SALT LAKE CITY — Under a new bill, Utah schools would begin recognizing mental health days as a valid reason for missing class. The proposed legislation adds “mental or behavioral health” as an accepted reason for a student’s absence.
In practice, the bill would treat mental health days the same as sick days. Under current law, it’s acceptable for students to miss school for mental health reasons if it’s classified as a mental illness.
“Not all of us have mental illness, but all of us have mental health we’re trying to take care of, just as we all have physical health,” said Rep. Mike Winder, R-West Valley City, who is sponsoring the legislation. “I think having flexibility in our state code will ultimately lead to better students and save lives.”
If passed, the bill would eliminate the need for students to have an appointment with a counselor or psychiatrist to be excused.
Furthermore, Winder said it would assist teachers and counselors in identifying students who may need help — allowing them to step in if needed.
The idea was brought to the state lawmaker by his daughter Jessica Lee, a senior at Southern Utah University studying psychology. Lee also volunteers at the National Alliance for Mental Illness, which is where she heard about the idea.
The legislation is similar to Oregon law that allows students to miss school for documented mental health days. The law was initiated by Hailey Hardcastle, who created the Students for a Healthy Oregon committee advocating to end the stigma surrounding mental health.
As a student, Hardcastle said her mother allowed her three mental health days each semester. Some semesters she used all three; others, she didn’t need any.
“The fact they were always an option is what kept me a happy, healthy and successful student,” Hardcastle said in a Ted Talk.
After watching her video, Lee said she was inspired to see that kind of change in Utah. She sent a link to her father and was thrilled when he told her he’d make it one of his priority bills.
“I started jumping up and down, I was so excited,” Lee said. “It was amazing.”
As a student pursuing a career in social work, Lee said it’s crucial to de-stigmatize mental health and advocate for increased education.
“I think it’s important to have legislation like this because we all have mental health,” she said. “This bill helps to decrease mental health stigma which increases validation, acceptance and wellness for everyone. I think that’s really important.”
Winder said he hopes the bill will also address depression and suicide among Utah youth, noting it’s a widespread issue across the state.
“What they found in Oregon is that kids will often skip school anyway if they are having a mental health crisis, but since this legislation has been in place it can actually be tracked,” Winder said. “If a school counselor sees somebody with three or more mental health days in a semester they view that as a cry for help and can intervene and help elevate the child’s situation.”
The Utah Department of Health reported 42 suicides among Utah children ages 10-17 in 2019. That’s up from 40 the year before.
In 2017, Utah had the fifth-highest suicide rate in the country for children ages 10 and older, according to the state health department. Through this legislation, Winder said he hopes teachers can keep tabs on their student’s well-being — helping to identify any “cries for help.”
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