student mental health anxiety depression

Since the beginning of the pandemic, children and adolescents have experienced higher rates of anxiety, depression and stress.

States Act to Allow Student Mental Health Days

By Autumn Rivera | March 31, 2022 | State Legislatures News | Print

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1 in 3 high school students experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in 2019, a 40% increase since 2009. Additionally, 70% of teenagers surveyed by the Pew Research Center in 2018 said anxiety and depression were significant problems among their peers.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, children and adolescents have experienced even higher rates of anxiety, depression and stress. During a 2020 NCSL Virtual Youth Forum, the student participants raised concerns about rising mental health case numbers and noted an increase in depression among their peers. Policymakers have acknowledged the ongoing concern over student mental health by offering mental health as a reason to be absent from school.

What Are Mental Health Days? 

According to the Child Mind Institute, a nonprofit specializing in kids’ mental health, a mental health day is a day off from school to rest and recharge. There is ongoing discussion over what a mental health day includes and how best to utilize the time. The lack of consensus means families can interpret the term as they deem appropriate unless a state or a school district outlines specific requirements. The institute further explains that mental health days are not intended for students to avoid completing an assignment or to help children neglect situations at school that make them feel uncomfortable. Allowable reasons might include relationship struggles, performance pressure, family trauma and existing mental health conditions.

Legislative Action

States have addressed the issue in a variety of ways. One approach expands the allowed absences list to include mental or behavioral health. In 2018, Utah became one of the first states to add physical or mental illness to its definition of a valid mental health excuse with its passage of House Bill 234. The state expanded its law in 2021 by passing House Bill 81, which stipulates that taking care of mental health is an acceptable reason for missing school. In Maine, students can be excused when the absence is due to personal illness, including mental or behavioral health. Illinois includes mental and behavioral health as an excused absence, and students who use a second mental health day may be referred to the appropriate school support personnel.

States also are enacting legislation allowing excused absences granted by mental or behavioral health professionals. Nevada’s 2021 Senate Bill 249, for example, allows for such professionals to excuse student absences from school and give every student three mental health days.

Other states require their state education agencies or local school districts to permit students a specific number of mental health days. In 2020, Colorado enacted Senate Bill 20-014, which requires school district attendance requirements to include a policy for excused absences for behavioral health concerns. Similarly, Virginia required its education department to establish guidelines for excused absence due to mental and behavioral health. The department published its guidelines in 2020. Arizona’s Senate Bill 1097, passed in 2021, allows students to be excused for mental or behavioral health, but districts may set specific policies.

This legislative trend has continued into 2022, with a flurry of introduced measures in Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia.

Autumn Rivera is a policy associate in NCSL’s Education Program.

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