It used to be that excused absences for missing school focused solely on the visible: a broken bone, a severe illness, the death of a family member. But even before the pandemic started throwing up warning signs about students’ poor mental health, governments and school districts alike were making time for mental health days, citing poor schoolwork and homework due to family crises, exhaustion, and lack of focus.
Schools saw increased rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidality among their students even before the coronavirus. And then, with the ensuing lockdowns, learning how to learn remotely, isolation from classmates and friends, and unstructured days turned even those numbers onto their heads. A June 2020 Harris poll of 1,500 teenagers found that 78% felt schools should give priority to mental health days, so students could take care of their whole body, not just certain parts. And a June roundtable discussion with Education Secretary Miguel Cardona found high school students pressing him to make mental health in schools a top priority.
State legislatures, charged with defining the acceptable reasons for school absences, are increasingly adding mental illness or general mental health to their lists. Minnesota has allowed it since 2009; Utah and Oregon got on the bandwagon in 2018 and 2019. But the pandemic has made the issue more pressing and parents, students, educators, and administrators more aware of the need.
In 2020 and 2021, seven states created laws allowing excused absences for mental health reasons, or expanded on previous laws allowing it. This year, legislatures in another five states debated such bills.
California State Sen. Anthony Portantino (D), who has sponsored a series of K-12 mental health bills since his brother committed suicide 10 years ago, indicated there’s a disparity in the way the system treats students’ physical health and illness and their mental health and illness. Part of the problem may be a lack of teacher and counselor training; many don’t understand which students are struggling and why, so they can’t intervene before the situation reaches a crisis level.
Portantino has a bill under consideration in the General Assembly that would not only allow excused absences for mental health reasons, but would also require half a school’s staff to be trained to recognize early warning signs of mental illness. A second bill would create mandatory mental health courses for students in elementary, middle, and high school.
Lawmakers and school districts alike are recognizing that even the healthiest student — or teacher, for that matter — sometimes has days where their headspace isn’t in the best place. By allowing excused absences in these instances, they can better manage their mental health and improve overall performance.
Many who have fought for the slew of new mental wellness laws also want to destigmatize the idea that there’s somehow something “bad” about you if you admit to mental health issues. They argue that schools need to embrace a range of strategies to help students recover their emotional balance after COVID-19, and deal effectively with life’s ongoing challenges, strategies that end up helping all students.
One of those strategies is building a culture of follow-up. In the Hilliard City, Ohio school district, counselors reach out to students or their families after the absence report indicates those students took two consecutive mental health days. Such follow-up wouldn’t be possible, administrators note, if mental health days hadn’t been given their own absence code. The district created the code in 2019, as educators saw a growing wave of depression, anxiety, and suicides among students and staff members.
The district’s new “hope squad” trains 35 students in each middle and high school to recognize the signs of early mental health problems in their peers and help adult advisers to connect those students to counselors or social workers. Students can also request help from mental health specialists through a “safe school help line.”
Mary Giliberti, the vice president for policy at Mental Health America, believes excused absences for mental health days can prevent serious problems from developing, and they can also facilitate students getting needed treatment. She encourages schools to envision their programs as a spectrum that includes prevention and recognition of, and services for, mental health issues.
So, what do you think? Are mental health days advisable and/or necessary? Will programs to address mental health destroy the stigma that still clings to the term, or are we not there yet? And are the absences just an excuse for kids to play hooky? Please leave us your thoughts and comments in the section below.
 Gewertz. Catherine. (June 24, 2021). “Why More Schools Are Excusing Student Absences for Mental Health.” Education Week. Retrieved from https://www.edweek.org/leadership/why-more-schools-are-excusing-student-absences-for-mental-health/2021/06.