We all would like the opportunity to take a break — from school, work or even just everyday struggles when it gets to be too much to manage. Now, thanks to a student-led initiative, Oregon’s students can take that break with honesty.
This year, Oregon became one of the first states to write into law that students can take excused “mental health days,” the same way they can if sick with, for example, the flu.
High school students led the charge, and it has opened conversations about youth mental health.
Utah is the only other state in the country to have mental health reasons defined as a valid excuse for absence.
While some Oregon school districts don’t anticipate much change to their day-to-day processes, the law is a tidal shift that mental health professionals say will bring conversations about students’ mental health into the open, reduce stigma and give schools insight into students who may need support.
“Across time, it’s difficult to go to school,” said Sarah Holtschlag, a youth vocational and educational counselor at PeaceHealth. “So, I think anybody who’s like, ‘We’re coddling these students or our kids these days are soft’ — no. I think we all could have used this: just the day to step back and take a breather, and come back refreshed.”
About the law
The written changes to the law are slight — just one line brings mental health into the reasons a student can have an excused absence from school alongside physical sickness and emergencies. But this is believed to have a significant impact on making students feel comfortable talking about mental health.
The bill was brought to the legislative floor by proactive students in Oregon’s high schools, who saw their peers struggling and wanted a way to bring the issue into the open.
Hailey Hardcastle, of Sherwood, was among the large group of students who worked on the bill. Students from across the state were involved in getting it passed, she said, even just in sharing their experiences.
“Especially in the past few years, my community has experienced a lot of suicides, and it’s similar with a lot of communities across Oregon,” she said. “The student council group got to talking about what we could do about this as teenagers, and we came up with putting forth a bill on behalf of our peers who were also struggling with mental health.”
The students were met with excitement from lawmakers who appreciated their civic engagement, but the reason for the change was tough for students to explain at first.
“The idea of missing school for mental health might seem really out there to some people,” Hardcastle said, but the goal was to bring mental health to the same level of consideration as physical health.
More students are missing school for mental health than may be expected. Some districts in Lane County, for example, already accepted mental health as a valid excused absence. But because it wasn’t clearly outlined until now, families may not have known kids could stay home for mental health reasons, so students often lied about being physically sick.
“That was the No. 1 common thing among all the students we talked to before we put forth this bill,” Hardcastle said.
Many students felt it would not be an accepted excuse, or that if they were absent for mental health reasons they wouldn’t be able to retake tests or make up homework like if they were absent for a physical illness.
“I’ve seen this happen in my own district: The school doesn’t know why (the student) is missing, the parents don’t know why they’re missing — they’re saying they have chronic headaches or something like that when really it’s something bigger,” she said.
Now, those students who pushed the bill through hope the law will be on students’ side.
The bill does not change the amount of days a student can be absent from school. State law dictates that students get five days of excused absence within three months, and no more than 10 days “in any term of at least six months.” Absences beyond that need to be given an excuse in writing to the school’s principal.
A student is considered by the state to have “irregular attendance” if they have eight unexcused one-half day absences over the course of four weeks.
How will schools respond?
Despite the addition, some school districts don’t anticipate making significant changes to their day-to-day processes and response to students.
For students younger than 18 years old, a parent or guardian has to contact the school to excuse the student. This doesn’t change.
Schools in the Eugene area plan to work with students as normal if they come to the office midday and ask to take a mental health day.
“Just like other illness or other excused absences if a student comes in and says they need to leave or take a mental health day, we need to be able to speak with the parents and make sure we’re all on the same page before we excuse the absence,” said Andy Dey, Eugene School District director of high schools.
Districts don’t plan any additional practices to follow up with students after they call out for mental health days. They will continue offering the resources they currently do, primarily through access to school counselors.
“If a student comes to the main office or the counseling office and discusses some duress or stress, we connect them with their counselor to see, is this something we can help with,” Dey said. “Just to see if the decisions there are healthy ones that actually lead to a solution and feeling better — not just bowing out for the day because often that doesn’t really solve what’s causing the stress.”
This is because some school administrators already considered mental health days as a valid excuse.
“I was a little bit surprised by the law because to my understanding if a parent would have called out to say my child is having (a mental health concern) I wouldn’t see why that wouldn’t have been excused,” said Chris Parra, Bethel School District superintendent.
