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Research-Based Practice

Mentally Healthy But Unhappy Students: A Neglected Group of At-Risk Students?

By Zi Jia NG, Noelle Chasmar, Katie Franke, Kristin Otis, Hannah Smith, & Scott Huebner

“Happiness and education are intimately connected. Happiness should be an aim of education, and a good education should contribute significantly to personal and collective happiness” (Noddings, 2003, p.1). Noddings (2003) asserted that schools should prioritize the happiness or positive subjective well-being (SWB) of all students.

However, few schools appear to do so. Public schools in the United States are under enormous pressure to show that they are providing every student with an optimum education through sustained improvements in standardized test scores. Academic achievement has been, and still is, the paramount goal and key performance indicator of schools. However, a growing body of research suggests that students' SWB is pertinent to their academic performance and overall mental health, and thus may require greater attention in public schools.

Historically, mental health has been defined as the absence of psychopathology, which includes symptoms of internalizing (e.g., anxiety, depression), externalizing (e.g., aggression, defiance), and other disorders. In recent decades, challenges to this model have emerged with growing recognition that the absence of psychopathology is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for mental health. Greenspoon and Saklofske (2001) proposed the Dual Factor Model of Mental Health, which defines mental health as the presence of SWB beyond the mere absence of psychopathology. Optimal SWB encompasses high life satisfaction, frequent positive affect (e.g., joy, interest, contentment), and infrequent negative affect (e.g., anger, fear, sadness). Life satisfaction is generally described as a global or domain-specific (e.g., family, friends, school) cognitive appraisal made by individuals about the quality of their lives (Diener, 2000).

The Dual Factor Model of Mental Health identifies four different groups of students who exhibit high or low levels of psychopathology and SWB: flourishing (high SWB and low psychopathology), symptomatic but content (high SWB and high psychopathology), vulnerable (low SWB and low psychopathology), and troubled (low SWB and high psychopathology). The troubled students who report clinical levels of internalizing or externalizing behaviors along with low levels of SWB likely represent the individuals in schools who are most often diagnosed and provided with mental health services. Of particular interest for this article are the vulnerable students who report unhappiness (i.e., lower SWB) but nonclinical levels of psychopathology. They comprise approximately 10% of the student samples in the research conducted to date. Nevertheless, these vulnerable students are often overlooked in traditional mental health screenings and individualized assessments, which focus primarily, if not exclusively, on psychopathology (Eklund, Dowdy, Jones, & Furlong, 2011).

What are the characteristics of this group of students? First, compared to flourishing students, vulnerable students demonstrate a variety of academic difficulties, including lower grade point averages (Suldo, Thalji, & Ferron, 2011; Lyons, Huebner, & Hills, 2013) and lower levels of behavioral, emotional, and cognitive engagement in their schooling (Antaramian, Huebner, Hills, & Valois, 2010). Furthermore, the grade point averages and engagement levels of vulnerable students closely parallel those of troubled students. Second, vulnerable students manifest greater psychosocial difficulties than flourishing students, such as lower self-esteem, diminished motivation for learning, higher school absenteeism, lower valuing of school, and more self-perceived physical health and social problems (Suldo & Shaffer, 2008; Suldo et al., 2011).

Vulnerable students have the lowest stability in group membership, with 29% remaining in the group and 12% moving to the troubled group 5 months after initial assessment (Kelly, Hills, Huebner, & McQuillin, 2012). Among students with high psychopathology, troubled students (low SWB) are less likely to show improvements in psychopathology than symptomatic but content students (high SWB) over time. This highlights the importance of identifying vulnerable students and providing adequate intervention before they backslide to the troubled group.

What are the origins of membership in the vulnerable group? Social support from family, peers, and teachers contributes to vulnerable students' likelihood of changing their group status (Kelly et al., 2012). Vulnerable students who reported higher levels of social support showed an increased likelihood of moving to the flourishing group. In addition to social support, several other personality and environmental variables appear to contribute to a students' status as vulnerable. These variables include the personality variable of neuroticism (Lyons, Huebner, Hills, & Shinkareva, 2012) and the cognitive variables of lower global self-worth, perceptions of control, and perceived scholastic competence and physical appearance (Greenspoon & Saklofske, 2001). Although the occurrence of major stressful life events (e.g., family relocation, divorce, loss of parent job) has not been shown to differentiate vulnerable students from flourishing students, such life events do appear to differentiate flourishing students from troubled ones. Together, the findings suggest plausible targets for interventions for vulnerable students.

