Mental Health Days for Students

The Case for Student Mental Health Days in America’s Schools

There is no doubt the COVID-19 pandemic and other social justice issues have had a significant impact on the lives of children and adolescents. From the recent revelations that the pandemic erased decades of progress in reading and math, to the rising number of youth visiting the emergency room for behavioral health reasons, the upheaval of the last two years has taken an enormous toll.

In an effort to stop the avalanche of ill effects and adverse outcomes due to these circumstances, advocates have been working tirelessly to address youth mental health concerns. Their efforts have been spread across both the public and the private sector, including the highest branches of the United States government.

In May 2022, the White House held its first Youth Mental Health Forum. Hosted by the US Department of Health and Human Services, the goal of the event was to elevate the voices of young people, end the stigma surrounding mental health, and find viable solutions to the current state of pediatric and adolescent mental health challenges. This event comes after President Biden promised $5 million in research funding on new practice models during his 2022 State of the Union address.

Unfortunately, while increasing awareness and funding in this way are critical, many of the improvements that this research can provide are still quite a ways off from being implemented. That’s why it’s so important to learn about measures that can be implemented immediately to improve pediatric mental health outcomes.

One measure that has recently gotten some attention is the roll-out of legislation permitting children to take mental health days off from public school.

The Introduction of Mental Health Days in Public Schools

Between 2019 and 2022, twelve states have successfully enacted legislation to permit students at public schools to take days off for mental health reasons. These states are:

  • Washington
  • California
  • Illinois
  • Virginia
  • Maine
  • Connecticut
  • Oregon
  • Arizona
  • Nevada
  • Utah
  • Kentucky
  • Colorado

In addition to these twelve states, legislation has been proposed but not yet signed into law in four more states, including New York, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania.

Though the wording of the law varies by state, in short, the legislation recognizes mental health as a legitimate reason to miss a day of school within the public system. Some states, like Illinois, Oregon, and Connecticut, have limited the number of mental health days that can be taken, but most of the others have simply included mental health days along with sick days as regular excused absences.

The Impact of the New Legislation

While many states have enacted this legislation quite recently, it has already been shown to help children struggling with their mental health. In one survey of over 1,000 parents, conducted by Parents and Verywell Mind:

  • 75% said that mental health days “can be an effective tool to support a child’s mental health”
  • 74% said that they believed schools should offer mental health days
  • 69% said that they thought it was normal to take a day off from school for this reason

While most parents surveyed favored school mental health days for their children ages 8 to 17, there are still barriers preventing its widespread use.

  • In 36 states, mental health is not recognized as an excused absence from school.
  • Of those surveyed, 32% of parents were not aware of the option to take school mental health days.
  • Some parents cannot afford to take a day off work, even if they recognize that their child’s mental health is suffering and they need a day off from school.
  • Children from lower-income households are three times less likely to be enrolled in a school where mental health days are available.

The Benefits of Mental Health Days for Students

Despite meaningful barriers to access, it’s important to acknowledge the good this legislation is doing for children across the United States.

It reduces stigma. By simply acknowledging that children are entitled to take time off to care for their mental health, school officials are recognizing the importance of youth mental health. When children can learn in an environment that acknowledges their needs in this way, it helps to reduce stigma and make it easier to discuss these tough subjects.

It sends a signal to school officials that a student may need help. Opening up a separate category for excused school absences due to mental health can help administrators and school officials understand when individual students may be struggling. Then, they can supply them with resources and support according to their current needs.

It helps students rest and recharge. In many situations, taking a periodic day off to rest and recharge is exactly what a child needs. Giving them this time off also supports their autonomy over their own mental health and helps them learn how to manage their own mental well-being.

What’s Next

While giving students the option to take mental health days is a wonderful change in our public school systems, the truth is this new policy is a band-aid rather than a holistic solution. To truly address the youth mental health crisis, we must offer our school-aged children more resources to support their well-being, including increased access to affordable mental health care.

For more information on how parents, caregivers, teachers, administrators, and behavioral health clinicians can support youth mental health, check out the resources below.

If you or someone you know may be in a mental health crisis or is considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. The Crisis Lifeline is accessible 24 hours a day in both English and Spanish.

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