Parra said upon seeing the law, she called some of her school principals to confirm they had handled absences similarly. The overwhelming response was that Bethel’s schools already were accepting mental health as an excused absence.
“It was hands down, if a family says, ‘My child is suffering from depression and this is just a really hard day,’ that’s acceptable,” she said.
The fact that a student having anxiety doesn’t present struggling in the same way as someone with a 100-degree fever doesn’t change this, Parra said.
“To me that’s legitimate health concern, whether it’s mental or physical health.”
Why it’s important
The biggest barrier to managing mental health issues is often just asking for help.
In Oregon, nearly 1 in 3 students reported feeling “sad and hopeless” every day for two weeks, according to data from the 2017 Oregon Healthy Teens Survey. Furthermore, 8.7% of eighth graders and 6.8% of 11th graders said they had attempted suicide once or more in the past year.
The survey is given to eighth and 11th graders to fill out anonymously every two years. Survey results also are reviewed for any anomalies and to remove the small percentage of students who falsely report.
In Lane County, for example, the share of students who said they considered attempting suicide in the past year was 19.3%, a few points above the state average. Even more, between 33% and 35% of students, said they had felt so sad or hopeless for a prolonged time they had stopped doing some of their normal activities.
This simple bill change is a step toward encouraging students to talk about mental health openly.
“I think it really can be just the stigma around it or just not wanting to get a diagnosis or admit that something’s going on,” said PeaceHealth counselor Holtschlag about the biggest reason students don’t seek help. “Or it’s been going on low key for a long time, so not recognizing, ‘Oh, this is something I deal with without saying I’m dealing with it, and I just get up and I press repeat every day.’”
Holschlag works daily with students who are struggling — whether it be with school, finding a job or just overall finding a way to work through their mental health issues. She works with schools to adjust students’ schedules to better fit their learning needs.
“We’re seeing this generation of students really have open, honest conversations about like, what does cause stress? And how are we actually able to take in information when our mind is somewhere else or our mind is not settled?” she said.
Taking care of one’s mental health shouldn’t be an afterthought, because it plays into all aspects of life.
“One of the reasons I love being in the role that I’m in vocational education is because evidence shows that if you are enrolled in school, if you are working, your mental health can actually improve quite a bit,” she said. “So, I am the first person to be like: back to school, get a job, … let’s do this. And yet, there are days that that just doesn’t work, and you simply can’t show up some days.”
This change will better let districts know how students are doing, Dey said, because educators know students have taken days away from school to manage stress or other mental health needs.
“Now there’s no reason to hide that in any way or for parents or students to feel they’re doing something that they shouldn’t,” Dey said.
“One of the things we’re attempting to do is normalize,” Parra said. “Everybody has mental health. We all do. Normalizing asking for help when you need it, it’s OK.”
This likely won’t be the last time we see the issue of mental health for students brought to the legislative floor.
Though Hardcastle and many other students who made this bill possible have graduated from high school, they don’t plan to stop addressing these issues. For next year’s legislative session, she and other college students plan to bring a bill to lawmakers that would put regular testing for mental health in place in schools.
“Starting in elementary school and middle school, they check you for physical health problems — they check your spine for scoliosis, your eyesight, your teeth, and the state funds that, and it goes on in pretty much every public school, and your family can opt out of it if you want to,” she said. “We’re hoping to see them do that same thing for mental health because middle school is when those signs start presenting themselves.”
The students will lobby for the state to invest in a concise test that would tip schools off to some struggles early on, when it’s still a good time to intervene.
Hardcastle said she also sees a major need for continued state funding for mental health support in schools.
“Pretty much every high schooler I’ve talked to feels that their counselor could be better equipped to deal with their mental health problems,” she said. This could signify a need for more training or bringing in actual therapists. “But since it’s a growing problem, we really need the money to keep up with the resources.”
Hardcastle will attend University of Oregon this fall with plans to major in political science. As these civic-minded students move on to college, they hope to redirect action toward mental health in higher education as well.
“When people are afraid that this is going to cause some big shift in student attendance or people are going to skip school a ton, they’re really not,” Hardcastle said. “Students have always made up reasons to skip school, and students have always taken those days for themselves. But now we’re just going to be able to call it what it is.”