Now, students can take a mental health day without cutting class

A new law requires school districts rewrite their manuals to add mental health as a reason for an excused absence.

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SNOHOMISH — When Glacier Peak High School junior Bella Peppin feels emotionally unwell, she sometimes chooses to visit the school counselor or skip class altogether. She said it’s worth just “taking the unexcused absence” to take care of her mental health.

But this fall, Peppin and her peers will have the option of excusing their mental health days, the same way they would for a cold or the flu.

“Mental health is basically your brain being sick. Physical health is when you’re sick and your body reacts badly,” Peppin said. “You can wake up and have a sick day, so it’s almost like the same thing because when you wake up, you can instantly tell that your brain is not doing its best today.”

This month school districts across the state face a deadline to update their absence policies to cover mental health-related reasons as an excused absence. Parents will be able to call to excuse their child from class as they would for reasons such as illness, family emergency, scholarship interviews or court proceedings.

Youth advocates worked with lawmakers to pass the bill earlier this year. Students that supported the change shared their hope that the rule would set a precedent that it’s OK to talk about mental health – and seek help.

“It’s been important to (students) because they want to see their mental health equal to their physical health,” said Bridget Underdahl, program supervisor of Project AWARE, a state project that seeks to grow mental health services.

Some local high school students told The Daily Herald that they think the change is good, especially if paired with more support in schools.

Henry M. Jackson High School senior Venya Pillai noted that the new policy is especially relevant in light of the pandemic. From studying for the SAT to preparing for college, students already face a lot of academic stress. Online classes and a choppy return to school piled onto that.

“This year after COVID, it was definitely worse,” Pillai said.

According to the Healthy Youth Survey, the percentage of 10th-graders in Snohomish County who reported feeling anxious or nervous in the past year rose from 66% in 2016 to 70% in 2021. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found more than one-third of high school students experienced poor mental health last year, and 44% reported feeling “persistently” sad or hopeless.

Pillai said schools could also loosen grading styles or deadlines to ease the pressure students feel in class, or start programs to help students relax.

She recounted a time in ninth grade when the school brought in therapy dogs to help students relax during testing.

“But then I remember hearing that you had to wait in line for a long time, because everyone was stressed out,” Pillai said. “So if they do that again, they can definitely bring more animals.”

Peppin said schools should post information about the mental health days on the school website and in counselor offices, so students know it’s an option. She also suggested that her school pair the new rule with additional training for counselors, so they know how best to help students who end up in their offices for mental health-related reasons.

“When I have gone in with stress, (my counselor) had no clue what to say, and I ended up going home before he was even able to give me advice on what to do,” Peppin said. “They don’t do much except send you home, and sometimes for other kids that can be the most dangerous place to be.”

The state superintendent’s office plans to release more guidance in late August for how schools can update their attendance policies to meet the new requirements. And OSPI will release more resources to help schools support student wellbeing and “destigmatize” mental health, said Krissy Johnson, OSPI’s assistant director of attendance.

“The biggest caution we have,” Johnson said, “is if the only change is just to excuse these absences with no proactive supportive response to the schools, that does a disservice to youth.”

Herald interns Fern Calderwood, Ann Duan and Jacqueline Shaner contributed to this report.

Mallory Gruben is a Report for America corps member who writes about education for The Daily Herald.

Mallory Gruben: 425-339-3035; mallory.gruben@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @MalloryGruben.

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