Poma: Let K-12 Students Have “Mental Health Days”


Peter Howard

(Courtesy Flickr)

By Sasha Poma, Assistant Opinion Editor


Mental health challenges have reached the point of becoming a public health crisis — especially since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Concern about K-12 children’s mental and emotional wellbeing has also increased with good reason. Rep. Mike Winder is sponsoring H.B. 81, which would add mental and behavioral health to the list of valid reasons for an excused absence from school. This bill is an extremely critical step to emphasizing the importance of mental health in children’s academic success. While some lawmakers fear students would abuse this option, the need to address mental health among Utah’s children and teenagers greatly outweighs that risk.

H.B. 81 would expand on the existing section of regulations regarding excused absences in K-12 schools. Specifically, it adds “mental or behavioral health of the school-aged child” to a list of reasons such as illness and family deaths. On the surface, it does not seem like a big change. However, Winder stated in an interview with Deseret News that listing mental health as a reason for absence would not require that the child be formally diagnosed with a mental illness. He stated that everyone has mental health, just as we have physical health, and it is important to maintain both of those aspects of our lives. He’s correct in saying so. Medical professionals generally agree — so why not emphasize that to kids?

This bill would accomplish a great deal despite being a relatively small addendum. Not only would it advocate for all students who may need a day off to take care of their mental health, but it could help address Utah’s high youth suicide rates. In my last article, I covered H.B. 93, sponsored by Rep. Brian King, and how youth suicides are among the leading cause of death in K-12 children. King’s bill aims to curb this rate by implementing mental health awareness programs in schools. Winder’s bill would work well in concert with that change by reducing the stigmas surrounding mental health in schools.

Destigmatizing the idea of taking a day off because of depression or anxiety would help children and teenagers understand that it’s okay to feel this way. For instance, mental health awareness in some schools actually caused people to seek treatment more. Jeff Bossard, assistant principal at ITINERIS Early College High School, emphasized the importance of having this option available to students. “You’d rather have the student in school,” he clarified, “But if a student cannot function in school because of mental health issues, then parents should have the ability to allow them to stay home and recover. Teachers should then work with those students to get them back on track both academically and mentally.”

Excused absences would also allow children who do use this option some extra time to complete homework and missed assignments. Teachers would have the legal cover to accommodate their students when it comes to taking time off for necessary self-care. This creates accountability while giving kids room to breathe.

Perhaps the biggest concern over the nature of the bill is the fact that no diagnosis is needed for students to be excused for mental health reasons. People can definitely take advantage of a bill like this. Winder notes in his DN interview that life events happen that would warrant taking a mental health day, such as “failure” or “the death of a loved one.” Bossard also spoke about how teenagers, especially, experience new challenges today. “Students not only have the normal pressures of growing up,” he said, “The combination of social media, the current pandemic, and societal pressures has made mental illness a very major problem in schools.” At the end of the day, we cannot let the possibility of people taking advantage of this bill bar a whole generation of Utah children from having their mental and emotional challenges validated.

H.B. 81 will reassure K-12 students that it’s okay to take a breather for one reason or another. I’m sure a lot of us wish that we’d had this option in elementary and high school, so this bill speaks volumes to how far Utah has come in caring for its schoolchildren. With bills like this, we can make sure that our kids feel safe and validated when they just need a break.


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