Public school students would be allowed to cite the need for a mental health day as an excuse to miss school, under a bill filed in the Florida Legislature for the 2020 session. The proposal is part of a growing movement in multiple states aimed at improving students’ mental well-being.
Rep. Susan Valdes, D-Tampa, says she wants to elevate mental and behavior health issues to the same level as the flu, colds and dental appointments as a legitimate reason for students to call in sick.
“It is time for us to take mental health as a whole more seriously,” said Valdes, as she explained that kids today are under a lot of pressure.
Supporters of similar measures approved in other states cited studies that indicate the mental health of teens and young adults has dropped dramatically in the past decade.
Florida HB 315 would allow one mental health day per semester as an excused absence. As is the custom, a parental note would be required for the missed day not to be counted as a pattern of truancy, which could lead to sanctions. A similar proposal was filed last month in the New York State Assembly.
Oregon has passed a bill that allows five mental health days a year. Earlier this year, the state of Utah and Montgomery County Schools in Virginia adopted policies that allow students to take time off to focus on their mental well-being.
“I hope Florida will join those states in being at the forefront of overhauling how we view mental health in our society,” said Valdes, who worked with a Hillsborough County school board member to write the proposal.
The mental-health sick day proposal is among a half-dozen bills filed focused on the mental and physical well-being of students filed for the upcoming session. One measure would require public schools to install filters to remove lead from drinking water. SB 432 would mandate high schools provide students training in cardiopulmonary resuscitation. And a third would allow school employees to create food pantry programs and provide food to students at no cost.
“In the age of social media, the internet, and constant bombardment of negative news and events our children are bearing the brunt of a quickly-changing society,” explained Valdes.
Valdes’ goal is to remove what she sees as a stigma attached to mental illness that hampers efforts to combat depression and suicide. Studies indicate that the rate of major depressive episodes among 12- to 17-year-olds has increased 52% since 2005.
Florida’s Board of Education unanimously voted in July to require schools to offer at least five hours of mental health instruction to students in 6th through 12th grade every year.
The Florida Legislature 2020 session begins Jan. 14.