Parents, educators and clinicians are seeing an alarming increase in mental health problems among young people. Various national surveys show the rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide on the rise, but what to do about it is less clear.
In July of 2019, Oregon passed a bill that allows students to take excused absences for mental health related issues. Students advocated for the bill, saying it would reduce stigma about mental health issues, and encourage young people to seek the treatment they need.
Now, the California legislature is considering something similar. State Senator Anthony Portantino has introduced a bill that would change the education code to allow for mental health related excused absences. For him, mental health is a personal issue.
"I had a brother who took his own life," Portantino said. "And one of the reasons I talk about it is so people understand that mental health issues affect all of us."
He says anything that reduces stigma could go a long way to prevent tragedies like the one his family suffered.
"It's not the time to be shy. It's the time to bring these conversations out of the shadows so we can help those who need it."
Portantino isn't concerned that students will abuse the excused absences. If anything, he thinks it will take a lot of convincing to help families drop the barriers they hold around mental health.
But what would this really mean to schools?
"Young people are already missing school because of mental health challenges," said Jenn Rader, director of the James Morehouse Project at El Cerrito High School just outside of San Francisco. "So if this would make that reality more visible for all of us, and bring into sharper focus for all of us what it is we’re all up against, that would be a positive step."
Rader hadn't heard of the legislation but was intrigued. She'd like to see what results Oregon sees a year into implementation, but agrees with Portantino that reducing stigma around mental health would be valuable.
El Cerrito High operates on a block schedule, which means each student only has four classes a semester with a year's worth of material condensed into each class. That makes it extra difficult to catch up when students miss a lot of instructional time. Rader says there's a clear correlation between students with mental health challenges and absences, especially for those with anxiety.
Dr. Mark Reinecke of the Child Mind Institute says the state needs to tread carefully with legislation like this. He understands the need for parity between mental health and physical health, but says it all depends on the specific situation.
“There are some situations where this entirely sensible and others where it doesn't make sense," Reinecke said.
Take anxiety, for example. Allowing kids with school avoidance problems or social anxiety to stay home from "is absolutely the wrong thing to be offering them. For those youngsters, what we want is exposure, we want the youngster to approach the things they fear."
Reinecke says letting anxious students avoid school only reinforces the behavior. But kids aren't doomed to suffer with anxiety forever. Research has shown Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to be an effective treatment. For a student with debilitating depression, on the other hand, an excused absence to see a therapist may be very helpful.
The problem, says Reinecke, is that parents make these decisions in different ways. Some parents take a lot of convincing to call the school if a child is sick. Others, let them stay home at the slightest sign of fever. Excused absences for mental health issues would be similarly murky, he said.