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States consider laws that would accept mental health as a valid excuse for a school absence

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Posted at 7:56 PM, Feb 18, 2021

It’s no secret that remote learning and isolation are both tough on kids.

“We know that the routine of a school day is exceedingly important for kids for developing minds,” Dr. Chris Rogers, child psychiatry specialist and medical director of Child and Adolescent Services at the Medical Center of Aurora Behavioral Health campus said.

And it’s impacting their mental health. Children’s mental health-related emergency department visits have increased since last March, according to the CDC. Compared with 2019, ED visits increased 24 percent for ages 5-11, and 321 percent for ages 12-17 in 2020.

“Remote learning has been an adjustment for everyone, that many families are under a great deal more stress,” Dr. Alison Steier, vice president of Mental Health Services at Southwest Human Development in Arizona, said.

Arizona and Utah have proposed laws to provide mental health days for kids. This would add mental and behavioral health to the reasons students can be absent, just like a sick day.

“There is, in my view, parity with physical illness,” Steier said. Laws like this have already been passed in Oregon, Maine, Colorado, and Virginia.

“You have to look at it in two ways, one is, is it a child who has sort of a chronic struggle and then the question is does a break from school make sense?” she said. “Children of all ages can experience stress that can be too much and in those cases, I really think taking a break is a good idea and a good lesson for children about taking care of their own mental health. It’s not a good idea to wait until you're over the edge.”

Steier said the next step is to figure out what a mental health day looks like.

“I’m taking this day to replenish myself, so I’m going to do something that really feeds me and really gives me a feeling of having gotten a break,” she said.

Fourteen percent of parents reported worsening behavioral health for their children since March 2020, and 27 percent reported worsening mental health for themselves, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“Most schools, most teachers, more principals, and guidance counselors understand the stresses that our kids are under and are very willing to have them take time off, and have some assignments forgiven. I would say that message -- your mental health is more important than your GPA -- is paramount importance,” Rogers said. “We know that the best way to help a child that's struggling with mental illness is to start the conversation yourself.”

There are some signs you can look for. Rogers says look out for when kids aren’t interested in social activities, and when they stop taking care of themselves, such as not showering or brushing their teeth.

“Finding ways to get kids back into school, finding safe ways to encourage them to be able to have some social contacts are key steps in recovering,” Rogers said.

The CDC recommends social contact activities like reaching out to family and friends on the phone or over video chat, and writing cards to family members who may not be able to visit.

As families continue to look for a balance between pandemic safety and mental health, Steier said the fact that states are considering such laws is a step in the right direction.

“Recognizing children can suffer emotionally or can be overtaxed, overstressed, is a very good thing for our country,” she said.