorders can act as internal barriers that deplete and fatigue a student of their ability to devote the degree of labor necessary for educational success. Mental health disorders decrease the potential for those struggling to access an equitable educational experience and find success within it.

Poor mental health can limit a student’s academic potential in two primary ways: decreased academic retention and achievement scores, and increased risk of leaving or forced removal from school.

College students identified stress, anxiety, sleep disorders, and depression as the most prominent mental health issues that negatively impacted their academic performance. Mental health struggles can deteriorate a student's energy level, concentration, motivation, dependability, mental ability, and optimism. Such emotional and mental fatigue can severely diminish a student’s capacity to dedicate the time and energy necessary for academic success; thus, resulting in decreased academic retention and performance.

One study found that over a third of all students at one university screened for possible Major Depressive Disorder, affirming that one-third of students may be experiencing depression at any given time. The research showed that students with depression had lower GPAs and were less satisfied with their studies than their non-depressed peers. However, if a student began seeking treatment for their depression, they began achieving greater academic success, confirming the causal relationship between depression and decreased academic performance. Additionally, the study showed that depression often debilitates students from seeking academic assistance and engaging with their studies.

Not only do mental health struggles inhibit academic performance, but they can also serve as a prohibitor to accessing school at all. For students struggling with mental health, the probability that they will be absent, suspended, expelled, or drop out substantially increases. Depleted energy, concentration, mental ability, and motivation make school a much more taxing and daunting experience, especially when compounded with detrimental external factors such as homelessness, violence, and poverty. Researchers found that older students with depression are twice as likely to be absent or drop out of school than their non-depressed peers. Another study found that 4.29 million people would have graduated from college had they not faced mental health disorders during their time in school.

Furthermore, mental health issues may lead one to be chronically absent, have emotional outbursts, or cause classroom disruptions, which are all grounds used by schools to discipline, suspend, and expel students. Researchers found that one in five students with a social, emotional, or mental health difficulty received at least one fixed period exclusion from school.

Targeted by racial biases and zero-tolerance policies, black students and students of color are disciplined, suspended, and expelled at much higher rates than white students are for behaviors caused by mental health disorders. Black students are more likely to be identified as “problematic” and disciplined than white students are for the same offense. In fact, research shows that black girls are six times more likely to be disciplined than white girls, and black boys are three times more likely to be disciplined than white boys. Because mental health issues can produce behaviors that are often subject to disciplinary action and black students are targeted for disciplinary action at disproportionate rates, mental health disorders increase the risk for black students to be prohibited from obtaining an education. Thus, the failure to adequately address student mental health issues, when operating alongside racially discriminatory disciplinary policies, aids in the facilitation of the school-to-prison pipeline in the United States.

There are many ways we can support students who struggle with mental health to improve educational access and attainment. Two potential methods would be to ensure that schools have an adequate number of counselors for their students and that children of all socio-economic backgrounds have affordable access to therapists, psychiatrists, and psychologists. Currently, some states are beginning to enact legislation that designates mental health as a qualification for excused school absences. These laws may help increase academic attainment by giving students time to decompress and care for themselves, which reduces stress; however, this is only the beginning of a long journey to educational equity. The United States educational system has to make substantial improvements in order to adequately insulate students from potential negative academic implications of behaviors and conditions caused by mental health disorders. Mental health must no longer be a reason students cannot experience their education to its most fruitful and impactful extent.