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Teens diagnosed with depression show reduction in educational achievement from primary school to GCSE

Published: 08 October 2020

Research funded by NIHR has shown that teenagers who receive a depression diagnosis during their school career show a substantial decline in academic attainment in Year 11.

The historical, longitudinal cohort study was delivered by researchers from NIHR Maudsley Biomedical Research Centre using an innovative secure database that links together child mental healthcare records and the Department for Education school records. 

They identified 1,492 children and adolescents that had received a clinical depression diagnosis under the age of 18. The median age at depression diagnosis was 15 years. The researchers compared educational attainment in this sample against a local group of pupils in Year 2, Year 6 and Year 11. 

The findings, published in the The British Journal of Psychiatry (BJPsych), showed that academic results declined between school Years 6 and 11 among the group who received a depression diagnosis. Of these young people with depression, only 45% met the expected threshold of five A*–C GCSE or equivalent grades (including English and maths) in Year 11. This proportion was much lower than the proportion meeting this threshold in the local reference population (53%), and also in national estimates (53%).

However, 83% percent of the young people with depression met the expected attainment threshold of level 2 or above in Year 2, and 77% percent met the expected attainment threshold of level 4 or above in Year 6. This was similar to local levels. 

The researchers suggest that targeted educational support for children struggling with depression might particularly benefit boys and those from deprived backgrounds, who were especially vulnerable subgroups in this study, although all children with depression might benefit from such support.

Alice Wickersham, NIHR Maudsley Biomedical Research Centre PhD Student, said: “Previous research has found that, in general, depression in childhood is linked to lower school performance. But what we’ve observed is that a group of children and adolescents who developed depression at secondary school had performed quite well when they were in primary school. 

“It is only when they sat their GCSEs that they tended to show a drop in their school performance, which also happened to be around the time that many of them were diagnosed. This pattern appears to be quite consistent across different genders, ethnicities, and socioeconomic groups.”

Dr Johnny Downs, NIHR Clinical Senior Lecturer, said: “The majority of young people with emotional disorders, such as depression, do not receive treatment from mental health professionals, and so this study has two important policy implications: it demonstrates just how powerful depression can be in reducing young people’s chances at fulfilling their potential, and provides a strong justification for how mental health and educational services need to work to detect and support young people prior to critical academic milestones.”

“It also highlights the importance of secure data-sharing partnerships between health and educational organisations, without which we would not be able conduct these important studies and also conduct future work testing whether changes in health and education policies improve young people’s lives.”


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Loss of potential: teens diagnosed with depression show reduction in educational achievement from primary school to GCSE

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