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Schools May Start Offering Students Mental Health Days--And It's About Damn Time

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New York may be making history in the very near-future, because ground-breaking legislation is on the table. State senator Brad Hoylman is sponsoring a bill that, if passed, would allow New York schools to excuse children for mental or behavioral health days.

Yes, you read that correctly. Children will be excused from school for the benefit of their mental or behavioral health.

Isn’t it about damn time?

How many times have we heard fellow parent say they just need to take a “mental health day” from work and parenting? Answer—on the daily. Because life can be overwhelming for any of us, but even more so when there’s a mental illness or behavioral disorder present.

Our children aren’t any different. In children ages 3-17 years, 7.1% have anxiety, 3.2% have depression, and 7.4% have a diagnosed behavior problem. And get this. Of the children with depression, 73.8% of them also have anxiety and 47.2% of them have behavioral issues. The same goes for kids with anxiety and behavior problems—between 20% and 38% of them also have one other issue.

These issues aren’t going away anytime soon. Behavioral issues, anxiety, and depression in children is on the rise, and the older the child, the more likely they are to be diagnosed with anxiety or depression.

The go-to response is that children just need treatment, but let’s keep in mind that in order for a child to be treated, they need multiple advantages. First, their parents or guardians need to have access to appropriate help. They also have to be able to afford the therapy, medical, and pharmaceutical bills. And finally, they need transportation and time to get the child to and from appointments.

This may explain why many diagnosed children aren’t receiving help. According to the CDC, approximately 20% of kids with depression, 40% of kids with anxiety, and 50% of kids with a behavioral disorder do not receive treatment.

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Whether or not a child receives outside treatment for their mental illness or behavior disorder, the reality is this: Kids desperately need the opportunity and permission to take a day off school when they are struggling, without the possibility of being punished for doing so.

This issue is personal for me. Two of my four children have special needs. One of them has been in cognitive behavioral counseling for two years. When the therapist’s schedule changed, we opted to work with her rather than find a new therapist—because my child had such a great rapport with her. I began scheduling counseling appointments for my child at the very end of the school day, one day a week, every-other-week. I wanted to minimize the amount of school my child missed while still remaining steadfast in getting my child the help they needed. Seems reasonable, right?

I was wrong.

One afternoon, I was checking my kids’ grades in the district’s online system when I noticed my child had multiple absences. They were marked “unexcused” in bold red. I wrote down all of the dates, prepared to call the school secretary to point out the errors. Then it dawned on me.

The school marked my child absent from school every afternoon we went to counseling. Of course, multiple unexcused absences can result in consequences.

Kids desperately need the opportunity and permission to take a day off school when they are struggling, without the possibility of being punished for doing so.

I was furious. If a child can be excused from school to go to the doctor for a sore throat or to get allergy tested, why is my child not excused from school for mental health? Why is a dental appointment prioritized over a counseling session?

Furthermore, my child’s large school shared a social worker with another large school. Meaning, the social worker was swamped with a large student load. It’s not like she could carve out consistent time to meet with my child one-on-one in the school setting—nor would my child have been comfortable with that.

Just last week, my other child with special needs was in the midst of an epic meltdown. The minutes were flying by as I tried everything in my parenting toolbox to help my child regulate so I could put them on the school bus. But nothing was working. We both ended up drenched in sweat.

I finally decided to screw trying to get my child on the bus. I brought my child back into the house—and the air conditioning—and put them on my lap. For a solid 30 minutes, I held my child while they raged—yelling and thrashing—and then eventually resting and rocking in my arms.

If a child can be excused from school to go to the doctor for a sore throat or to get allergy tested, why is my child not excused from school for mental health? Why is a dental appointment prioritized over a counseling session?

I glanced at the clock and realized we only had 15 minutes until school started. I asked my child, “Are you ready to learn now?” After quickly brushing their teeth, we hopped in the minivan, and drove to the school, getting there with a few minutes to spare. After dropping my child at the door, I pulled my van over into the parking lot and sobbed.

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My child really would have benefited from a behavioral health day. But that’s not an excused absence. Not yet, anyway.

Ultimately, what message is this sending our kids who are already struggling? In my mind, punishing a child for a mental illness or a behavioral disorder only breeds more shame and more of a stigma.

Our kids’ full-time job is to spend seven—or more—hours a day at school. They are supposed to be learning. But a child who is in a place of distress, who doesn’t feel safe or valued, cannot effectively learn. If districts offer children with diagnosed special needs the opportunity to reset, isn’t that a win-win?

With the rising rates of anxiety, depression, and behavioral disorders among children, we need to take a serious look at what we can do to help them versus punish them. After all, susceptible and vulnerable children need to be our top priority, not our oversight.

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