Student mental health days reduce stigma

Laws recently passed in multiple states expanding the definition of excused absences to include mental health days move issues such as teenage depression, anxiety and suicide out of the shadows, and raise awareness

Amid increasing rates of teenage depression, anxiety and suicide, an Oregon law recently went into effect expanding the definition of excused absences from school to include student mental and behavioral health days along with traditional sick days for physical illness.

“This takes mental health out of the shadows, and makes people more aware of the issues and less ashamed to talk about mental health,” says Jennifer Rothman, senior manager of youth and young adult initiatives at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). “It’s showing students that schools value mental health just as much as physical health.”

Mental health days can also flag persistent issues to parents and schools, and help students get treatment earlier, Rothman says.

‘An illness, either mental or physical’

The Oregon law follows a 2018 change to a Utah law amending the definition of a “valid excuse” to be “an illness, which may be either mental or physical,” instead of just “an illness.”

“A lot of schools were already doing this; the legislation just made it official,” says Corby Eason, a student support and prevention specialist at the Utah State Board of Education. Utah previously had parental rights laws that allowed parents to “exercise primary control over the care, supervision, upbringing and education of their children.” Excusing a student from school for a mental health day had just been categorized as a sick day without a reason. 

The change to the law creates increased awareness of student mental health needs and standardizes practice across the state, Eason says. While there was concern that students without mental health needs might take advantage of these days, there is no data showing it, he adds.

At Davis School District in Utah, which enrolls more than 70,000 students, parents have kept students home from school for both physical and emotional illnesses without providing a doctor’s note in recent years, and that practice has not changed with the onset of the law, says Bradley Christensen, director of student and family resources.

“By and large, we have not seen students using the term ‘mental health sick days,’ although the parents may write that in an excuse document,” Christensen says. Attendance has been impacted by students with anxiety and depression, so the goal now is to identify early those struggling students and provide the proper tiered supports.

If a student misses school for continued mental health issues, district personnel work with parents and students to provide resources and wraparound services, Christensen says.

Tips for administrators

In the absence of a state law, district leaders can still acknowledge the importance of student mental health, NAMI’s Rothman says. When students know a mental health day is available, it can help them better focus when they are in the classroom, she adds.

While there is no guidance in the Utah or Oregon laws requiring schools to take action regarding mental health days, Rothman advises districts to proceed cautiously.

“It’s a fine line because you don’t want to make it seem like there’s a consequence for taking it,” Rothman says. “If somebody is feeling stressed and takes a mental health day, it may not mean they have a persistent mental illness.”

Continued staff professional learning around mental illness is also important, Christensen says.

“School and district leaders need to be intentional about the process of working with students and families in a nonpunitive way, and should always use restorative methods,” Christensen says. “This is an issue of what is in the best interest of our students in terms of their mental well-being.”

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