Characteristics of adolescents with school refusal


  • Gerard McShane,

  • Garry Walter,

  • Joseph M. Rey

  • Rivendell Unit, Hospital Road, Concord West, NSW 2138. Email:

  • Garry Walter, Staff Specialist Psychiatrist and Director

  • Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, Central Sydney Area Health Service, Sydney, Australia

  • Joseph M. Rey, Director of Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services Northern Sydney Health and Professor

  • Department of Psychological Medicine, University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia

Gerard McShane,Clinical Nurse Specialist, Rivendell Unit, Psychologist in private practice, Sydney, and Honorary Research Associate, University of Sydney (Correspondence)


Objective: To describe the characteristics of young people presenting with school refusal to a child and adolescent psychiatric unit and examine differences between those admitted for inpatient treatment and the rest.

Method: One hundred and ninety-two adolescents who had been assessed or treated for school refusal between 1994 and 1998 at the Rivendell Unit, Sydney, Australia were identified. An instrument was developed and used to gather data from files. Diagnoses were made by the consensus of two of the investigators using DSM IV criteria from all sources of information.

Results: The commencement of school refusal generally occurred in the first 2 years of high school. School refusers had a high prevalence not only of anxiety, but also of mood and disruptive behaviour disorders. A family history of psychiatric illness was present in over half the sample. There were no differences between those subsequently admitted as inpatients and the rest in terms of symptom scores, family composition, family conflict, family separation or history of abuse. Those admitted for inpatient treatment were more likely to have a diagnosis of mood disorders and comorbid diagnoses and to have a maternal history of psychiatric illness.

Conclusions: School refusal in adolescence can be a symptom of a variety of disorders, particularly anxiety and mood disorder. Treatment programs need to be geared to the range of diagnoses which occur in this patient group and to the various circumstances associated with the onset of the problem.