State lawmakers in New York are considering a bill to allow K-12 students to take mental health days. If it passes, New York will join a dozen other states that give students an excused absence from classes to look after their mental well-being.
It’s an idea that’s popular with both students and parents.
But as new states consider adopting the policy, and students take advantage of the benefit in the states where it’s available, how well do these student well-being days work as a mental-health support?
To answer that question, we need a bit of background first.
The idea of student mental health days started gaining steam with the pandemic and the anxiety, stress, and disruption that came with it.
Twelve states currently allow for mental health days, according to a recent tally by the health and wellness website, Verywell Mind. A few states had passed laws prior to the pandemic saying that mental health is a legitimate reason for kids to stay home from school without consequences. But the pandemic appears to have sparked increased interest in the idea.
Since 2020, 10 states have passed laws allowing kids to take a day off from school not because they are physically ill, but simply to mentally rest and recharge. Some laws simply state that mental or behavioral issues are now a valid excuse for missing school. Two other states stipulate a limit on the number of designated mental health days students can take, such as Connecticut, which allows students to take two non-consecutive mental health days a year, and Illinois, which allows for up to five mental health days a year. These bills have been sponsored by both Democrats and Republicans.
It’s easy to see why some states have embraced the policy: it’s a relatively low-resource way to support kids’ mental well-being. Allowing students to take mental health days also sends the message that taking care of your mental health is as important as your physical health and reduces stigma around seeking help.
A student takes a mental health day. Then what?
While valuable for those reasons, experts also caution that mental health days do come with some potential pitfalls.
The National Association of School Psychologists doesn’t have an official position on mental health days. It is supportive of the idea that mental health should be treated similarly to physical health but warns that mental health days should not become a substitute for other mental health support services delivered by trained professionals.
It’s not enough for policymakers and education leaders to give students a day off for a mental well-being break, said Kelly Vaillancourt Strobach, the organization’s director of policy and advocacy, at the National Association of School Psychologists. She has some questions for policymakers and school and district leaders to consider:
“Is there any process for ensuring a student has adult supervision while they are home?” Strobach said in an email interview. “I realize you can’t really do this now when a kid calls in sick, but a student who stays home because they are feeling depressed or may be experiencing suicidal ideation should not be left alone.”
Does a parent have to give consent to the day off? And will there be a system in place to flag when a student takes a mental health day? That’s important, said Strobach, because it prompts a school psychologist, counselor, or social worker to follow up with the student when they return to see if any additional supports are needed.
The Hilliard school district in Ohio has just such a system. Mental health days have their own special absence code in the district’s attendance system, and school counselors automatically reach out to students or families after a student takes two consecutive mental health days.
In general, there also is not a lot of research into how offering mental health days affects students’ mental health and academic outcomes likely because the idea is so new. Experts suggest it should be paired with other strategies, including hiring more mental health support staff; creating partnerships with community mental health providers; setting up a mental health hotline; and training teachers and students to identify signs of mental distress.
Some schools have even created “director of wellness” positions on their leadership teams.
Students are a driving force in adopting the policy
What schools do know is that the past few years have been hard on kids’ mental well-being, accelerating a downward trend that was present before the pandemic.
In the fall of 2021, several child health care organizations—the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association—declared a “mental health state of emergency” for children and teens, and recent research shows that stress from pandemic lockdowns caused teens’ brains to age prematurely.
That is likely why mental health days is a popular idea with many students. In some cases, they have been the driving force behind adopting the policy.
High school students in Oregon led the charge in lobbying lawmakers to pass a bill allowing for mental health days to count as an excused absence.
Polls have found the idea to also be popular with parents. A 2021 survey by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, conducted by the international polling firm Ipsos, found that 70 percent of parents support schools offering mental health days to students.
A June 2022 poll by Verywell Mind and the magazine Parents found that 75 percent of parents feel that schools should offer mental health days to students. And 56 percent of parents said they have let their kids take a mental health day, regardless of whether their child’s school has a formal mental health day policy.
Whether this momentum behind mental health days will continue is hard to call at this point.
Similar bills to the one currently being considered in New York were introduced in the state legislature in 2017 and 2019, but did not pass. Bills introduced in Maryland, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania in prior years have also stalled, according to the analysis by Verywell Mind.
There are also some school districts that offer mental health days, such as the Hilliard City schools in Ohio, and Harford County Public Schools in Maryland, whose board approved allowing students to take mental health absences earlier this month.
Maya Riser-Kositsky, Librarian and Data Specialist contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the February 08, 2023 edition of Education Week as More Schools Are Offering Student Mental Health Days. Here’s What You Need to Know