This article is part of PAR’s Mental Health Awareness Month series, in which we will be focusing on the multifaceted issue of mental health in the U.S. Come back each week for more insight. 

Before the pandemic, reports indicated a concerning increase in mental health issues among American youth, including rising feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and suicidal ideation. There was already an approximate 40% surge in these factors before the COVID-19 pandemic introduced additional stressors such as social isolation, disruptions in daily routines, and economic strain due to caregiver job losses. These stressors led to a significant increase in mental health emergencies, with a 24% increase in emergency department visits for mental health issues among children aged 5–11 and a 31% increase among those aged 12–17. Suspected suicide attempts among girls aged 12–17 also rose by 51% in 2021 compared to 2019. 

The issue of chronic absenteeism, where students miss 10% or more of instructional days per year, has only added to the existing problems. Before the pandemic, in the academic year 2021–2022, more than 66% of students attended schools where 20% or more of the student population was chronically absent. In 2023, 26% of students continued to be chronically absent. Mental health concerns are one of the reasons many cite for this increase in chronic absenteeism.

State Efforts 

Several states have responded to students’ mental health challenges by enacting laws allowing for mental health days. Minnesota took the lead in 2009 by passing a bill that recognized excused absences for mental health conditions requiring treatment. This effort has since expanded to states like Oregon, where legislation allows students to take mental health days without fear of penalties. 

The specifics of these policies vary among the 12 states that have implemented laws allowing mental health days, but some states have similar laws. Washington, Maine, and Virginia permit students to cite mental or behavioral health issues as valid excuses for school absences. 

California's Senate Bills 14 and 224 allow for mental or behavioral health days and incorporate mental health content into the health education curriculum. In Illinois, schools are mandated to grant students up to 5 mental health days annually and treat them as excused absences. Colorado passed a bill requiring school districts to establish policies for excused absences related to behavioral health concerns. 

Oregon allows students to take up to 5 days off within a three-month period, including mental health days. Connecticut allows for 2 mental health wellness days yearly, provided they are not consecutive. Arizona treats mental health days similarly to sick days, with policies varying across school districts. Nevada introduced Senate Bill 249, enabling students age 7–18 years to miss school for mental health reasons with a note from a mental or behavioral health professional. Utah acknowledges mental or behavioral health as a valid reason for an excused absence for all students. Meanwhile, Kentucky signed House Bill 44, permitting students to take days off from school for mental health reasons as excused absences. 

These varied approaches reflect states' diverse strategies to support students' mental health needs. However, despite the progress made by some states, many still lack specific laws regarding mental health days.

Impact of Mental Health on Learning 

Mental health can significantly influence academic performance, and stress and emotions are critical factors in the learning process. When properly managed, stress can improve memory and learning. However, when stress levels become excessive, they can disrupt concentration and memory retention, ultimately hindering academic achievement. Similarly, emotions like happiness or anxiety can affect learning. Although positive emotions can help, negative emotions can make focusing more difficult. 

The following are some of the critical ways that mental health issues affect students

  • Difficulty in concentration and attention: Young people coping with mental health concerns may struggle to maintain focus during learning tasks, leading to trouble controlling attention and completing assignments. 
  • Reduced cognitive functioning: Mental illness can interfere with thought processes required for classroom learning, such as problem-solving, recalling academic information, and persevering during challenging tasks. 
  • Academic underachievement: Untreated or undertreated mental health concerns can lead to reductions in standardized test scores, lower grades, and course credit deficiencies over time, ultimately affecting academic achievement. 
  • School absences and avoidance: Mental health issues may cause frequent absences from school due to illness or avoidance of school settings, which can disrupt the learning process and lead to academic setbacks. 
  • Behavioral challenges: The behavior of young people experiencing mental health concerns may interfere with learning and disrupt classroom environments, making it difficult for them to create and maintain friendships. 
  • Barriers to school completion: If mental health concerns are not addressed properly, they can make it difficult for students to finish school. This can lead to higher chances of suspension, expulsion, and failure to obtain enough credits, ultimately influencing their ability to graduate. 
  • Social and emotional skills: Mental health concerns can impair the development of social skills and executive functioning necessary for navigating school environments and transitioning to post-secondary education.

Benefits of Mental Health Days 

Advocates say that encouraging students to take mental health days can effectively address absenteeism and promote their mental health and overall well-being. And by making these excused absences, this can help parse which students are having mental health concerns from those who are actually truant. According to advocacy group Attendance Works, this can help create a more productive relationship between the school and the family by understanding the root cause of the absence, leading to better outcomes. 

The following is a summary of other benefits: 

  • Reduce mental health stigma: By implementing mental health days, schools can create an environment that acknowledges the significance of youth mental health and reduces the stigma surrounding mental health issues, fostering open discussions about these critical topics and ensuring students feel supported in taking time off for their mental wellbeing. 
  • Early intervention and support: Creating a separate category for excused absences related to mental health issues is important in signaling to school officials that a student may face challenges. This recognition is a crucial first step in facilitating early intervention and allowing educators to provide students with the necessary resources and support customized to their needs. With this categorization, students are more likely to receive the attention and care they need to thrive academically and emotionally.
  • Promotion of rest and autonomy: Offering mental health days is crucial for prioritizing student wellbeing and teaching valuable lessons in self-care. By fostering autonomy and resilience, schools can support students' overall health and success. 

In conclusion, although some states have recognized the importance of mental health days for students, there are still many disparities in legislation and implementation. No matter where you live, advocating for comprehensive mental health policies at the state level is critical to promoting a nationwide culture of prioritizing mental wellbeing in schools.