State lawmakers are increasingly looking to support children in Utah and Arizona suffering from anxiety over the coronavirus pandemic.
The bill would add mental or behavioral health to the list of reasons why students can be absent from class or stay out due to physical illness.
Similar laws have been passed in the past two years in Oregon, Maine, Colorado, and Virginia.
Offering mental health days can help children and parents communicate and prevent struggling students from falling behind in school or ending up in crisis, said Debbie Plotnick, vice president of the nonprofit advocacy group Mental Health America. Plotnick said that mental health days can be even more effective when combined with mental health services in schools.
“We know this year has been very difficult and we know it is difficult for the youngsters,” Plotnick said. “That is why it is so essential that students feel comfortable introducing themselves and saying I need to take some steps to support my mental health.”
In Arizona, Democratic Senator Sean Bowie introduced a measure for mental health day for the second time after legislation stalled in March when the pandemic gripped it.
Republican Gov. Doug Ducey took an interest in youth suicide and mental health, and Bowie said he is confident it will be signed into law. The bill passed unanimously in the state Senate on Thursday.
Conservative Utah passed a law in 2018 that allows children to take time from school for mental illness. A new proposal by Republican Rep. Mike Winder would allow for student absences to deal with other types of mental pressures to further normalize the treatment of a mental health problem as a physical one.
“If a student has a panic attack today, due to some drama at home, that is not necessarily a mental illness,” Winder said. “But they may need that day to catch their breath and maintain their sanity.”
Under the Utah bill, which passed off the committee on Friday, mental health days would be treated like any other excused absence, Winder said. A parent would need to excuse their child, and students would still be expected to make up their school work.
In Arizona, specific policies for mental health days would depend on each school district, Bowie said.
Theresa Nguyen, a licensed clinical social worker, said she is concerned about the possible long-term mental and academic effects that students may face from the pandemic.
In addition to increasing reports of anxiety and depression, Nguyen said, many students say they do not feel they are virtually absorbing class material and that they are not receiving enough support.
“They feel like, ‘Nobody cares that I’m struggling, so they’re basically communicating to me that I have to deal with it myself,'” said Nguyen, director of programs for Mental Health America. “And for many young people, that means an increase in self-harm and suicide.”
For the past several years, Utah leaders have sought ways to reduce an alarming rate of youth suicide. The pandemic has grown in urgency, with many young people isolated from friends and school activities.
Winder’s bill is modeled after a similar program in Oregon that his daughter, Jessica Lee, encountered through her work on a youth-focused committee with the Utah chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
In Oregon, students receive five excused absences every three months, and these can be sick days or mental health days.
Lee, who is a senior at Southern Utah University studying clinical psychology, said he was inspired by the youth activists who successfully defended the Oregon bill in 2019.
Lee and Corroon work with the committee to help teens navigate their mental health. Over the years, Corroon learned to control his anxiety with medication and therapy and is now a sophomore at the University of Washington, where he plans to study public health.
Part of her routine is taking a step back to prioritize her mental health, an opportunity that she says other kids deserve, too.
“I definitely needed those days to stay home or find a resource instead of forcing myself to go to school and put more stress on my mental health,” Corroon said.