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Proposed Pa. bill would allow K-12 students to take 3 mental health days

Experts at Slippery Rock University say excused mental health days could help students self-regulate, address truancy
An empty hallway at Seneca Valley Senior High School on Friday, Feb. 9. Kyle Prudhomme/Butler Eagle

A proposed bill in Pennsylvania would allow students in kindergarten through 12th grade to take up to three mental health days as excused absences without a doctor’s note, a move that some local mental health professionals say could help students manage stress.

Ken Messina, the clinical director of Slippery Rock University’s counseling center and an associate professor of counseling and development at the university, said excused mental health days would give students permission to step away and take care of themselves without the risk of accumulating an unexcused absence.

“I think (the proposed bill) is a great movement toward de-stigmatizing mental health,” Messina said. “It’s aiming to not penalize students or parents for taking those days off for mental health.”

House Bill 1519 advanced from the House of Education Committee in January. Student groups, parents and educators now wait for the proposed legislation to be considered and put to a vote in the House of Representatives.

“It is time that mental health supports are normalized in schools, allowing for schools to better understand how they can help students who take absences,” wrote state Rep. Napoleon Nelson, of Montgomery County, who sponsored the bill.

“Few challenges are as urgent or pressing as the lasting impact of stress and emotional duress on our students,” Nelson wrote.

Oregon and Utah have already passed similar legislation.

Stress in school-age children

Earlier this month, the 2024 State of Education report showed that 66% of school districts in the state reported student mental health needs were a challenge. Nearly half of students, on average, “were estimated to have some mental health need, according to school leaders,” the report stated.

Miranda Virone, sits in Slippery Rock University’s Harrisville building on Wednesday, Feb. 7. Kyle Prudhomme/Butler Eagle

“(Mental health days) build self-advocacy for kids,” said Miranda Virone, assistant professor of occupational therapy at Slippery Rock University, and member of the President’s Commission on Mental Health. “They identify a day or time they do not feel they are their best self and they can make a decision about their mental status to improve.”

Mental health struggles, especially in younger children, Messina said, manifest themselves through physical symptoms that can cause students to accumulate absences.

“They get a tummy ache in the morning, and can’t go to school and … start missing more and more days,” he said.

“Even with younger students, they know when they’re having a lot of stress and when they need to take a break,” he said. “I have a 7-year-old — he tells me: ‘Today I just need space.’”

Adults can lose sight of the stress children and younger students are under, Messina said. Many of them, when they come home from school, are “mentally exhausted,” he said, and struggle to balance the pressures of academic performance at school with homework after school, family and social interactions with their peers.

“For them, that’s their work, that’s their day to day,” Messina said. “They have a different tolerance level to stress than adults do.”

Virone, who has two children in the Freeport Area School District and a doctorate in developmental psychology, said there are many pressures for children to mature more quickly than they might be ready for.

Technology is one of the factors she named in rising mental health struggles.

Jackie Macioce, school psychologist at Seneca Valley Senior High School, sits at her desk. Kyle Prudhomme/Butler Eagle

“Social media can contribute to young people feeling like they aren’t good enough or aren’t accomplishing enough, as well as feeling that they need to be perfect at everything at all times,” said Jaclyn Macioce, a nationally certified school psychologist at Seneca Valley intermediate and senior high schools. “There can also be the feeling of constant connectedness or always needing be “on” to where students don’t have downtime or private space to decompress.”

For young students, learning to take a mental health day is a practice in resilience, Messina said.

“It helps students recognize, ‘When am I getting to that point?’” he said. “It empowers them to take care of themselves better, so that when they get to high school or college or into the workforce, they’re able to self regulate, able to recognize their own needs and step back in order to perform even better.”

Balancing truancy and absenteeism

State Rep. Aaron Bernstine, R-8th, said the proposed legislation would be unnecessary as parents have the right to keep their children home from school for reasons they deem excused absences.

The state’s truancy law says otherwise.

According to the Department of Education, a student is deemed truant once they accumulate three unexcused absences in a school year.

School districts determine excused and unexcused absences using locally approved policies. In most cases, excused absences for any health reason would require a note from a health care professional.

Virone said the bill, which would allow for three mental health days without a doctor’s note, could prevent some students and families from being marked truant.

On the one hand, David McDeavitt, superintendent of Allegheny-Clarion School District, said he supports the idea of excused mental health days, if school districts are not penalized for the absences, and if the days help students struggling with mental health and their families.

“I support mental health and anything we can do to help those kids out,” he said.

