Frequent school moves can lead to adolescents experiencing psychotic symptoms that include hallucinations and delusions and are associated with suicide later in life, a new academic study has found.
Researchers at Warwick Medical School have concluded that students who had transferred to a new school three or more times during childhood are 60 per cent more likely to develop such symptoms.
Professor Swaran Singh, who led the study, said: “Changing schools can be very stressful for students. Our study found that the process of moving schools may itself increase the risk of psychotic symptoms – independent of other factors.
“Additionally, being involved in bullying, sometimes as a consequence of repeated school moves, may exacerbate risk for the individual.”
His team reached its conclusion after analysing school mobility data for more than 6,000 students who had been assessed aged 12 for psychotic symptons that also included thought interference.
Experiencing such effects at a young age is strongly associated with suicide and mental health problems as an adult.
Dr Cath Winsper, a member of the study group said: “It’s clear that we need to keep school mobility in mind when clinically assessing young people with psychotic disorders.
"It should be explored as a matter of course as the impact can be both serious and potentially long lasting. Schools should develop strategies to help these students to establish themselves in their new environment.”
The academics used a statistical analysis to account for other possible causes of the symptoms, such as family and friendship problems, ethnicity, and gender.
Their study suggests that moving schools may often lead to feelings of low self-esteem and a sense of “social defeat”. These feelings could also have physiological consequences, heightening the risk of psychotic-like symptoms in vulnerable individuals.
The academics accept that “school moves may be unavoidable” but argue that staff could intervene to help reduce the bullying and isolation of students when they join a school.
They acknowledge that “teachers may lack the time and resources to ensure that mobile students are adequately established within new school environments” and suggest the use of “dedicated “mobility support workers”.
“An awareness of mobile students as a possible high-risk population and routine inquiry regarding school changes and bullying experiences may be advisable in mental health care settings,” the report says.
Previous research has found that school moves can damage students’ academic progress. A 2005 study by the Association of London Government (now called London Councils) said that the impact of the additional demands of mobile children could be “critical” for schools and students.
It found that high mobility further reduced equality of opportunity for students with high levels of educational disadvantage and could “help perpetuate” underachievement for all children.