Students can now take excused mental health days

Amid the stress and anxiety that teens and young people are facing and were amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic, state legislators have passed a law that allows students to take excused mental health days similar to sick days.

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction states as it implements House Bill 1834, Mental Health Related Absences, that poor mental health has been shown to have a direct correlation between school grades and performance as well as overall health.

More than one in three high school students in America report persistent feelings of sadness. Addressing the stigma around mental health in schools can help normalize the idea that it is just as important as physical health, experts say.

Before the law took effect Aug. 1, student absences for mental health days were not excused. The change simply adds absences due to mental health to the list of excused absences. The rule does not require a doctor’s note for each excused absence.

According to the OSPI, the state is joining others that have turned their attention to student mental health by addressing mental health explicitly as an excused absence.

Students can now use mental health symptoms for an excused absence and take days off to prioritize mental wellness and appointments. Prior to the change, only absences for in-patient or out-patient treatment for mental health were excused. But absences due to general symptoms of mental health unwellness were not.

Kristen Haizlip, executive director for Secondary Teaching & Learning for the Bainbridge Island schools, said the district follows state guidance for attendance tracking and truancy process.

“There is no ‘limit’ to the number of absences that a parent/guardian can excuse for a child, but the number of absences does trigger interventions or the truancy process,” she said.

As schools receive notice of absences, they may begin to see a more accurate picture of mental-health-related absences. That information can be used to identify a potential need for more support for students.

“We use absence data to provide interventions or alternative plans to access education when needed. We are expected to use a multi-tiered system of support framework to address all excessive absences as outlined by the Washington State Legislature,” Haizlip said.