You probably wouldn’t send your child to school with a fever or upset stomach, but would you keep them home if they were anxious or depressed? Several states have implemented policies to allow mental health days for students, and even more are considering similar guidelines.
In December 2021, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory on what’s been dubbed a youth mental health crisis highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which he said was “devastating” on adolescent mental health. Among other recommendations, Murthy advised that mental health should be recognized as an essential part of overall health.
“Mental health challenges in children, adolescents and young adults are real and widespread,” Murthy said in a statement. “Even before the pandemic, an alarming number of young people struggled with feelings of helplessness, depression and thoughts of suicide — and rates have increased over the past decade. The future wellbeing of our country depends on how we support and invest in the next generation.”
A Children’s Hospital Association report showed a sharp increase in the percentage of children visiting the emergency room for mental health issues between March and October 2020. The number increased 24% for kids ages 5 to 11 and 31% for ages 12 to 17. Similarly, a report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated significant increases in emergency room visits by adolescent females (aged 12 to 17 years) for a variety of mental health conditions, and a study of New Jersey hospitals reported pronounced ER visits by teens aged 12 to 17 for mental health conditions during the pandemic.
“The pandemic, with its isolation, didn’t help,” California state Sen. Anthony Portantino told The Washington Post. “The pandemic exacerbated the need, but if it can hasten the fix, then that is something positive.”
Portantino, a Democrat who introduced a bill signed into state law in 2021 that aims to give students education on mental health from a qualified professional at three distinct stages of their K-12 careers, lost his brother, Michael, to suicide in 2010. The lawmaker says he hopes other families can avoid the same tragic loss through legislation like California Senate Bill 224.
States That Allow Mental Health Absences
The laws vary by state. Some require a doctor’s note, and others limit the number of mental health days students can take, for instance. However, parents must sign a note excusing their child in all cases, and students must make up missed schoolwork, just like in the case of a traditional sick day. Similar bills have also been proposed in Maryland, Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania. However, 36 states still have no legislation regarding mental health days for students in the pipeline.
“The more we can shift to a prevention mindset and integrate mental health promotion into schools from a young age,” Tamar Mendelson, director of the Center for Adolescent Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told NPR, “I see that as very key to helping reduce the needs for treatment that we see in young people.”
How to Best Use a Mental Health Day
Nearly one-third of parents surveyed by VeryWellMind and Parents were unaware of mental health days for kids, and roughly as many felt their children were too young to experience mental health issues. However, research has shown that even preschoolers can exhibit signs of depression and anxiety.
Parents who recognize the need for their kids to a day off to nurture their mental health should try to be intentional with the time taken.
Spend the day engaging in activities that help your child feel calm and centered. Don’t push them to talk about emotions or negative experiences all day. However, if your child wants to discuss feelings, relationships or issues they are dealing with, actively listen.
If you feel your child needs more help than you can provide, don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional. For example, you can ask your family’s healthcare provider or the school counselor for a recommendation. You can also call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or chat with someone at 988lifeline.org 24 hours a day, seven days a week.