Mental health is a growing problem in America, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these concerns. According to Michigan University, anxiety and depression in teens have increased by as much as 36% and 31%, respectively, since the beginning of the pandemic. And in December of 2021, the U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy even went as far as to issue an advisory on America’s “youth mental health crisis”. In his advisory, Murthy urged individuals, families, community organizations, and companies to step in whatever way they could to improve the mental health of teens.
However, despite this warning from the Surgeon General himself, the majority of schools have changed little about the way they operate to better support the students they are meant to serve. House bill 38 (HB038) attempts to change this. HB038 proposes that schools be required to provide students with three excused “mental health” days off from school per month. These days would give students a chance to de-stress during periods of high anxiety or when they are struggling with other mental health concerns.
Mental health days are not a cure-all to long-term mental health disorders such as depression or anxiety, but studies have shown that they can still have a significant positive impact on students. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, 93% of managers surveyed report that taking time off increased employee motivation. Although this survey was conducted in workplaces, not schools, students would likely also experience this increase in motivation after taking time off during a “mental health day,” due to the similar nature of both of these institutions. Additionally, a 2020 survey by Mental Health America found that nearly 50% of teens would like to learn how to care for their own mental health needs. Learning when to take time off from school or work to prioritize your own well-being would help teens learn to care for themselves and give them coping skills they can use once they graduate high school or college.
A law that gives students the right to take days off for mental concerns is not a new, or even unpopular, idea. According to the New York Times, nine states have passed laws that give students time off for mental health issues in the last two years alone. And according to a Harris Poll conducted in 2020, 78% of students believe that teenagers need mental health days in order to take care of themselves. Mental Health America even reports that more than half of teenagers believe that a break from school is the action that would have the greatest positive impact on their mental health.
Lastly, having mental health days be a legitimate part of school attendance policies would validate students struggling with anxiety and depression, as well as destigmatize taking time off to care for yourself. In a culture where it can be seen as a badge of honor to restrict your sleep and sacrifice your health for grades, encouraging students to take days off could grant permission to teenagers who might not feel comfortable missing school otherwise.
Of course, there is always a risk that teenagers who miss school will fall behind, but experts argue that teenagers cannot take in the things they are learning in school if they are dealing with a mental health condition anyway. And overall, the potential benefits of mental health days outweigh the potential downsides– improved well-being is worth the annoyance of a missed math test or late homework assignment. House bill 38 effectively addresses teenage mental health and could have the ability to significantly lower anxiety and depression in high schoolers. If government officials really care about the well-being of their constituents, then they must pass this bill and give students the right to prioritize their health.
Written by: Delia Rune