New Laws Allow School Absences for Mental Health

Bullying. Depression and anxiety. Raising suicide rates. Social media. Mass shootings. Today’s students are grappling with a wide range of issues inside the classroom and beyond.

In a powerful movement led by high school students, lawmakers in Utah and Oregon have recently recognized the importance of the mental health of their students by allowing them to take mental health sick days. The measure empowers young people to recognize and address their emotional well-being. On a larger scale, these new laws have the potential to advance the conversation and remove the stigma around mental health in young people.

In Oregon, a law went into effect on July 1 of this year that gives students five mental health days in each three-month period. Last year, Utah changed the definition of a “valid excuse” to miss a day so that it included “any illness which may be mental or physical.” In a recent study, teens named depression as a serious problem among their friends and others admitted to suffering from anxiety on a regular basis.

Hailey Hardcastle, one of the students that rallied for the law in Oregon, said that the bill was inspired by the political activism of the students in Parkland, Florida, after the mass shooting in the high school there. Hailey said that she and her peers wanted to address mental health in schools and the law was one way to do it.

Derek Evans is another student advocate who said, “Dealing with anxiety throughout high school has always left me tired, exhausted up against some weeks, and the difference one day [excused absence] makes is honestly life-changing.”

The parents of Chloe Wilson, who died by suicide in 2018, told The Associated Press that their daughter, who had faced bullying after coming out as bisexual, had pretended to be sick in order to stay home from school.

Many school systems and mental health proponents are citing these new laws as a model for other states to follow. The hope is that young people will recognize when they need to take care of their mental health needs, reach out when they need help and not feel afraid or ashamed to do so.