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Child anxiety could be factor in school absences, research concludes

Posted on February 28th 2019

New Exeter Medical School research, supported by PenCLAHRC and the Wellcome Trust, has found a link between school absence and anxiety. The comprehensive, international review of data -  the first of its kind - took place over an 18 month period and drew on the collaboration of a broad team of researchers, from medical students to statisticians, child psychiatrists to evidence synthesists. The team performed an exhaustive systematic review to investigate the relationship between anxiety and poor school attendance, including excused and unexcused absence. The second paper to be published from this research, it suggests that children with anxiety miss more school than their peers and identifies a difficult to delineate crossover between emotional and behavioural reasons for absence.

Lead author Katie Finning said: “Anxiety is a major issue that not only affects young people’s schooling, but can also lead to worse academic, social and economic outcomes throughout life. It’s important that we pick up the warning signs and support our young people as early as possible. Our research has identified a gap of high-quality studies in this area, and we urgently need to address this gap so that we best understand how to give our young people the best start in life.” 

Professor Tamsin Ford, who leads on The Child Mental Health Research Group, worked on the project and mentored PhD student, lead author Katie Finning. She said: “School staff and health professionals should be alert to the possibility that anxiety might underlie poor school attendance and can also cause lots of different physical symptoms, such as tummy and headaches. It is important to understand that anxiety can lead to impulses to avoid the thing that makes you anxious and while avoidance might help in the short term, in the longer term it can increase that anxiety, but anxiety can be treated effectively.’

Lead author Katie Finning said ‘it was great to be able to collaborate with so many colleagues…the paper has identified implications for practitioners as well as gaps in the research, and it would be great to see some of those gaps filled in the future, and a recognition that a change in school attendance or long term poor attendance could indicate poor mental health.’ 

The paper, entitled ‘The association between anxiety and poor attendance at school: A systematic review’ is published in Child and Adolescent Mental Health on February 28th 2019.

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