Health & Fitness

Students in New York could get mental health days off from classes

Lawmakers in New York state are considering joining a dozen other states that allow students to take mental health days off from school.

The proposal is expected to be introduced this month in Albany. The intention is to make emotional wellness a health priority.

The stresses of growing up, amplified by the isolation of the pandemic, have created a generation of depressed and anxiety-ridden youth, with suicide on the rise among people aged 15 to 24 in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For years, teen specialists have warned of a mental health crisis among young people, which has been exacerbated by a year and a half of social isolation imposed by the pandemic. 

In South Huntington, on New York’s Long Island, Walt Whitman High School now offers students counseling at a nearby urgent care center.

“Students who are kind of maybe struggling and may just need a day to go somewhere,” senior Hasham Coudrey said.

The state is considering going even further. The bill would add mental health days off from school, like sick days for a physical ailment such as a cold or stomachache.

“If parents see mental health as equal to a sick day, maybe they would allow it and it would help kids who are struggling,” Walt Whitman High senior Eliana Kazin said.

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More common at school, work

In the last few years, a dozen states have passed laws allowing students to skip school for mental wellness. It’s also a growing trend in the workplace. An October survey from consultancy WTW found that 30% of employers plan to offer dedicated mental health days in the next two years, up from 9% today.

Experts who work with teens say mental health days in schools would open communication with parents, and can spur life-saving intervention.

“If a child is communicating, ‘I want to take one of those mental health days,’ you now have an opportunity to not only discuss it, you help the conversation become very natural about mental health,” said Kathy Rivera, executive director of North Shore Family Guidance Center.

However, not all educators think providing yet another day off from school is the most effective approach. Critics have said that simply taking a day off won’t help a student address the underlying issues causing distress, such as too much work, interpersonal conflicts or a deeper, undiagnosed illness.

“Doesn’t get to the root of the problem”

“If a student stays home for a mental health day, although it may sound helpful, an extra day off still doesn’t get to the root of the problem. In fact, it can even lead to chronic absenteeism, while the problem remains hidden and unresolved. Helping students cope and resolve stressful situations is the helpful and correct solution,” said Dr. Shari Camhi, superintendent of the Baldwin Union Free School District.

Teachers and administrators “want to help determine the cause of these mental health issues,” he said. “Then it can be everyone’s mission to help students fix that problem. If tests or classroom assignments are the cause of students’ distress, teachers can find a solution. Conflicts at home or social media interactions can spark depression and anxiety.”

Coudrey said he believes students wouldn’t take advantage of added mental health days, “especially with having kind of a limit of three to five days.”

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May help students — and teachers

The state Department of Education would determine the limit of mental health days. All work missed must be made up. Plainview/Old Bethpage JFK High School has allowed them, and the principal reports no abuse of the system.

“We were able to identify some students that were using them more than we wanted to see, which gave us an opportunity for the assistant principal and social worker to reach out to the family to say, what can we do to help your child?” Principal James Murray said.

Advocates say it ought to be for teachers, too.

“Burnout is real. I think we look at burnout as a separate category and it’s not. Burnout is the cumulative effect of how life stressors impact our overall mental health,” said Eric Kussin of the #SameHere Global Mental Health Movement.

The proposal to add mental health days has been introduced and failed in Albany for four years, but with data showing the pandemic dramatically impacted mental health, supporters say there is new urgency.

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