The downward spiral of mental disorders and educational attainment: a systematic review on early school leaving

BMC Psychiatry. 2014 Aug 27:14:237. doi: 10.1186/s12888-014-0237-4.


Background: Most psychiatric disorders present symptom patterns that cause severe impairment on the emotional, cognitive and social level. Thus, adolescents who suffer from a mental disorder risk finding themselves in a downward spiral caused by the reciprocal association of psychological symptoms and negative school experiences that may culminate in early school leaving. In addition to previous collective work that mainly focused on school refusing behaviour among children and was presented as an expert's opinion, the following systematic review fills the knowledge gap by providing a structured overview of the bidirectional association between mental health and secondary school dropout based on a sound methodology and with a particular focus on mediating factors.

Methods: Four electronic databases were searched from January 1990 until June 2014. Selected references were assessed for study details, main results, mediating factors and methodological limitations. Standardized risk of bias assessment was conducted.

Results: Mood and anxiety disorders seemed to have a less consequential direct effect on early school leaving than substance use and disruptive behaviour disorders. The association between externalizing disorders and educational attainment was even stronger when the disorder occurred early in life. On the other hand, internalizing disorders were reported to develop as a consequence of school dropout. Only few studies had addressed gender differences, with discrepant results. Socio-economic background, academic achievement and family support were identified as significant mediating factors of the association between mental disorders and subsequent educational attainment.

Conclusions: Findings suggested a strong association between mental health and education, in both directions. However, most studies focused on mediating factors that could not be targeted by intervention programs.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Anxiety Disorders / epidemiology
  • Anxiety Disorders / psychology
  • Child
  • Educational Status
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Mental Disorders / psychology
  • Mental Health*
  • Schools
  • Student Dropouts / psychology
  • Student Dropouts / statistics & numerical data*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / epidemiology
  • Substance-Related Disorders / psychology