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Should students get mental health days? One lawmaker says yes

September 12, 2019 Meaghan McGoldrick

One New York state lawmaker wants to give students mental health days.

A new bill — introduced in the New York State Senate at the start of the new school year and at the onset of National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month — would “establish mental or behavioral health issues as permitted reasons for a student’s absence,” according to its sponsor, State Sen. Brad Hoylman.

New York schools are currently required to develop their own attendance policies, and oftentimes determine which absences are excused on a case-by-case basis. If Hoylman’s bill becomes law, mental health days would be among the legally excusable.

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While it is unclear whether there would be a limit on the number of mental health days students would be permitted — or what documentation, if any, they would be required to provide, the idea has already garnered support.

“Offering mental health days to students is a meaningful step toward normalizing the stigma around mental illness and proactively aligning it with wellness and better physical health,” Matt Kudish, executive director of the New York City chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, told the Brooklyn Eagle.

It is critical that students have the time off to have mental health needs met in the same fashion as the flu or a cold or any other physical ailment,” he said. “And, it is especially important at a time when youth suicides rates are on the rise, and half of those who will experience a mental health condition do so as early as age 14.” 

The number of children and teens treated in emergency rooms for attempted suicide and suicidal thoughts nearly doubled between 2007 and 2015, from from 580,000 to 1.12 million, according to a recent report.

In 2016, nearly 4,500 children under 19 made a visit to emergency departments for self-harm in New York alone. Nationwide, nearly a third of all high school students reported experiencing significant periods of sadness and hopelessness that same year, a 2017 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found.

“We need to recognize suicide and self-harm among young New Yorkers as the major public health crisis that it is, demolish the stigma around mental health care, and do everything within our power to help kids who are struggling seek treatment,” Hoylman said in a statement. “An absence from school should never be a barrier to mental health treatment for a child in New York State.”

Marine Park mother Dari Litchman said she’s all for the bill.

“Kids have so much pressure. So much schooling, so many extracurricular activities, and many are really over-scheduled with teams, sports, lessons, etc,” she told the Eagle. “Throw in social pressures (starting in middle school mostly) and you have exhausted little bodies and minds.”

Litchman said she’s been known to give her 11-year-old daughter a mental health day now and then — even when she knows she’s not “sick.”

“[Sometimes] she just needs a day where she can sleep late, zone out, and just relax and not think about anything,” Litchman said. “When I think about a ‘mental health’ day, it is not like a crisis where psychiatrists are involved. It’s more of a needed day off without being sick. Truth be told, I have been known to give myself some mental health days too.”

The legislation — a would-be amendment to Section 3210 of the Education Law — mirrors that which was formerly implemented to permit absences for religious observance.

The New York State Education Department does not comment on pending legislation, but officials pointed the Eagle to a number of steps the department has taken to increase awareness of mental health issues — among them, required instruction on mental health, and extensive online resources.

A spokesperson for the city’s Department of Education said the agency will review the legislation.

“We’re committed to meeting the needs of our students, and we’ve invested in social workers, guidance counselors, and social-emotional learning to help foster supportive environments in school,” DOE Spokesperson Will Mantel told the Eagle.

If passed and signed into law by the governor, Hoylman’s bill would take effect in July 2020. Similar laws have already been enacted in Oregon and Utah. In Oregon, students are allowed five excusable mental health days in a three-month period. Utah’s cap is unclear.

If you or someone you know is in crisis or needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255

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