Student Data & Mental Health: What the Blank Spots Say

The story of California’s Assembly Bill 114 is an example of how legislation and state practices can obscure the data available and hinder attempts to help students with mental health conditions. The federal government issues grant funding for special education and related services (e.g., mental health care) to states to improve access to education for students with disabilities. The federal government requires that local education agencies develop individualized education programs (IEP) that specify the related services each student with mental health conditions must receive to support their educational success. In 2016, an audit of state law, Assembly Bill 114, showed that students in need of mental health services were struggling to obtain the services, that some IEPs were being altered to remove the mental health services from the plans without documented justification, and that the state was not tracking the effect of receiving mental health services on performance indicators.

The increase in the use of learning management systems and educational apps have allowed educators to collect detailed data about student progress, time spent on tasks, areas of difficulty, and even identify when students are losing motivation. Collection and analysis of data about students can be used to weave narratives about schooling, equity, and the progress of the pursuit of educational ideals. Despite a push to increase visibility of the ways that individual factors impact school success, data regarding childhood mental illness’ impact on schooling remains incomplete.

Gaps reveal values baked into the process of data collection and analysis. The blank spots in available data from California tell a story in which maintaining an appearance of compliance took priority over ensuring access to mental health care for students. The current system is inefficient for tracking resource distribution for school-based mental health services. Highlighting the narratives that are absent can help researchers and educators understand blind spots and barriers to ensuring student success, such as a lack of adequate processes for supporting students with mental health conditions. What information is available about mental illness in K-12? What information is missing and why might it be missing? What does the missing data communicate?

The Data That Exists

Available data shows certain trends for children under 18 regarding mental illness and schooling. Among those under 18, there is a wealth of data about mental illness for adolescents aged 13–18, while information for children under 13 is less detailed. Researchers estimate that 20% of 13–18 year olds suffer or have suffered from a mental health condition. Children and adolescents (ages 10–14) with mental health conditions make up 90% of those who commit suicide. According to the Children’s Defense Fund’s 2014 State of America’s Children report, 39% of all children in need of mental health treatment or counseling did not receive it in 2011–2012. Children who are low-income or of color were shown to have even worse access to mental health care than their higher income and white peers in need of mental health treatment. Despite similar rates of mental illness, Black and Latino children have been shown to make 37% and 49% less visits to psychiatrists, and 47% and 58% fewer visits to any mental health professionals than their white counterparts.

A lack of mental health treatment has implications for academic success. Mental health conditions have also been linked to graduation rates and school absence. Only 54% of students with mental health conditions graduate from high school, and over 35% of these students drop out of high school, compared with national averages of 82% and 6.5%– making emotional disturbance the leading cause of disability-related high school dropout. High school students who have mental health conditions are absent and tardy at three times the rate of students who do not have mental health conditions.

The Data That is Missed

Children have historically been undercounted in the US census, and children under age 5 are undercounted at a higher rate than any other group. This trend persists in the available data regarding childhood mental illness and schooling. Prevalence rates, rates of grade promotion, and rates of abuse in schools remain murky for all children with mental health conditions, but especially children under age 13.

Adults with mental illness have been shown to be at increased risk of being victims of violence, yet there is little research examining this link in K-12 aged children. In recent years, there have been stories of students, and specifically special needs students, being physically abused by school employees in the media.

School-based sexual abuse has received growing attention in recent years, but information specific to students with mental health conditions remains absent. According to this Slate article, a 15 year old report by the American Association of University of Women found that about 10% of students suffered sexual abuse from a teacher or school employee between 8th and 11th grade. There is no information available about students in K-8 and the study did not identify whether students with specific traits such as mental health conditions were at increased risk of sexual abuse.

Mental health conditions are also associated with low graduation rates, low attendance, and poor academic performance in high school students. Yet, the attendance rate of elementary school students who have mental health conditions in comparison to their peers is unavailable. What percentage of children with mental illness are not promoted a grade in elementary school years? How many children receive appropriate mental health care referrals and of these children how many parents follow through with referrals?

Why might the data be missing?

· Schools are mandated to maintain records of student mental illness and care, so is the lack of data related to attendance, performance, graduation rates simply not reported, or is it an issue that data are not linked?

· Reporting of abuse is historically limited.

· Does lack of reporting of schooling experiences for students with mental health conditions reflect a lack of interest or advocacy?

· Researchers may prioritize looking at rates of mental illness in adolescence rather than early childhood because of the fact that 50% of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14.

· Mental health information is sensitive. Parents may not disclose information about their child’s mental health status to schools for fear that this information could somehow be used in a way that harms their child.

· Privacy protections limit the disclosure of mental health related information.

Silence Speaks Volumes

The areas in which data are lacking communicate priorities. However, without concrete data to show a need to prioritize the issue of mental health in schools, there is little incentive to make this issue a priority. Is the failure to account for students with mental illness in a detailed manner the result of stigma? Is it the result of a broader culture that idealizes childhood and is unable to integrate the idea of children struggling with mental illness into our collective consciousness? How might big data be used to identify children in need of mental health treatment in schools to target intervention while protecting students’ privacy? In an age where incredibly detailed information is collected, some students’ needs remain invisible. How can we use the data we have to address the need for the data that is missing?

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