If a student in the state of Oregon is ill, has a dentist or doctor’s appointment, or a family member is ill, they’re allowed to take the day off from school. But now, thanks to a new state law, students will also be excused from school if they’re suffering from a mental health disorder such as depression or anxiety, or they have an appointment with a psychologist. In an effort to reduce the stigma around mental health disorders, the bill is believed to be one of the first in the country that treats physical and mental health equally.
The bill has been signed into law by Gov. Kate Brown and will take effect this coming school year. Learn more about this bill and the students that advocated for change.
How the Law Will Play Out in Oregon Schools
Under the new law, students will now be allowed to take up to five excused absences, or “Mental Health Days” within a three-month period for a range of mental health disorders. Further excused absences will require a handwritten note.
Students can now be honest about their reasons for needing to take time off school, instead of pretending to be physically sick. If a student is feeling down or anxious, or they are dealing with a mental health disorder, they will be excused from classes with no questions asked.
Some have argued that students will abuse the new law, taking time off from school even if they feel perfectly well. Oregon also has one of the highest absenteeism rates in the nation. Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing 10% or more of school days, including both excused and unexcused absences. During the 2015–16 school year, nearly 102,000 students in Oregon, more than one in six children, were chronically absent from school. Oregon ranks in the bottom 20% of all states when it comes to chronic absenteeism.
Mental Health in the State of Oregon
Mental health continues to be a major concern among teenagers and all ages across the country. Despite concerns of chronic absenteeism, depression and anxiety remain common among teenagers and adolescents, and many of them aren’t getting the help they need. According to the 2015 Child Mind Institute Children’s Mental Health Report, 80% of kids with a diagnosable anxiety disorder and 60% of kids with diagnosable depression are not getting treatment.
According to the CDC, the national suicide rate has increased 33% from 1999 to 2017. But Oregon’s suicide rate has been higher than the national average for the past 30 years, revealing widespread mental health issues throughout the state. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among Oregon residents aged 15 to 34 and the eighth-leading cause of death among all ages in the state, according to the Oregon Health Authority.
Students Standing Up for Change
After realizing that nearly all of her peers had a story about someone they know who had tried to commit suicide or was dealing with a mental health problem including one of her closest friends, 18-year-old Hailey Hardcastle and three other students started lobbying for the mental health bill in Oregon. Hardcastle also attended a summer camp for the Oregon Association of Student Councils, where she held workshops for students across the state. During these workshops, students discussed the importance of taking “mental health days” from school without being stigmatized or disciplined.
Hardcastle also talks openly about her own struggles with anxiety. She said she always felt pressured to do as much as she could in school to stay competitive in terms of college and jobs. “A big issue for students with mental health is when you have to miss a day because you’re going through depression or you have a therapy appointment. It’s really hard to make up tests and homework because teachers or the administration might not take it as seriously as a physical illness.”
Thanks to the new law, more students will be able to come forward with their mental health problems without being stigmatized or having to worry about not being excused from school. Hopefully, more students will seek the help they need by seeing a social worker, psychologist or psychiatrist.
No one should have to live in the shadows with a mental health disorder. This law shows the growing importance of mental health care in the U.S. as more individuals talk openly about their mental health care needs.
If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.