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School absenteeism as a risk factor for self-harm and suicidal ideation in children and adolescents

There is a proved evidence that suicide remains the second most common cause of death in young people aged 10-24 years.

Caused by a number of complex, interrelated factors, this international tragedy is gaining visibility as an increasing number of children and adolescents commit suicide.

According to ABC News, 40% of upper-year high school students were chronically absent from public schools in Boston during the fall of 2020, with a sharp rise in absenteeism among black, latino, disabled and English-learning students. This reveals the possibility of a pattern linking social exclusion with suicidal tendencies.

Without a multifaceted understanding of the risk factors at play and an attempt to alleviate their impacts, self-harm and suicidal ideation will continue to plague young people around the world and negatively affect their educational performance. In an attempt to better understand the current risk factors for future completed suicide, it’s important to look at previously identified risk factors, including “mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and conduct disorder, drug and alcohol misuse and personality characteristics such as impulsivity”.  

They continue to explain that “social factors such as low socioeconomic status, adverse childhood experiences, family discord and bullying are also known to be risk factors.” Despite extensive knowledge on adolescent risk factors for self-harm and suicidal ideation, it is becoming increasingly apparent that more of a focus is needed regarding educational data such as attendance, attainment and social exclusion.

Studies show that social exclusion can increase the risk of self-harm and suicidal ideation, and school absenteeism is one major indicator of social exclusion in the classroom.

All types of self-harm, regardless of method and including self-harm without suicidal intent, are associated with later completed suicide.” Thus, with this definition in mind, these issues are intersectional and do not have an ‘easy fix.’ Chronic absenteeism is largely defined as missing more than 10% of days in the school year — roughly 15 days a year or 3 days a month — through excused and unexcused absences. Besides the obvious academic consequences of chronic absenteeism, the pattern is worth monitoring for parents and school officials, as regularly missing, or leaving school can often be a sign of issues related to any of the following, but not limited to:

  • Physical health
  • Mental health, where children suffer from fear, depression, social anxiety, stress, trauma, and other challenges in school and/or at home
  • Bullying
  • Social and economic factors, like food insecurity, job loss in the family, a lack of health insurance and other elements.

Considering the reality that schools often act as “de facto front line mental health services for young people”, more so than health services, “both education professionals and young people suggest that self-harm should be a priority issue to address in schools.”

If students are chronically absent from school, their support systems often remain on school grounds and they are therefore fending for themselves, rather than advocating for their mental health. School attendance is a feasible option when looking for data on these issues, as most schools collect attendance and exclusion data regardless of whether they have an intent to use it for these purposes or not.

Research has not prioritized the relationship between school absenteeism and risk of suicidal ideation or self-harm, but a few studies have proven an association between suicidal phenomena and poor school attendance, actual and perceived educational attainment, poor school connectedness and experiences, and negative attitudes towards school.

Thus, it becomes crucial to look into the relationships between school absenteeism, social exclusion and suicidal behaviors and thought patterns.

Students may struggle with school attendance due to a few factors, including family troubles, mental illness or bullying and other forms of social exclusion. Drug and alcohol misuse and abuse can also contribute to chronic absenteeism, as well as low socioeconomic status which often leads to financial stressors within the home.

This indicates a significant relationship between school absenteeism and suicidal tendencies, yet only a small subset of research studies have chosen to focus on this rampant issue. Many schools track attendance as part of their daily protocol, but do not use them as preliminary indicators against student self-harm and suicidal ideation.

Based on the issues described above, current school systems are not doing enough to protect students’ mental and physical health when it comes to self-harm and suicide. Killing oneself remains the second most common cause of death in young people aged 10-24 years.

An Attendance and At-Risk Program designed by TrueCare™ builds an awareness of the risk factors that go into self-harm and suicide through attendance management and communication sites.

It streamlines how parents notify the school of their children’s absences and aggregates real-time attendance data so that it can be cross-checked with other systems. 

This reporting can help teachers and school counselors identify and aid at-risk students, as well as reduce time and save costs in phone calls to and from parents by replacing them with text messages. Whether their programs include automated attendance reporting to the state, at-a-glance reports of daily, weekly, and monthly trends or managing communications with an inbox for text messages, the implementation of these programs could reduce the incidence of self-harm, suicidal ideation and completion in children and adolescents.

To shift students’ experiences of school from inducing suicidal tendencies to feeling well supported in academic spaces, it is crucial to employ multiple pathways of support, starting with using the attendance data that is readily available in many schools.

Learn more about An Attendance and At-Risk Program for your school!

About TrueCare™ 

TrueCare™ is a nationwide Health & Wellness platform for families and businesses providing end-to-end solutions for COVID-19 testing, screening, vaccination, home care, and corporate well-being services.

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