“School spirit” appears to provide long-lasting mental health benefits for Black teens, new research finds.

School connectedness – the degree to which students feel like part of to their school community – is a protective factor against depression and aggressive behavior later in life among Black students, researchers report in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence.

“Our data provide fairly strong evidence for the idea that the experiences Black adolescents have in their school impacts their long-term mental health,” lead researcher Adrian Gale, an assistant professor in the Rutgers University School of Social Work, said in a news release.

Lots of research has been conducted on the benefits of school connectedness for well-being and physical health, but most studies have focused on white teenagers, researchers said.

To take a closer look at Black students, researchers analyzed data from an ongoing study following nearly 5,000 children born in large U.S. cities between 1998 and 2000.

Of those kids, nearly 1,700 were Black children interviewed at ages 9 and 15, researchers said. The kids’ caregivers also were interviewed at the 15-year follow-up.

The children were asked at age 9 to rate how often they felt “part of your school, close to people at your school, happy to be at your school, and safe at school.”

Six years later, the kids’ caregivers were asked whether their children often engaged in aggressive behaviors, and the teens were asked about their experiences of depression.

Even after controlling for other factors, researchers found evidence that early school connectedness could reduce depression and aggression later in life.

The link was strongest for girls, researchers added.

“These findings demonstrate that when Black children felt connected to their school at age 9, they had fewer depressive symptoms and less aggressive behavior issues as adolescents,” Gale said. “Simply put, when Black kids feel closely tied to their school, their mental health benefits.”

School districts nationwide can put these findings to work, coming up with ways to make students feel like they belong to their school’s community, researchers said.

“School connectedness, no matter how it’s defined, is about the relationships people in school have with one another,” Gale said. “The extent that you can improve the quality of those individual relationships – with funding for smaller classes, for example – is what will lead to improved school connectedness and better student outcomes.”

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about school connectedness.

SOURCE: Rutgers University, news release, Jan. 8, 2024