On the other hand, McDeavitt expressed concern around students not being in school. He said school may be the most supportive place for some students to be. He also said chronic absenteeism has only continued following the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I also know that attendance post-COVID has been a major stumbling block for us in a lot of public education sectors, and just getting the kids in here on a regular basis is very difficult,” McDeavitt said.

Concerns

One concern around the proposed legislation is the term itself — “mental health day.”

“I get concerned with how school districts are tracking these, saying, ‘This is deemed as a mental health day,’” Bernstine said.

“One concern might be for students in areas that still have high stigma around mental health,” Messina said. “Are those students going to be willing to say they’re taking a mental health day instead of, say, a wellness day to roll into regular sick days?”

Another challenge lies in whether taking a mental health day could put a student behind in class and exacerbate stress.

“Something to pay attention to is providing resources for students taking mental health days to not be penalized,” Messina said. After returning to school, he said teachers can check in with students to come up with a plan to keep them on track.

Any time her daughter misses school, Virone said, she talks strategically about how to make up the work and seeks contact with the teachers.

“Teachers are much more supportive now of offering ways to support students, with posting assignments online and opportunities to make up assignments,” she said.

Virone said concerns around students not using the days responsibly could be combated through mental health education. Education around self-care strategies and coping skills is key for mental health days to be implemented properly in schools, she said, and for students to use days to “restore balance in their lives.”

Parents and educators can prepare for a mental health day by teaching children coping skills and strategies “when they don’t feel themselves,” Virone said.

“We need to begin talking about this in schools so students understand the signs and symptoms of mental health, so they understand what it … feels like to have a day where their mental health is suffering,” she said.

Virone, who also serves on the advisory board of the National Center for School Mental Health, said implementing excused mental health days is a proactive, and cost effective, measure of addressing mental health. By the time a student is seen for one-on-one intervention services, she said, their mental condition has already advanced due to lack of support.

“When mental health challenges are not addressed or the supports provided are not meeting the needs, symptoms can continue to worsen,” Macioce stated. “Sometimes students start off by missing a day here or there, but then trying to get caught up on things they missed adds to the difficulties they were already feeling.

“If they don’t have effective coping strategies to utilize, then this can snowball to where they feel completely overwhelmed, which leads them to miss more days of school. The more a student misses, the harder it is to come back in, get caught up, and feel successful with the class content.”

In those cases, truancy becomes an issue beyond just a couple days of excused absences, and could affect students’ academic standing and productivity, Virone said.

In conjunction with other initiatives and resources, Virone said, mental health days for students could make a difference.

“You know, the mindset of, ‘Toughen up, get over it’ — that’s not the world we live in now,” Virone said. “We live in a world where we need to support our kids … their needs are greater now than they ever have been.”

Mental health promotion programs are used for school aged-groups at Slippery Rock University’s Harrisville building. Kyle Prudhomme/Butler Eagle
From left, Kelly Fonzi and Sophia Duncan, Slippery Rock students, work on mental health assessments at Slippery Rock University’s Harrisville building. Kyle Prudhomme/Butler Eagle
Miranda Virone, center, works on mental health assessments with Kelly Fonzi and Sophia Duncan at Slippery Rock University’s Harrisville building. Kyle Prudhomme/Butler Eagle
From left, Kelly Fonzi and Sophia Duncan, Slippery Rock students, work on mental health assessments at the Slippery Rock University’s Harrisville building. Kyle Prudhomme/Butler Eagle
An up-close look at the Pennsylvania mental health report card, which shows low grades in all areas, at Slippery Rock University’s Harrisville building. Kyle Prudhomme/Butler Eagle
A student wanders down an empty hallway at Seneca Valley Senior High School on Friday, Feb. 9. Kyle Prudhomme/Butler Eagle
Students wander down a hallway at Seneca Valley Senior High School on Friday, Feb. 9. Kyle Prudhomme/Butler Eagle
Jackie Macioce, school psychologist at Seneca Valley Senior High School, on Feb. 9. Kyle Prudhomme/Butler Eagle
Jackie Macioce, school psychologist at Seneca Valley Senior High School, interacts with a co-worker on Friday, Feb. 9. Kyle Prudhomme/Butler Eagle
Jackie Macioce, school psychologist at Seneca Valley Senior High School, on Friday, Feb. 9. Kyle Prudhomme/Butler Eagle
Jackie Macioce, school psychologist at Seneca Valley Senior High School, interacts with a co-worker on Friday, Feb. 9. Kyle Prudhomme/Butler Eagle

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