“Mental health days” now join the flu, stomachache, and common cold as excusable absences in schools in Oregon and Utah.
Legislation passed this summer in Oregon will allow students five excusable mental health days in a three-month period. In Utah, permissible illnesses were expanded in 2018 to include mental illnesses in addition to physical illnesses—reports The New York Times and the Associated Press (AP).
The data shows that a sizable number of U.S. students could benefit if other states pass similar laws. A 2017 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that nearly a third of all high school students had experienced significant periods of sadness and hopelessness within the previous year, and 17 percent had contemplated suicide—both percentages represented a significant increase in the last decade. Since 1999, the suicide rate has increased nationally by 30 percent, and is particularly high for girls, children living in rural areas, and students during the school year, according to a study published in the medical journal Pediatrics.
According to mental health advocates, the changes in school policy—along with other efforts—have been big steps in reducing the stigma around youth mental health and suicide, which have long been shrouded in shame. “The first step to confront this crisis is to reduce the stigma around it. We need to say it’s just as OK to take care for mental health reasons as it is to care for a broken bone or physical illness,” Debbie Plotnick, a vice president at Mental Health America, told the AP.
The parents of Chloe Wilson, who died by suicide in 2018, told the AP that their 14-year-old daughter could have been helped if she were allowed to take mental health days. Chloe, who faced bullying at school after coming out as bisexual, often pretended to be sick in order to stay home. “Because she lied to get her absences excused, we didn’t get to have those mental health conversations that could have saved her life,” her mother, Roxanne Wilson, said.
The new legislation in Oregon and Utah follows on the heels of other recent state efforts that push schools to ramp up supports and resources for student wellness. Virginia and New York both now require mental health education in schools, and a law passed in 2016 in California mandates that all grades 7–12 schools develop suicide prevention policies.
The changes reflect a growing interest in fostering students’ social and emotional as well as academic development, recognizing that students often need more than high-quality instruction to succeed. Mindfulness and meditation programs, along with other strategies for building student resilience and coping with stress, have all come into vogue in recent years. Increasingly, research validates those efforts, concluding that non-academic supports are critical to a child’s development and lifelong outcomes.
But some have questioned just how much responsibility educators should bear for student mental health and well-being—highlighting a longstanding tug-of-war over what topics should be addressed in school versus at home.
In Oregon, the new legislation encountered some pushback from both parents and educators who questioned the necessity of spelling out “mental health” as a reason for a sick day, and wondered whether it would encourage students to game the system, reports the Associated Press.
To the Oregon students who helped advocate for the new law, though, the legislation is a critical layer of support for students who struggle. “Being open to adults about our mental health promotes positive dialogue that could help kids get the help they need,” Hailey Hardcastle, a rising college student who lobbied for the legislation, told the AP.