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NYS to consider 'mental health days' for students in wake of rising suicide rates

State Sen. Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan) in August.

State Sen. Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan) in August. Credit: Charles Eckert

ALBANY — Students could soon be excused from school for “mental health days” under a bill introduced into the State Legislature on Thursday.

Far from authorizing a skip day or a “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” the bill from Sen. Brad Hoylman cites a serious spike in teenage suicides and the compounding pressures on youths’ mental health as a reason to authorize a break.

“We need to recognize suicide and self-harm among young New Yorkers as the major public health crisis that it is, demolish the stigma around mental health care, and do everything within our power to help kids who are struggling seek treatment,” said Hoylman (D-Manhattan). “An absence from school should never be a barrier to mental health treatment for a child in New York State.”

Oregon, Utah and Minnesota offer similar excused absences. The Oregon law was prompted by an effort by students and now provides five mental health days to students every three months.

“The senator is spot on in terms of recognizing this issue,” said David Albert, spokesman for the state School Boards Association. He said school boards have consistently ranked mental health of students as a pressing concern in the association’s surveys.

“We do believe very strongly that mental health is every bit as important as physical health and it should be a legitimate reason for missing school and equally important that the individual should be getting some type of treatment,” Albert said.

There was no immediate comment from the state Education Department, the Assembly or Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. There is no companion Assembly bill at the moment.

“Allowing students to take mental health days sends the message that mental health is just as important as physical health,” said psychotherapist Amy Moran, author of “13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do” and numerous articles on mental health and youths.

Mental health days “can teach students that it's OK to talk about stress, anxiety, depression and mental health issues more openly,” Moran told Newsday.

“Of course, there are concerns that mental health days may be abused,” Moran said. “For example, feeling tired because you stayed up too late on your electronics shouldn't constitute a mental health day.”

She said mental health days shouldn’t be taken to avoid anxiety over a test or presentation because while it may provide temporary relief, such a day off could contribute to longer-term problems. She said students should not spend the day sleeping or binge-watching TV or videos, which can compound the problem, and parents shouldn’t “reward” their children with a day off, which can send the wrong message.

“Mental health days should be about actively doing things that will improve your mental health in the long term, like attending a doctor's appointment or getting set up with a therapist,” Moran said.

Hoylman cited a Journal of American Medicine Study that found that emergency room visits for youths who attempted suicide or had suicidal thoughts nearly doubled nationwide from 2007 to 2015. The medical periodical stated that 1.12 million youths 5 to 18 years old went to emergency rooms in 2015 for suicide attempts or suicidal thoughts.

In New York, at least 239 youths 18 years old and younger died from suicide from 2014 to 2016, according to a state Health Department record.

Current state education law states absences “shall be permitted only for causes allowed by the general rules and practices of the public schools.” The only specific exceptions are for religious reasons and educational pursuits. Hoylman's bill would add “absence due to the mental or behavioral health of the minor shall be permitted under rules that the commissioner (of education) shall establish.”

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