May can be a particularly dangerous month for schoolchildren. According to 13 years of recent data collected on mental health emergency room visits at Connecticut Children’s Mental Health Center in Hartford, May typically has the most.
Boston College psychology professor, Peter Gray, looked more closely at this data and found that children’s mental health is directly related to school attendance. Dr. Gray found that children’s psychiatric ER visits drop precipitously in the summer and rise again once school begins. The May spike likely coincides with end-of-school academic and social pressures.
Dr. Gray concludes:
“The available evidence suggests quite strongly that school is bad for children’s mental health. Of course, it’s bad for their physical health, too; nature did not design children to be cooped up all day at a micromanaged, sedentary job.”
School-related anxiety and depression are real, serious issues that can lead to catastrophe, as evidenced by the rising suicide rate among children. In fact, according to the CDC, the suicide rate among 10 to 14 year olds has doubled since 2007. And for girls in that age group, the suicide rate has tripled over the past 15 years.
Beyond these extreme mental health crises, Dr. Gray’s research, and that of others, has shown that generalized anxiety and depression are skyrocketing in children. Dr. Gray maintains that much of this rise in anxiety and depression in children is due to lengthier, more restrictive schooling over the past several decades. He writes:
Children today spend more hours per day, days per year, and years of their life in school than ever before. More weight is given to tests and grades than ever. Outside of school, children spend more time than ever in settings in which they are directed, protected, catered to, ranked, judged, and rewarded by adults. In all of these settings adults are in control, not children.”
A national study of trends in adolescent depression rates found that teens reporting a major depressive episode (MDE) within the previous year skyrocketed from 8.7% in 2005 to 11.5% in 2014. The report, published last November in the journal Pediatrics, reveals: “The risk of depression sharply rises as children transition to adolescence.” The researchers cite stress and bullying as contributing factors.
More Stressed than Adults
A 2013 study by the American Psychological Association found that school is the main driver of teenage stress, and that teenagers are more stressed-out than adults. According to the study: “Teens report that their stress level during the school year far exceeds what they believe to be healthy (5.8 vs. 3.9 on a 10-point scale) and tops adults’ average reported stress levels (5.8 for teens vs. 5.1 for adults).”
The report reveals that 83% of teens said that school was “a somewhat or significant source of stress,” with 27% of teens reporting “extreme stress” during the school year. Interestingly, that number declines to just 13% in summer.
Curious about mounting data showing correlations between school attendance and anxiety, Dr. Gray conducted his own informal, online survey of children who left conventional schooling for homeschooling or other forms of alternative education.
He found that, specifically for children previously labeled ADHD, often with related anxiety issues, “the children’s behavior, moods, and learning generally improved when they stopped conventional schooling…” Results were particularly positive when children engaged in self-directed education, like unschooling, where they had more freedom and control of their own learning.
An advocate of autodidacticism, and founder of the Alliance for Self-Directed Education, Dr. Gray urges parents and educators to think critically about the potential negative impacts of coercive schooling on children’s health and well-being. He asserts:
“We don’t need to drive kids crazy to educate them. Given freedom and opportunity, without coercion, young people educate themselves.”
Kerry McDonald has a B.A. in Economics from Bowdoin and an M.Ed. in education policy from Harvard. She lives in Cambridge, Mass. with her husband and four never-been-schooled children. Follow her writing at Whole Family Learning.