Mental health in schools subject of new bills

By Andrew Cromarty
March 29th, 2022
Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa (D-1st Hampshire District)

In the last year, students nationwide have struggled to adjust to the return to classrooms while navigating the enduring stress of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of mental health-related emergency hospital visits increased by 31 percent among kids ages 12-17 compared to 2019.

A year of isolation, virtual schooling, and other pandemic restrictions has brought student mental health concerns into the national conversation. In the last two years, Arizona, Maine, Colorado, Illinois, Connecticut, Nevada, Oregon, and Virginia have passed bills allowing students to miss school for mental and behavioral health reasons.

Now, Massachusetts looks to add itself to that list. A bill (H 572), proposed by Rep. Carol Doherty (D-3rd Bristol District), was heard by The Joint Committee on Education on January 6. It would require “that a school shall excuse two absences due to mental or behavioral health reasons in a six-month period” without requiring a medical professional’s explanation or that of a student or their parent or guardian.

“Setting up children with the ability to recognize when they need a mental health day gives them the ability to cope with stress and trauma on their own terms, better preparing them for adulthood and teaching them to prioritize self-care.” --Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa

One of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa (D-1st Hampshire District), said the primary goal of the bill is to ensure that mental health receives the same level of attention as physical health for students.

“We would never question keeping a child home if they have a cold or a fever; mental health days are just as important,” said Sabadosa. “Setting up children with the ability to recognize when they need a mental health day gives them the ability to cope with stress and trauma on their own terms, better preparing them for adulthood and teaching them to prioritize self-care.”

Rep. Jack Lewis (D-7th Middlesex District), another sponsor of the bill, echoed Sabadosa’s argument.

“We have a responsibility to one another to foster greater mental health and self-care. These excused absences not only provide students opportunities to reflect on their own mental health needs, we have seen in other states, the availability of these days fosters greater conversations on emotional and mental health.”

Sabadosa believes that the message the bill sends to students is just as important as the changes it would institute.

“Our culture too often puts a lot of pressure on kids until they hit a breaking point. Teaching children that they need to practice self-care is a critical message for them to be better prepared to be healthy and productive adults,” she said.

Another bill (H 3782), presented by Rep. Tami Gouveia (D-14th Middlesex District), would seek to amend Massachusetts state law by adding “that cases of necessary absence shall include absences for the mental or behavioral health of the student.”

A third bill (H 636) was also brought before the committee by House Minority Leader Bradley Jones (R-20th Middlesex District) that would establish a special commission to study the implementation of a statewide mental health education curriculum in public schools. The commission would include a licensed psychiatrist, as well as a licensed clinical mental health counselor.

This news is welcome to many, like Sabadosa, who wants to see schools make mental health services more easily accessible to students in addition to prioritizing mental health education for students.

“School districts really need to be able to bolster their mental health support for students and we need a moment where the pressure is off. Communities should start to focus on wellness and add time for students to readjust to being in person and navigating friendships and school dynamics,” said Sabadosa. “Giving students mental health days and addressing anxiety and depression when the warning signs appear are going to be critical; that means training and an investment in counselors and behavioral staff who can help students and offer support to caregivers.”

Andrew Cromarty is a degree candidate at Harvard Extension School majoring in Journalism who has also pursued development of his writing career through several GrubStreet workshops and courses. In addition to writing for pleasure on sports and film, he moderates multiple Facebook groups that promote discussion of movies. He will appear on a podcast in April to discuss contemporary Academy Award nominated films.

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