17 Dec 2018

Mental health issues, online gaming causing rise in teen truancy

6:46 pm on 17 December 2018

More young people are skipping school or refusing to enrol at all because of mental health problems and excessive online gaming.

A boy plays Fortnite.

A boy plays Fortnite. Photo: AFP

Attendance services responsible for getting truants back to school repeatedly cited growth in both problems in their reports to the Education Ministry this year.

"Mental health is still an ongoing and escalating issue," wrote one of the Auckland-based attendance services.

The attendance service for Wellington warned of "significant barriers presenting around anxiety, depression, self-harming, dyslexia".

''We are seeing underlying issues of stressed young people," it warned.

An attendance service covering the central and lower-central North Island said it had observed an "increase in children presenting with depression and anxiety and possible undiagnosed mental health".

"We also note that students seem to be presenting these issues at an earlier age," it said.

The manager of Auckland City Education Services, Karyl Puklowski, said mental wellbeing was a huge factor for children from the ages of 12 to 15 and it was hard to get the right help.

"If you've got a young person who's hiding in the bedroom and doesn't want to get out, and help can't come to the house it becomes really hard to try and get the right support in place. So mental wellness is becoming really a huge reason for what we're dealing with," she said.

She said addiction to online gaming was also a problem.

"The other thing that we're finding with anxiety that's impacting on us which is increasing is addiction to gaming. Of course, if you're up all night playing it you're not going to get up in the morning and if you do get up in the morning you're not going to be very present of mind and [will be] falling asleep at your desk."

The president of the Auckland Secondary Principals Association, Richard Dykes, said poor mental health was a big problem for teenagers and in many cases schools did not have the right skills or expertise to provide the required help and support.

"Every school will have counsellors, every school will have deans, there's a whole series of progressions where we provide pastoral care. The demand is going past that and schools are having to tap into outside services and I think the fear of principals is that funding for those services isn't there and we're feeling a lot more push back," he said.

Mr Dykes said students and their schools needed more help from properly funded support agencies.

Associate Education Minister Tracey Martin said the government recognised there was a serious problem.

"We have a crisis of anxiety in our schools, we have had for a number of years," she said. "The young people with anxiety are getting younger and younger and we have not figured out why."

Ms Martin said a government-funded trial of counsellors in Canterbury schools was working well and she wanted to extend the scheme to more schools. She said how that would be done was still being discussed.

The president of the Auckland Primary Principals Association, Helen Varney, said its members were not seeing the impact of mental health problems, but they were encountering the after-effects of excessive online gaming among their students.

She said it did not appear to be a big cause of truancy, but it was contributing to lateness and tiredness.

"When you talk to the child about why are you so tired, did you have a late night and they'll say 'oh, no, I went to bed early enough but I was up playing my game'," she said.

Ms Varney said parents needed to take more control over their children's access to phones and other devices for playing games.

Several attendance service reports noted the impact of online gaming on students.

An Auckland service said it had observed "student fatigue - students too tired to go to school as they have been on either social media or gaming for a large proportion of the night".

The Wellington region attendance service said some parents did not set boundaries on their children's technology use to the extent it was affecting their attendance and mental health.

The service responsible for the lower South Island said some teenagers avoided school because of negative interactions via social media and the problem was now starting to affect younger children.

Attendance service reports also cited poverty, alcohol and drug addiction, and housing pressures as common problems for truants.

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