Can a school environment affect mental health?


Health starts in our homes, schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, and communities… but what does “healthy” look like? This is the final post in a series on the social factors (or determinants) of healthy people. As previously discussed, neighborhoods and schools play a major role in our well-being, and today, we’re highlighting how schools can affect mental health (and special thanks to Corey DeAngelis and others who recently shared these studies).


In the latest CDC data on “Causes of Death,” suidicide ranks as the #2 killer for ages 10-34. In fact, according to the CDC, “1 in 5 children, either currently or at some point during their life, have had a seriously debilitating mental illness.” There is no argument here - mental health is essential to well-being - and yet research suggests mental health issues have significantly increased in young adults in the past decade.

Knowing prevalence of mental health concerns in the US, policymakers should be considering any research that could impact the mental crisis. For example, a recent study shows how students who have some choices in where they attend school have reduced mental health issues. The study examined the relationship between educational freedom and mental health 1) by estimating the effects of state voucher and charter school laws on adolescent suicide rates and 2) by estimating the effects of private schooling on adult mental health. Looking at state programs and laws, states adopting broad-based voucher programs and charter schools witnessed declines in adolescent suicides. Similarly, survey responses suggest that private schooling reduces the number of times individuals are seen for mental health issues.

What could this mean for adolescent health? There are probably many factors that play into these statistics, but it’s no surprise that having some control over personal environment has a significant impact on mental health. Rotter's Internal-External Locus of Control (LOC) Scale has been frequently used to show that when people have a stronger sense that they are in control of their future, they display stronger mental health (like this study for example). In other words, when school feels like a part of one’s environment that he or she cannot change or control, students are potentially more likely to feel a sense of hopelessness. 

Not only does a perceived lack of control affect mental health, but also the Association for Children’s Mental Health points out that a school’s ability to accommodate struggling children can play a big factor in their mental health as well. When families are able to decide on schools that are a better fit for their needs instead of struggling with lack of resources or red tape, they are likely to be mentally healthier.


We kickstarted this series by asking the question, “What does healthy look like?” and then focused on several commonly accepted measures of healthy communities - reproductive health, crime, safety, and mental health. But here is groundbreaking news: when families have the ability to control the future of their children’s education, every single one of these health factors is impacted positively. By giving families options beyond the school their child is assigned to, we are improving their health outcomes in a number of areas. And the ripple effects of these outcomes can make life better for generations. 

Health starts in our homes, schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, and communities… But as school policy sits today, most families either live far away from parent workplaces because of the ways homes, school, and neighborhoods are intertwined OR families are stuck in poor neighborhoods with bad schools and limited job opportunities because these are the only neighborhoods that they can afford. The quality of life in our communities is at risk, but we have an answer for healthier, happier living. Learn more about disentangling neighborhoods and schools.

Did you miss the first two posts in the series? Check out: