News report

More States May Allow Mental Health Days as Excused Absences for Students

By SOPHIA EPPOLITO Associated Press / Report for America

SALT LAKE CITY – Growing up, Sophie Corroon struggled to pass a ballet class or a soccer tryout without having an anxiety attack.

The thought of going to sleepovers or being home alone left her panicked. Corroon’s anxiety escalated further in high school in Salt Lake City, when the pressures of entering college left her in tears at school or working hours on homework.

Corroon, now 20, has had mental health issues since fourth grade and she’s not alone. And now the coronavirus pandemic has increased the strain on children – many have spent nearly a year learning at a distance, isolated from their friends and classmates. The share of children’s emergency room visits related to mental health was 44% higher in 2020, compared to the previous year.

State legislators are increasingly seeking support for children. This year, proposed legislation in Utah and Arizona would add mental or behavioral health to the list of reasons students may be absent from class, much like staying outside with a child. physical illness. Similar laws have been passed in Oregon, Maine, Colorado, and Virginia over the past two years.

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

“We know this year has been very difficult, and we know it is difficult for young people,” said Plotnick. “This is why it is so essential that students feel comfortable coming forward and saying… ‘I need to take action to support my mental health.’

In Arizona, Democratic Senator Sean Bowie introduced a mental health day measure for the second time after the legislation was shut down in March as the pandemic set in. Republican Gov. Doug Ducey took an interest in youth suicide and mental health, and Bowie said he was confident it would be enacted. The bill was passed unanimously by the state Senate on Thursday.

Conservative Utah passed a law in 2018 allowing children to be absent from school for mental illness. A new proposal from Republican Representative Mike Winder would allow students time off to deal with other types of mental pressure to further normalize the treatment of a mental health problem as a physical one.

“If a student has a panic attack today, because of a drama going on at home, it’s not necessarily a mental illness,” Winder said. “But maybe they need this day to catch their breath and maintain their sanity.”

Under the Utah bill, which was passed by committee on Friday and will move upstairs to the House, mental health days would be treated like any other excused absence, Winder said. A parent should excuse their child, and students should always do their homework.

In Arizona, specific mental health day policies would be owned by each school district, Bowie said.

Theresa Nguyen, a licensed clinical social worker, said she was concerned about the potential long-term mental and academic effects students could face as a result of the pandemic. In addition to the growing reports of anxiety and depression, Nguyen said, many students say they don’t feel like they are virtually absorbing class material, and they aren’t receiving enough support.

“They feel like, ‘Nobody cares that I’m struggling, so I’m basically told I just have to take care of it on my own,” said Nguyen, program manager for Mental Health America. “And for a lot of young people, that means an increase in self-harm and suicide.”

In recent years, Utah leaders have sought ways to reduce an alarming rate of youth suicides. The pandemic has made the emergency more urgent, with many young people isolated from friends and school activities.

Winder’s Bill is inspired by a similar program in Oregon that her daughter, Jessica Lee, discovered through her work on a youth-focused committee with the Utah Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. In Oregon, students are granted five excused absences every three months, and these can be either physical illness days or mental health days.

Lee, who studies clinical psychology at Southern Utah University, said she was inspired by young activists who successfully defended the Oregon bill in 2019.

Lee and Corroon both work with the committee to help teens navigate their mental health. Over the years, Corroon has learned to manage her anxiety with medication and therapy and is now a sophomore at the University of Washington, where she plans to study public health.

Part of her routine is taking a step back and prioritizing her sanity – a chance, she says, that other kids deserve too.

“I really needed those days to stay home or look for a resource rather than forcing myself to go to school and put more emphasis on my mental health,” Corroon said.

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Eppolito is a member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative corps. Report for America is a national, nonprofit service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to cover undercover issues.