By Katie Lannan
The COVID-19 pandemic, marked by disrupted routines and social isolation, has drawn new attention to issues around youth mental health. Now, lawmakers are proposing ways to give Massachusetts students additional flexibility to cope with mental health issues as they arise.
The Joint Committee on Education heard testimony Tuesday on a pair of bills addressing mental health sick days for students.
Rep. Tami Gouveia’s bill (H 3782), which was filed at the request of a constituent, would amend the section of state law on excused absences from school to specify “that cases of necessary absence shall include absences for the mental or behavioral health of the student.”
A bill from Rep. Carol Doherty (H 572) would provide “that a school shall excuse two absences due to mental or behavioral health reasons in a six-month period,” without requiring a medical professional’s note or an explanation from the student or their parent.
Doherty said the idea behind her bill was proposed, pre-pandemic, by seniors at Easton’s Oliver Ames High School as a class project. Gouveia, an Acton Democrat and candidate for lieutenant governor, said students have reached out to her throughout the course of the pandemic, advocating for mental health days.
Gouveia said she hears “repeatedly, just everywhere I go in the commonwealth,” about the concerns parents, teachers and clergy members have for young people’s mental health.
“Allowing schools to be able to give excused absences for mental health days is just another way to acknowledge that mental health is health care, it’s a form of health,” she said. “And if we don’t acknowledge that folks need to take a day off to take care of their mental health — maybe they need to go see a therapist, maybe they need to seek longer-term treatment — we’re continuing the stigma against mental health by not putting it on parity with a cold or flu or a stomachache or a broken leg that a young person, a child might experience throughout the course of their day.”
She said Utah and Oregon have redefined their excused-absence laws to include mental health matters.
Doherty, a Taunton Democrat, said that when similar policies have been adopted in other states, the measures “helped improve students’ mental health, strengthen their academic performance and have reduced chronic absences.”
A former teacher and guidance counselor who serves on the Taunton School Committee, Doherty said she hoped her bill can be a “catalyst through which more honest conversation about mental health among our youth occurs.”
One student, Aidan Scully, spoke in support of Doherty’s bill, saying it “encourages students to keep an eye out for themselves” and “tells them that their success is much deeper than perfect attendance.”
“It does more than just provide students with a legitimate way to call in sick if they’re not feeling mentally well,” Scully said. “It creates a culture where it’s OK to not be OK.”
Another bill before the committee (H 636), filed by House Minority Leader Brad Jones, would create a commission of lawmakers, state officials and mental health practitioners to make recommendations for mental health curriculum in schools.
Lynnfield High School junior Evyenia Georges said she supports the bill but also feels youth voices should be represented on the panel.
Georges said students at her school take one semester of health education in the ninth grade.
“There’s not one mental health component, but there needs to be,” she said. “It isn’t a coincidence that right now, there are three active civics projects that are focusing on the need for mental health education and training for teachers to adequately support the needs of students. After the last few years of the ongoing pandemic, many students have been sent into states of sadness and distress.”