“He just didn’t come to school one day. [He] it was like, ‘I can’t handle it … And I had to tell my mom that I’m throwing up and I can’t go, but I just can’t get through it today,'” said See, a senior at West Valley High School in Yakima and a member of the state group Coalition for Girls’ Justice for Washington State, which testified about the change before the state legislature. “And it was heartbreaking.”
No one is saying that mental health days are new to students. But this will be the first school year in Washington that this is an official thing.
“I would say these kinds of absences have been going on forever, we just code it differently in our system now,” said Enumclaw High School Principal Rodrick Merrell. “Now parents can be honest and say, ‘My student is struggling today.’
He says the change means every school can take an official count of its mental health-related absences. Washington is one of 12 states that specifically allows students to take excused days off for mental health, according to the Very Well Mind website. Virginia was the first to implement its law in 2019. At least four other states are considering it.
Schools can now accept mental health symptoms in the definition of an excused absence, just as they accept physical health symptoms. It officially allows students to take days off to care for their mental health, including counseling and behavioral health appointments.
The law does not allow students to be excused, and each district will come up with its own requirements — such as whether a note from a parent or doctor will be needed to determine whether an absence is excused.
Merrell said a change is needed. “If a kid breaks his leg, we wouldn’t expect him to participate in physical education,” Merrell said. “But I don’t think there’s an equivalent of a student with debilitating depression.”
The new rule also allows the school to collect information about their overall mental health, which can inform how it can respond in other ways. “If I had a lot of kids participating in mental health days, and we had that data, we could ask, ‘Are there other things we can do to help the students?'” Merrell said.
Offering mental health days can also serve another purpose: to normalize mental health issues. “We’re trying to destigmatize mental health challenges. It’s not something we talk about,” Merrell said.
The change comes as Washington grapples with a mental health crisis among young people. The Healthy Youth Survey, a statewide survey of students across grade levels, found that in 2021, 45% of 12th graders in Washington reported feeling depressed (sad and hopeless), a four percentage point increase from 2018 .A decade ago, in 2012, 30% of 12th graders reported feeling depressed.
Children in Washington also report higher levels of anxiety or depression than their peers nationwide, according to reports in Axios. The Annie E. Casey Foundation found that about 15 percent of children in Washington were diagnosed with anxiety or depression in 2020. Nationally, that number was 11.8 percent.
Last year, Gov. Jay Inslee declared deteriorating youth mental health a statewide emergency — about 12 months after in-person classes were suspended as a way to slow the spread of COVID-19. His emergency statement cited an increase in mental health crisis calls, hospitalizations and suspected suicide attempts.
The governor’s proclamation calls for an end to distance learning entirely as part of the state’s response to the mental health crisis, and authorizes the Office of Public Health and the Department of Health to work on recommendations to support youth mental health.