U.S. lawmakers push for mental health days for kids amid pandemic

States are trying to lessen mental health stigma and reduce youth suicide

Photo by Arthur Krijgsman

By Lois Barker
Sub-edited by Jasmine Wing

As coronavirus takes its toll on young people’s mental health, more states are considering expanding opportunities for students to take mental health days with the hope it will lessen stigma and reduce youth suicide.

Children’s emergency room visits related to mental health have risen 44% in 2020, compared to the year prior. The coronavirus pandemic has intensified the pressure on kids as many have spent almost a year doing online learning, isolated from friends and classmates.
State lawmakers are said to be increasingly seeking more support for children. Legislations have been proposed in Arizona and Utah which would add behavioural or mental health to the list of reasons students can be absent from class, in line with that of physical illness. Similar laws have passed in Oregon, Colorado, Maine and Virginia in the last two years.

Debbie Plotnick, vice president of the nonprofit advocacy group Mental Health America said offering mental health days can help parents and children communicate and prevent struggling students from falling behind in school or ending up in crisis. Plotnick explains that mental health can be even more effective when paired with mental health services in schools.

In Arizona, Democratic Sen. Sean Bowie has introduced a mental health day measure for the second time after legislation was stalled in March due to the pandemic. Republican Gov. Doug Ducey has taken a particular interest in youth suicide and mental health, and Bowie said he is confident it will be signed into law. The bill passed the Senate unanimously. In Arizona, specific mental health day policies would be up to each specific school district.

Conservative Utah passed a law in 2018 which lets children take time off school for a mental illness. A new proposal from Republican Rep Mike Winder would allow absences for students to deal with other types of mental pressures to further normalise treating a mental health concern like a physical one.

Winder said “If a student has a panic attack today, because of some drama going on at home, that’s not mental illness necessarily, but maybe they need that day to catch their breath and maintain mental health”

The Utah bill, which passed out of committee, will now move to the House floor and mental health days should be treated like any other excused absence, Winder said. A parent would still need to excuse their child, and students will be expected to catch up on any missed school work.

A licenced clinical social worker Theresa Nguyen spoke on the policies and said she’s concerned about the potential long-term mental and academic effects that students may face from the pandemic. In addition to growing reports of depression and anxiety, Nguyen said, many students say they do not feel like they are absorbing class material from virtual lessons and are not getting enough support.

Utah leaders have said they have been looking for ways to reduce the alarming rate of youth suicides for the last few years. The bill is modelled after a similar program in Oregon. In Oregon, students are given 5 excused absences every 3 months, and they can be either physical sick days or mental health days.

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