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.

NO CAPTION. Logo to accompany news of education.

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;; Twitter: @MalloryGruben.

Talk to us

More in Local News

A family of four escaped a fire in their home's garage without injuries Saturday night in Brier. (South County Fire)
Brier family escapes harm after fire in garage

The two-story house in the 22800 block of Brier Road had an estimated $150,000 in damages, per South County Fire.

A woman was injured in an attack Sunday at Clark Park in Everett. (Everett Police Department)
Woman injured after attack at Clark Park in Everett

The woman was taken to Providence Regional Medical Center Everett for her injuries, which were not considered critical.

Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney in a video decries an erosion of public safety and increase in brazen criminal behavior. (Screenshot)
Snohomish County sheriff, chorus of local leaders decry policing reforms

Criminals are getting more brazen, they said. In a video, they called for easing vehicle pursuit rules and stiffening drug laws.

Attorney Michael Andrews, left, and Kyle Brown listen to the judge's address Wednesday afternoon at the Snohomish County Superior Courthouse in Everett, Washington on September 21, 2022. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Marysville ex-youth minister gets community service for sexual assault

Kyle Brown, of Marysville, pleaded guilty to fourth-degree assault with a sexual motivation last month. In 2019, he was charged with molestation.

A semi truck blows smoke out of its exhaust pipes while driving southbound on I-5 on Friday, Sept. 23, 2022 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Reader: Did a tractor-trailer cover my car in diesel soot?

Probably not, according to a Department of Ecology spokesperson, since diesel emissions are getting “cleaner.”

Phyllis Hopkins, left, and Debbie Wetzel at the site of the Cathcart Crossing project on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022 in Cathcart, Washington. Hopkins is one of 13 neighbors who was left out of the loop about a public hearing and comment period for the proposed development, an appeal alleges. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Neighbors appeal 286 townhomes off Highway 9 in Cathcart

Residents are protesting what they say is a lack of transparency. The Snohomish County Council will hear their appeal Oct. 5.

Alderwood Water & Wastewater District water quality tech assistant Matt Williams looks at the clarity of a water sample taken from the artesian well located along164th Street on Monday, April 2, 2018 in Lynnwood, Wa. The well," also known as Well No. 5 or the 164th Street Artesian Well is in excess of 400 feet in depth and flows at a rate of about 10 gallons per minute. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
Water district keeps leadership, for now, despite staff woes

Investigations found Alderwood General Manager Dick McKinley broke ethics rules, more than once.

Snohomish County vital statistics

Marriage licenses, dissolutions and deaths.

On Aug. 30, Everett police posted this photo to Facebook seeking tips about an alleged fatal hit-and-run. (Everett Police Department)
Woman arrested in hit-and-run death of Everett pedestrian

Patricia Oman, 80, was walking on Broadway when she was hit. She died four days later. The alleged driver was held on $100,000 bail.

Most Read