Legislators in Massachusetts are following the lead of other New England states in trying to get a bill passed to provide mental health sick days for public school students.
Massachusetts State Rep. Tami Gouveia, DrPH (D- 14th Middlesex District), filed a bill on mental health sick days for students at the start of 2021 and State Rep. Carol Doherty (D-3rd Bristol District) also filed similar legislation.
“As a legislator, mother, and social worker, I know all too well the impact that stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions have on our young people,” Gouveia said. “That is why I jumped at the chance to file legislation when the idea for this bill was proposed by Ethan Kerr, a high school student in my district.
Noting that not all school districts in the state allow absences for mental health purposes, Gouveia said Ethan brought the benefits of mental health sick days to her attention. “Stigma and limited knowledge about resources prevents our students from being honest about their mental health care needs and in accessing the mental healthcare they need. The rise of youth mental health issues throughout the pandemic underlines the dire need for this type of legislative action,” she said.
Connecticut and Maine currently offer the mental health sick days option for students and Gouveia and others who support the effort hope that Massachusetts will follow suit. Her bill, H.3782, ‘An Act providing mental health sick days to public school students,’ will not come up for a vote this legislative session.
Gouveia said she hopes to see the legislation carried on into the next session. She explained the bill would expand the definition of “cases of necessary absence,” in school attendance to include the mental health component.
School districts would be given the opportunity to adapt to this regulation in line with those set by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
“Importantly, mental health sick days are just a start in addressing the stigma and other barriers our young people face in accessing critical mental health resources. I’d love to see this type of action coupled with other support systems for our students, such as regular mental health education,” she said.
Michael Cohen, Ph.D, ABPP, FAACP, is a licensed psychologist and member of the Connecticut Psychological Association who fully supports mental health sick days for students, one of his “many active concerns” involving youth and those struggling with mental health, especially in the wake of the pandemic.
Earlier in his career, Cohen was a school psychologist for five years and has “been part of a small working group over the past year related to child and adolescent issues to improved school and independent psychology services for Connecticut children and adolescents.”
“It is vital to support mental health needs of our children,” he stated. “Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of our children have been in a chronic state of passive and active crisis.”
In supporting `sick’ days for both medical and mental health problems, Cohen said outside of the child’s family, schools are the primary mental health providers for students.
He noted services can include mental health enrichment which many schools now provide to all students as part of the regular school curriculum and more direct counseling services by social workers, school psychologists, school counselors, and caring teachers.
“At the same time, some children may require a break from the daily intensity of school and classroom academics and mental health days when used correctly, and not abused, can be a valuable respite to the daily pressures that children and students experience,” Cohen said.
He added that a mental health day can be a “good indicator,” to seek out direct mental health services, either from the school or an independent community mental health provider.
The Connecticut legislature authorized mental health sick days for student in July 2021, information that Cohen does not believe “is widely known.”
Noting that his child patients and their parents have not reported school mental health days are available to them, Cohen feels there has been little dissemination about the option likely because of a concern it may be misused.
Mental health sick days work like any other absences from school. Parents or guardians contact the school, as they would for any other medical or sick day, and notify them that the student will be taking one of their two available mental health days.
“Many children today have so many anticipated and unanticipated personal pressures which can cause them stress or result in marked distress. A mental health day and follow up mental health services can have the potential to alleviate these pressures for students,” Cohen said.
He noted that mental health days come with issues—such as if there is home adult supervision or seeing the option is not used to avoid non-preferred school activities on a regular basis.
Cohen added that over the past two and a half years since the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, more than 50 percent of his child patients “have been or will participate in a psychiatric evaluation or hospitalization.”
In the past, he would have one or two patients require psychiatric care.
“By all accounts many children in Connecticut and across our country are in profound distress—sometimes readily obviously and sometimes not so obviously, such as children with externalized disorders receive more direct attention where children with internalized disorders such as anxiety or depression are frequently overlooked,” Cohen said.
He advocates for improving authorized insurance coverage and reimbursement for children’s psychological and psychiatric disabilities, another pressing issue under the mental health issues umbrella.
“As a psychologist and mental health provider, I believe it is vital that we support the mental health requirements of children in Connecticut and that we more directly and actively support the first line providers for children which are most frequently the child’s home school, including with increased funding for school mental health programs and make more readily available out of school mental health services in children’s home communities,” Cohen said.