School choice plays a significant role in improving overall student mental health, including lowering adolescent suicide rates. That’s according to a groundbreaking new study by Corey DeAngelis, a policy analyst at the Cato Institute, and Angela Dills, a professor of economics at Western Carolina University.
The study, “The Effects of School Choice on Mental Health,” utilized public- and private- school data collected from 49 states plus information directly obtained from a nationally representative sample of 4,353 students.
“By joining forces, we were able to tackle this question from different angles,” DeAngelis said. “The state-level data give us a high-level picture, while the student-level data allow us to zoom in on individual students. This is the first study linking school choice to teen suicide and mental health. Previous studies did not look at these; the closest ones studied things like feelings of safety and bullying.”
DeAngelis and Dills reached two conclusions—that school choice directly translates to fewer mental health issues for teens overall and significantly lower rates of suicide. The expectation is that the improved mental health benefits will carry over from the teen years into adulthood.
“After controlling for factors such as demographics and economic output, our state-level results generally find that the enactments of private- and public-school choice laws reduce teen suicides,” DeAngelis said.
“Non-academic outcomes interest me because teachers and schools can do so much more than nudge standardized test scores, and our broad goals for education cannot be captured in something as simple as a math or reading test,” DeAngelis said. “There is so much evidence indicating that school choice leads to more student safety and fewer disciplinary problems, which may mean that schools of choice have environments that are more conducive to stable mental health in the long run.”
“Trapping kids in schools that aren't working for them (through residential school assignment) can have extremely harmful effects that must be considered seriously.”
—Corey DeAngelis, Ph.D.
The study by DeAngelis and Dills “is the only study linking school choice to mental health,” DeAngelis said, “and we find that school choice improves mental health for students. Trapping kids in schools that aren't working for them (through residential school assignment) can have extremely harmful effects that must be considered seriously.”
Henry Program Boosts Self-Esteem
In Oklahoma, the creation of the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship Program is proving itself to be a significant force for change in boosting students’ mental health. Launched in 2010, the scholarships are a state initiative making private-school tuition assistance available to special-needs students, foster children, and children adopted out of state custody. These funds enable parents to place their child in a more sympathetic and effective school environment where they may experience lower rates of depression and anxiety.
The Henry program has been essential to the educational and emotional success of students at Trinity School in Oklahoma City, which is a private school for students with learning disabilities. Jennifer Vaught, Trinity’s head of school, said that students often arrive at their doors with depression or severe anxiety caused by their struggle to adapt to a public-school system that’s unable or unwilling to provide for their specific needs. Many have been victims of intense bullying, which also plays a role in the development of depression, anxiety, and in severe cases, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), self-harm, or suicide. In most cases, the private school setting allows the healing process to begin.
“The Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship has greatly improved education and self-esteem for our students,” Vaught said. “I believe that the program should be expanded to allow students with mental health issues to attend schools with specialized programs for their specific needs.
“I would encourage parents to look at the educational and social experiences of their students in their current setting and examine how that could be affecting their overall mental well-being.”
“I would encourage parents to look at the educational and social experiences of their students in their current setting and examine how that could be affecting their overall mental well-being,” she added. “I would also encourage everyone to examine what barriers are preventing their student from experiencing this and see what changes can be made to increase their student’s self-esteem. Trinity School, for example, focuses on providing a safe and nurturing environment for children with learning differences through programs designed to meet their individual academic specific needs. Providing this environment helps ease the self-esteem issues in students who are struggling in an academic setting.”
More Research Is Needed
According to the Mental Health Association of Oklahoma, 20 percent of the state’s K-12 students have some sort of mental illness, primarily depression, anxiety, ADD, and ADHD. Often these issues go hand in hand with students who are battling autism or specific learning disorders. On a par with the rest of the nation, teen suicide rates in Oklahoma are rising, along with rates of mental illness.
Nationally, between 2007 and 2015, suicide rates for males age 15 to 19 has increased by 31 percent, while the rate for females in the same age bracket has doubled, DeAngelis said.
“More research into this issue is vitally important,” he said. “Increased research on treating mental health problems in children and adolescents can greatly reduce the problems that these individuals experience in adulthood.
“Families know what their children need,” he added. “Families also care about the safety and mental stability of their children more than anyone else. Allowing families to select their children’s schools based on these important aspects can lead to better lives for their kids.”