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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

Troubled students need more than 'mental health days'

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If proponents of children being allowed to miss school to address emotional or psychological issues want to be taken seriously, they need to stop referring to the excused absences as “mental health days.” It conjures up images of a missing employee or strolling through Central Park on a first date, balloons in hand, as Herman’s Hermits’ “I’m Into Something Good” plays.

For schoolkids, it sounds like a way to deal with homework that’s not finished or a looming exam, not an emotional crisis.

This week, State Sen. Brad Hoylman of Manhattan introduced a vagueish bill that, according to its description, “Provides for absence from school for the mental or behavioral health” of minors. Actual rules would be established by the education commissioner, but the bill’s summary explains that it’s partially based on Oregon’s law, and that is not a good model. 

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed a bill into law in June allowing students to take as many as five   mental health days in a three-month period, or 15 in a school year, before written documentation is required to be provided to the school. But if I’m the principal of a high school where a 17-year-old boy has missed 14 days of school because of an unexplained mental illness, how do I let him attend at all? Doesn’t the school need to know what’s wrong and what kind of help he’s getting? Don’t teachers and the administration need to be part of the solution?

Allowing numerous school absences for mental health issues before requiring even a note of explanation would likely be both unproductive and borderline negligent.

“What evidence would we be provided that they needed that day, and what criteria would that need be judged by?” asked Rockville Centre School District Superintendent William Johnson. “Taking off from school is not a solution for the pressure and issues most kids face. We’d want to know what the problem is, and know that they used that day to address it.”

The mental health of young people is a serious issue. It shouldn’t be stigmatized, and it can be a legitimate reason to miss classes. The statistics Hoylman cites to justify his bill come from 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, with 1.12 million people ages 5 through 18 going to emergency rooms for those reasons in 2015. 

There is the root of a good idea here. It should be clear in the law and to students and parents that mental illness is as good a reason to miss school and get help as physical illness. And even creating one or two personal days for students each year isn’t crazy. Everybody needs a day now and then. 

But as explained, this law might do more to trivialize mental health issues than destigmatize them, because kids with psychological issues don’t need "a mental health day."  That’s an adulting term for playing hooky, not for getting help, and it’s not analogous to absences for physical issues. Students don’t get excused “physical health days” for taking a nice run or eating more fiber. They get sick days for moaning and vomiting. 

Students with mental health issues may well need a day off, but that day needs to be used to address those issues and get help for them. And for any mental issues serious enough to justify absenteeism, the schools need to be fully aware and fully involved.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday's editorial board.