Excused mental health days symbolize parity between mental, physical health, encourage students to seek support

March 6, 2020 — by Allison Hartley

When I first heard that California is considering permitting excused mental health days for students, I was excited for the possibility. Not only would it give students more flexibility to address their mental health and take care of themselves, but it would symbolically put mental health on the same tier as physical health, helping to reduce stigma. 

The nuances of such a bill must be carefully considered to effectively and equitably help students. For one, most schools, including Saratoga High, require parents to notify the school of the reason for a student’s absence in order for the it to be considered excused, since parents are held responsible by law to ensure that their child attends school. California state law currently includes 11 cases for excused absences including illness, quarantine, jury duty, court appearances, religious observances, employment or educational conferences and working at an election precinct.

However, the law contains some gray areas, as not every parent reacts equally when their child reports being sick. While some are quick to keep their child out of school to recover from illness, others are more reluctant, worrying that a missed day of instruction risks their student falling behind. In turn, students suffer at school through the day, often making it tougher for them to recuperate. 

The same goes for mental health: Because of cultural or personal reasons, some parents may find it difficult to accept and acknowledge that their child has a mental health issue that requires care. The parent may prevent the student from utilizing the excused mental health day if the school requires a parent notification. 

To allow students an equitable opportunity to take excused mental health days, they should be able to notify the school of their absence themselves. While some students may feel more comfortable leaving their homes to seek additional support, not every California student has access to services like CASSY. Thus, the policy should require students to answer prompts that inquire about the student’s mental state and ensure that they are not at risk at home. Although verbalizing one’s state emotional state can be difficult, this would help schools measure whether they need to follow up with the student and confirm that students are in a safe situation. 

While parents would still be able to say that their student is physically ill, excused mental health days allow students to be honest about their reason for not attending school and may help destigmatize mental health issues, which affect 17 percent of youth. Mental illness may require longer periods of absence than physical illness, but excused mental health days allow students to make up tests and homework, even if school administrations across the state may view mental health differently. 

There is always the chance that students would take advantage of this policy, but every student should be offered time to address mental health issues: It’s exactly when these issues are swept under the carpet that they continue to worsen untreated. 

Still, according to Dr. Mark Reinecke of the Child Mind Institute, the bill may harm students with school avoidance problems, often fueled by anxiety, by reducing their exposure. While the case-by-case nature of mental health policies requires extra attentiveness on the part of schools to follow up with students, recent trends indicate that state investment in students’ mental health would be well-placed.

This legislation already exists in Utah and Oregon, where a group of high school students championed the law.  

While their efforts were met with concern from parents who believed that students would be incentivized to miss more school days, excused mental health days are far better than the alternative: lying that students are physically sick and avoiding necessary conversations about mental health puts them at risk of becoming worse in silence. 

While it may be difficult to navigate keeping the law equitable and providing adequate support for students, the bill comes at a right time as the youth face more stressors and higher rates of depression compared to other generations. Mental health issues don’t come with one-size-fits-all solutions, but allowing students to take excused mental health days would be a step in the right direction to destigmatize mental health and encourage students to seek support. 

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On March 27, members of the Air National Guard converted the Santa Clara County Convention Center to a temporary federal facility for about 250 coronavirus patients. The center is to house those who have tested positive for the virus, but don't require intensive in-hospital care. More information can be found through the local news. Photo courtesy of Randy Vazquez of the Bay Area News Group.

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