Although much more research is needed, the existing findings underscore the relevance of students' SWB to educational trajectories. Mentally healthy but unhappy students (low psychopathology and low SWB) appear to be at risk for a variety of negative school outcomes. Systematic efforts are required to identify these vulnerable students and to monitor their functioning over time and provide appropriate intervention services. School psychologists should consider incorporating psychometrically sound measures of SWB into individual and group psychoeducational assessments. Several measures are quick and easy to implement, and they are available for free (see Huebner & Hills, 2013). The integration of both SWB and psychopathology indicators in individual- and systems-level school assessments will provide a more comprehensive evaluation of students' mental health. For interested readers, the details of evidence-based methods to promote SWB in children and adolescents are reviewed in Huebner, Hills, Siddall, and Gilman (in press) and Suldo, Huebner, Savage, and Thalji (2011). Through greater attention to students' SWB, school psychologists and other professionals may promote the overall well-being and school functioning of vulnerable students as well as all students in schools.


Antaramian, S. P., Huebner, E. S., Hills, K. J., & Valois, R. F. (2010). A dual-factor model of mental health: Toward a more comprehensive understanding of youth functioning. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 80, 462–472. doi:10.1111/j.1939-0025.2010.01049.x.

Diener, E. (2000). Subjective well-being: The science of happiness and a proposal for a national index. American Psychologist, 55, 34–43.

Eklund, K., Dowdy, E., Jones, C., & Furlong, M. J. (2011). Applicability of the dual factor model of mental health for college students. Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, 25, 79–92. Greenspoon, P. J., & Saklofske, D. H. (2001). Toward an integration of subjective well-being and psychopathology. Social Indicators Research, 54, 81–108.

Huebner, E. S., & Hills, K. J. (2013). Assessment of life satisfaction with children and adolescents. In D. Saklofske (Ed.), Oxford handbook of psychological assessment of children and adolescents (pp. 773–787). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Huebner, E. S., Hills, K. J., Siddall, J., & Gilman, R. (in press). Life satisfaction and schooling. In M. Furlong, R. Gilman, & E. S., Huebner (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology in the schools (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Kelly, R. M., Hills, K. J., Huebner, E. S., & Mc- Quillin, S. (2012). The longitudinal stability and dynamics of group membership in the dual-factor model of mental health: Psychosocial predictors of mental health. Canadian Journal of School Psychology, 27, 337–355. doi:10.1177/0829573512458505.

Lyons, M. D., Huebner, E. S., & Hills, K. J. (2013). The dual-factor model of mental health: A short-term longitudinal study of school-related outcomes. Social Indicators Research, 114, 549–565. doi:10.1007/s11205-012-0161-2

Lyons, M. D., Huebner, E. S., Hills, K. J., & Shinkareva, V. S. (2012). The dual-factor model of mental health: Further study of the determinants of group differences. Canadian Journal of School Psychology, 27, 183–196.

Noddings, N. (2003). Happiness and education. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Suldo, S. M., Huebner, E. S., Savage, J., & Thalji, A. (2011). Promoting subjective well-being. In M. Bray & T. Kehle (Eds.), Oxford handbook of school psychology (pp. 504–522). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Suldo, S. M., & Shaffer, E. J. (2008). Looking beyond psychopathology: The dual-factor model of mental health in youth. School Psychology Review, 37, 52–68.

Suldo, S., Thalji, A., & Ferron, J. (2011). Longitudinal academic outcomes predicted by early adolescents' subjective well-being, psychopathology, and mental health status yielded from a dual factor model. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 6, 17–30. doi:10.1080/1743976 0.2010.536774.

Related NASP Resources

Interested readers might like to read previous Communiqué articles on this topic written by contributing editor Scott Heubner.

Students and Their Schooling: Does Happiness Matter? (http://www.nasponline.org/publications/cq/39/2/HappinessMatter.aspx)

Feelings Count: Conceptualizing and Measuring Students' Happiness in Schools. (http://www.nasponline.org/publications/cq/39/4/FeelingsCount.aspx)

Zi Jia Ng, Katie Franke, Kristin Otis, and Hannah Smith are doctoral students in the school psychology program at University of South Carolina (USC). Noelle Chasmar, an undergraduate, is a member of the Child and Adolescent Positive Psychology Lab at USC. Scott Huebner, PhD, is a professor in the school psychology program at the University of South Carolina–Columbia and a contributing editor for Communiqué.