Utah students could take a day off for mental health under proposed legislation

Missing a day for mental health would be treated the same as a sick day

One Utah lawmaker thinks students in Utah should be able to take a “mental health” day from time to time without it being counted as an unexcused absence.

Rep. Mike Winder, R-West Valley City, is proposing HB81, which adds “mental or behavioral” health to the list of excused absences for students, treating the issue the same as a sick day. Right now, students can miss school for mental illness, but taking care of their mental health is not on the list of permissible absences. Students would not necessarily need to have an appointment with a therapist or counselor to take advantage.

“We have some students who have challenges and may need a breather. We take care of our physical health, and this would put mental health on parity with that,” he said.

Winder’s bill is modeled after a similar program that was implemented in Oregon.

While it may give students a needed release valve due to academic pressures at school, there’s another benefit. Winder says officials in Oregon found that students will often skip school if they’re having a mental health crisis. This would give counselors and other adults tools to identify which of their students may be having a problem, so they can step in.

“If a school counselor sees someone missing three or more times in a semester for mental health, they could see that as a cry for help and would be able to get that student some extra health or resources,” he says. That’s a suggestion, though it’s not specifically spelled out in the legislation.

The idea for the bill was brought to Winder by Jessica Lee, a student at Southern Utah University, who learned about the Oregon program through her work on a youth-focused committee with Utah’s National Alliance of Mental Illness office, NAMI Utah.

“Things like rejection, failure, death of a loved one, job loss of a parent, friend issues or even the pressures of school can have a huge impact on our mental health,” says Lee. “We need to be able to take the proper time to deal with those issues.”

Lee, who just happens to be Winder’s daughter, said the ongoing pandemic has really taken a toll on students in Utah.

“In order to have good mental health, you need to feel connected and you need a sense of belonging. With the pandemic, it’s hard to get that for many age groups. This could cause a mental health crisis, so it’s important to advocate for the mental health of our young people,” she added.

According to the Utah Department of Health, in 2017 Utah had the fifth-highest suicide rate in the U.S. for ages 10 and older. In 2019, the last year for which data was available, 42 Utahns between the ages of 10-17 took their own lives. In 2018, that number was 40.

“Some of our youth are in some dark places at times,” says Winder. “If they know they can be excused from school for their mental health, that alone can relieve some pressure and help reduce suicides.”