Mental health days generate conversation about excused absences

Photo by Wessam Hazaymeh

Naomi Ghahrai, Contributing Writer

Following the recent advocacy for mental health days from students in western Virginia and Oregon, VCU students and professors are expressing their opinions on excused absences on the basis of mental and emotional health.

In Montgomery County, Virginia, superintendent Mark Miear expressed his support for mental health days after students created the “Montgomery County Students for Mental Health Awareness” group.

“We see the mental health of our students as a priority and have many initiatives in addition to the possible mental health day proposal,” Miear said in an email. “We are in the process of contacting the Virginia Department of Education to make sure this doesn’t conflict with their policy.  If there is no conflict, we will then have our school board attorney review the policy prior to presenting to our school board.”

In public K-12 schools in surrounding Henrico and Chesterfield counties, mental illness is not included among reasons students can miss school.

The student wellbeing program coordinator in VCU’s Honors College, Christy Tyndall, commented on the importance of wellbeing education and the path toward alleviating mental health stigma.

“Rather than mental health days, I would like to see increased well-being education for both faculty and students throughout VCU,” Tyndall said. “Faculty should be educated about what to do when approached by students experiencing distress, use of appropriate language, recognizing signs of mental distress and where to refer students for support.”

Knowing where to go during a mental health crisis can also make an impact, Tyndall said.

“In addition to learning about self-care and personal strategies for wellbeing, students need to be educated about resources on campus and where they can go for support when needed,” Tyndall said.

A recently-passed Oregon bill allows students to take mental health days, expanding the reasons for absences to include mental, emotional or behavioral health.

Students in Oregon, after the passing of the new mental health bill, can take up to five mental health days in a three-month period. The students who advocated for this mental health bill wanted to change the stigma surrounding mental health. 

VCU sophomore student Carly Wells says recognizing the stigma around mental health is more complex than allowing mental health days. Professors generally count total absences and don’t classify sick days or mental health days.

“I feel like a small solution to fighting mental illness is not to add mental health days on top of sick days,” Wells said, “but to normalize the necessity of students taking mental health days in general, and to prevent professors from undermining that necessity.”

Second-year student Lisa Balogh said having a support group to fall back on during a difficult time could positively impact a student’s mental health day.

“I think if students need to take a mental health day, they may discuss with their parents, guardians, or loved ones exactly why they need to take a day off from school,” Balogh said.“This opens the door to talking to their support system about their mental illness, and hopefully result in the students receiving proper treatment.” 

VCU professors and departments establish different attendance policies, so there is no overarching definition of a “sick day” at VCU. 

 The non-profit organization Mental Health America found 74.1% of youth in Virginia experiencing depression and suicidal thoughts do not receive mental health services or the proper treatment. The state’s average is 10 points greater than the national average of 64.1%. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, suicide is the third leading cause of death in youth ages 10 to 24.

Students may schedule an appointment at 804-828-6200 or in-person with VCU’s counseling services located in the University Student Commons, Room 238. Moreover, those struggling with thoughts of suicide can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-784-2433.

1 Comment

  1. —-In public K-12 schools in surrounding Henrico and Chesterfield counties, mental illness is not included among reasons students can miss school.

    Of course it is included.

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