What is “school connectedness”? Teens were asked:
How strongly do you agree or disagree with each of the following statements:
- I feel close to people at this school.
- I am happy to be at this school.
- I feel like I am part of this school.
- The teachers at this school treat students fairly.
- I feel safe in my school.
A 2003 analysis of the responses of 36,000 teens discovered remarkable correlations between “school connectedness” and well-being. Summarized as “Improving the Odds: The Untapped Power of Schools to Improve the Health of Teens,” this research led to the CDC’s public position on the importance of school connection and adolescent well-being.
Researchers are only now discovering just how deeply these connections go. For instance, a 2007 article in the Journal of Adolescent Health discovered a direct connection between early teen experiences and mental health. They surveyed a cohort of almost 3,000 teens at grade 8, grade 10, and one year after graduation:
Overall, young people’s experiences of early secondary school and their relationships at school continue to predict their moods, their substance use in later years, and their likelihood of completing secondary school. Students with good school and good social connectedness are less likely to experience subsequent mental health issues and be involved in health risk behaviors, and are more likely to have good educational outcomes.
In a world in which an estimated one third of teens are on prescription medication, and almost half of those are on psychoactive substances (medications addressing depression and hyperactivity), it is important for more parents to realize that school may be a causal factor with respect to their child’s depression.
Another cohort study of 2,000 teens states bluntly in its report title: “School Connectedness Is an Underemphasized Parameter in Adolescent Mental Health.” It explicitly suggests that a lack of school connectedness is a causal factor in mental health issues.
School connectedness also predicted depressive symptoms 1 year later for both boys and girls, anxiety symptoms for girls, and general functioning for boys, even after controlling for prior symptoms. . . . Results suggest a stronger than previously reported association with school connectedness and adolescent depressive symptoms in particular and a predictive link from school connectedness to future mental health problems.
Pharmaceutical companies invest significant marketing dollars into persuading parents and health care practitioners that depression is a biochemical disorder to be corrected by pharmaceuticals. But what if a significant portion of adolescent dysfunction and mental illness is actively caused by a child’s feeling of disconnection from the school community?
A recent dissertation on schools and depression summarizes the scale of the issue:
Depression is a debilitating condition that is increasingly recognized among youth, especially adolescents. Nearly a third of adolescents experience a depressive episode by age 19 and an increasing number of youth experience depressed mood, subsyndromal symptoms, and minor depression. The prevalence of depression is particularly high among female, racial minority and sexual minority youth. . . . major depression and subthreshold depressive symptoms often first appear during the adolescent years. Rates of depression steadily increase from ages 12 to 15. Based on retrospective studies of depressed adults and prospective studies of youth, major depression is most likely to emerge during the mid-adolescent years (ages 13–15). Prospective studies that follow the same children over time reveal a dramatic increase in the prevalence of major depressive episodes after age 11 and again after age 15, with a flattening of rates in young adulthood (Kim-Cohen et al., 2003).
Meanwhile, a Gallup poll finds that only 44 percent of high school students feel engaged at school.
As a lifelong educator who has seen literally hundreds of children improve their well-being by means of transferring to a school at which they felt more connected, these are not merely hypothetical speculations. I believe we have a mental health catastrophe among our teens, and massive disconnection from schooling is a major causal factor in this catastrophe.