2016 Children’s Mental Health Report

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Mental Health Impacts In Schools

Children with mental health and learning disorders face frequent discipline and school failure, which can lead to problems later in life. These trajectories can be corrected, but only with recognition and intervention.

Emotional and behavioral problems can lead to office discipline referrals, school avoidance, suspension and being left back. Mental health and learning disorders can also lead students to drop out of school entirely. The consequences of these school-related discipline problems down the road are serious: underemployment and unemployment, prison, and reduced quality of life.

Problems start early.
  • Expulsions in prekindergarten are almost twice as common — 89% higher — when classrooms don’t have regular access to a psychiatrist or psychologist.¹⁰ Only 23% of pre-K programs nationwide have on-site psychiatrists/psychologists or scheduled visits.
  • Being at risk for mental health problems in first grade leads to a 5% drop in academic performance in just two years.¹¹
Students in special education are at high risk.
  • More than 77,000 children in special education receive suspensions or expulsions for more than 10 cumulative days in a year—including children with autism, anxiety and learning disorders¹²
  • Those suspended or expelled for more than 10 days include 5.7% of children with emotional disturbance and 2.6% of students with “other health impairments” (OHI), like ADHD
  • In one study of special education students, the suspension/expulsion rate for students with emotional disturbances was 64%.¹³

Despite the stereotype that all special education takes place in separate or “special” classrooms, students served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) are very much a part of “mainstream” education because of inclusionary policies that “push in” instead of “pull out.” Ninety-five percent of students served under IDEA attend regular schools, and 61.1% of them spend more than 80% of their time in “mainstream” or general classrooms.¹⁴

Mental health and learning disorders are tied to higher dropout rates. The dropout rate for all students is 7%; for students served under IDEA it is 21.1%; for the subset of students served under IDEA with emotional disturbance, the dropout rate climbs to 38.7%.


 27,985 children aged 14-21 with autism, emotional disturbance or other health impairments including ADHD drop out each year. And 45,846 students with specific learning disorders drop out each year as well. ¹⁵

Dropout leads to prison. High-school dropouts are 63 times more likely to be jailed than four-year college graduates.¹⁶

70.4% of youth involved in the juvenile justice system meet criteria for a psychiatric diagnosis¹⁷, and 68% of state prison inmates have not completed high school.¹⁸

 Dropout leads to poor quality of life.

  • Persons without a high-school education live 9.2 fewer years than persons who graduate from high school.¹⁹

Higher prevalence of ADHD and LD exacerbates discipline problems.²⁰

  • States in regions with above-average rates of ADHD and LD suspend children at twice the national average.
  • States in regions with below-average rates of ADHD and LD suspend children at half the national average. ²¹

¹⁰ Gilliam, W.S. (2005). Prekindergarteners Left Behind: Expulsion Rates in State Prekindergarten Systems. Yale University Child Study Center.

¹¹ Murphy, J.M., Guzmán, J., McCarthy, A.E., Squicciarini, A.M., George, M., Canenguez, K.M., Dunn, E.C., Baer, L., Simonsohn, A., Smoller, J.W., Jellinek, M.S. (2014). Mental health predicts better academic outcomes: A longitudinal study of elementary school students in Chile. Child Psychiatry and Human Development. 46(2), 245–256. doi:10.1007/s10578-014-0464-4

¹² U.S. Department of Education (2014). 36th Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

¹³ Blackorby, J., Wagner, M., Levine, P., Newman, L., Marder, C., Cameto, R., Huang, T., and Sanford, C. (2004). Special Education Elementary Longitudinal Study (SEELS) Overview, Wave 1 and Wave 2. SRI International. Retrieved January 14, 2016

¹⁴ National Center for Education Statistics. (2011).

¹⁵ National Center for Education Statistics. Digest of Education Statistics. Retrieved January 14, 2016.

¹⁶ Sum, A., Khatiwada, I., & McLaughlin, J. (2009). Joblessness and jailing for high school dropouts and the high cost for taxpayers. Center for Labor Market Studies, Northeastern University. Sum et al’s estimate is based on an analysis of the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey results from 2006 and 2007.

¹⁷ Shufelt, J. & Cocozza, J. (2006). Youth with mental health disorders in the juvenile justice system: Results from a multi-state prevalence survey. Prepared by: National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice.

¹⁸ Wald, J. and Losen, D. J. (2003), Defining and redirecting a school-to-prison pipeline. New Directions for Youth Development, 2003: 9–15. doi: 10.1002/yd.51

¹⁹ Wong, M.D., Shapiro, M.F., Boscardin, W.J., Ettner, S.L. (2002). Contribution of major diseases to disparities in mortality. New England Journal of Medicine. 347:1585-1592. doi: 10.1056/NEJMsa012979

²⁰ CDC Health Data Interactive.

²¹ US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. Civil Rights Data Collection: Data Snapshot (School Discipline). (2014).