Richard Badenhausen: Playing hooky from school can be a good thing

Utah bill to allow mental health days for students should be approved.

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) In this Nov. 14, 2019, photo, a student attaches a note to the Resilience Project board on the campus of Utah Valley University, in Orem, Utah. The purpose of the project is to let students know that it is OK to struggle. More college students are turning to their schools for help with anxiety, depression and other mental health problems. That's according to an Associated Press review of more than three dozen public universities.

I’m privileged to know what’s on the minds of today’s high school students. As the dean of Westminster’s Honors College, I interact with hundreds of prospective students and their families each year; while as the administrator of our annual statewide high school essay contest on civility in politics and public life, I have a front row seat to the concerns of our young citizens: 223 students from 62 Utah schools weighed in with their thoughts this year and the fourth most popular topic was mental health awareness.

Because of that perspective, I support Utah House Bill 81, sponsored by Rep. Mike Winder, R-West Valley City, which would add to the list of acceptable school absence excuses “mental or behavioral health.” In effect, the bill would allow students to be formally excused if they require a mental wellness day, just as they are released for an approved school activity like a band or football, a death in the family, an illness, an individualized education program or accommodation plan or a range of other events approved by local boards.

Such an expansion of the excused absence list would have myriad benefits for students, families and our community:

  • It would provide families with another tool to help raise their children into healthy adults.

  • It would flag students who might benefit from further evaluation and treatment.

  • It would help destigmatize discussions of mental health and wellness, appropriately treating mental wellness as one component of a student’s overall health.

  • It would signal to young people that institutions are set up to support their mental well-being, that they do not need to hide their struggles or press ahead when under duress.

College educators like myself see the effects of decisions made by parents and K-12 institutions during a child’s upbringing. The data are sobering: According to the University of Michigan’s Healthy Minds Network, which conducts the largest survey of college student wellbeing in the country, almost half of students are experiencing “clinically significant” mental health challenges and almost 50% of those with diagnosable issues are not receiving treatment.

It’s because of this national crisis that our Honors College introduced programming which teaches students mindfulness practices and puts them in touch with mental health campus resources. Recognizing this need in our community, Westminster’s new strategic plan contains integrated wellness as one of its three pillars, a comprehensive and far-reaching initiative that will help all students be ready to learn and flourish as healthy individuals. One of the hardest things for an adolescent to do is ask for help, which is why Rep. Winder’s bill is so important: it assists students in taking that first step.

Uncharitable readers might say that such moves coddle students, another concession to “snowflakes” who can’t hack the “real world,” especially since “back in the day” children walked five miles to school in the snow while suffering from the flu.

First of all, no they didn’t. Memory has an amazing capacity to enlarge the supposed challenges we overcame in the past. Second, today’s world is an unforgiving place. Our college admissions essays are filled with extraordinary accounts of young people navigating dire situations: parents dying of cancer or families tossed out of their homes. Even though life expectancy continues to climb in other developed countries, it has been falling in the U.S. since 2014.

And just outside, the world is crumbling apart: The possible extinction of the human race via climate change continues its steady march forward; racial injustice remains deeply imbedded in our institutions and practices; social and political unrest has accelerated; food insecurity and housing challenges affect millions of citizens prompted by some of the most severe economic inequality in our nation’s history; and, of course, COVID-19 — a once-in-a-century pandemic that was the most popular topic covered by high schoolers in this year’s essay contest — has killed over 400,000 Americans. This dreadful reality sits uneasily before the eyes of our young people 24/7 on social media. There’s no escaping the horror.

We have much work to do helping our children manage the treacherous environment we’ve created for them. When headlines like the following one crawl across social media feeds — ”Earth is now losing 1.2 trillion tons of ice each year. And it’s going to get worse” — it is not hard to see why we need to grant students and their families some flexibility in terms of how to work on mental hygiene.

After all, we want our young people to thrive in school so that they can continue on to college, where they can prepare to be the leaders of tomorrow helping solve such calamitous problems.

Richard Badenhausen | Westminster College

Richard Badenhausen is dean of the Honors College at Westminster College and past president of the National Collegiate Honors Council