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Despite the increasing recognition of its importance, a comprehensive understanding of how school belonging impacts long-term mental wellbeing has remained elusive.

Our new study investigating school belonging and mental health outcomes in adulthood aimed to address this gap in knowledge by examining the enduring effects of school belonging on the mental health trajectory from adolescence into adulthood.

School belonging, as defined by Goodenow and Grady, refers to the extent to which students feel personally accepted, respected, included, and supported in their school environment.

This concept encompasses students’ positive feelings towards their school, the quality of their relationships with teachers, and their sense of social value among peers.

While the immediate benefits of school belonging to mental health are well-documented, its long-term effects haven’t been thoroughly explored.

Our recent study, conducted through a collaborative effort from Monash University, Deakin University, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, and the University of Melbourne, has shed light on this issue.

The research involved more than 1500 young adults, drawing from one of Australia’s longest-running population-based studies on socioemotional development. It specifically examined how school belonging at the age of 15-16 influenced mental health outcomes at later life stages, specifically at ages 19-20, 23-24, and 27-28.

The findings of this study are revealing. Higher levels of school belonging at the age of 15-16 were associated with lower levels of depression, anxiety and stress in young adulthood.

This association underscores the significance of adolescent school belonging as a protective factor against future mental health issues.

The implications of these results are profound, highlighting the need for sustained interventions and programs that not only address school belonging, but also extend their influence beyond the educational setting to foster positive engagement in various life domains during the transition to adulthood.

The timing of these findings is critical, given the increasing emphasis on belonging as a key educational trend by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

The OECD points to belonging as a means to counteract the rising trends of loneliness, social isolation, and mental health problems in many societies.

The long-term follow-up of individuals in the Australian Temperament Project, which underpinned this study, provides a unique and significant contribution to the evidence base, showing how experiences of school belonging have lasting effects on young adults’ wellbeing.

The research also highlights the importance of school belonging as an intervention target for lasting impacts on mental health.

As schools and communities navigate the challenges faced by today’s youth, initiatives that enhance students’ sense of acceptance and respect within the school environment are paramount.

These initiatives not only contribute to immediate mental health benefits but also lay the foundation for ongoing positive mental health into adulthood.

Further, the study reinforces the notion that schools are pivotal environments for mental health prevention and promotion.

As places where young people spend a significant amount of their time, schools have the opportunity to create environments that promote a sense of belonging and, in turn, support mental health. This approach is especially crucial for vulnerable young people who may not have supportive conditions elsewhere.

In light of these findings, it’s clear that to prevent mental health issues in adulthood, efforts must start early, particularly in school settings.

Promoting school belonging and student wellbeing can act as a preventative measure against various vulnerabilities, including adverse home conditions.

This underscores the role of educational institutions not just as places of academic learning but as critical settings for fostering mental wellbeing.

The study conducted by Monash University, Deakin University, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, and the University of Melbourne represents a significant step forward in understanding the complex relationship between school belonging and long-term mental health.

It provides valuable insights for educators, policymakers, and mental health professionals, emphasising the need for integrated approaches that address the multifaceted aspects of school belonging.

The impact of school belonging on long-term mental health wellbeing is a crucial area of research that warrants further attention.

As the evidence base grows, it becomes increasingly clear that initiatives aimed at enhancing school belonging can have far-reaching effects on the mental health of young people.

The challenge now is to translate these findings into practical strategies and interventions that can be implemented across educational settings to foster environments where all students feel valued, supported, and included.


Kelly-Ann Allen
Associate Professor, School of Educational Psychology and Counselling, Faculty of Education

This article is republished from Monash Lens under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here.