Oregon students can now take mental health days as excused absences

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SALEM, OR (KPTV) - A new Oregon law is getting a lot of national attention for expanding excused absences from school to include mental health days.

House Bill 2191 was recently signed into law by Gov. Kate Brown and will be in effect when the new school year starts.

It allows students to take up to five excused absences in three months, for any combination of physical illness, behavioral or mental health needs. Family emergencies or ill family members also count as excused absences.

It’s a bill that was championed by students, who lobbied Oregon lawmakers in partnership with advocates from Providence Health.

“When you’re able to call up and say I’m having a panic attack and can’t come to school today, instead of having to make up a cold, that really begins to normalize the fact that mental health conditions are the same as physical health conditions, and we shouldn’t be ashamed of them,” said Dr. Robin Henderson, Chief Executive of Behavioral Health for Providence.

Two of the students backing HB 2191 are recent high school graduates Hailey Hardcastle and Derek Evans.

“I wanted to get involved with this because a lot of my best friends in high school struggled with severe depression and anxiety and I saw days when they really shouldn’t have been in school, and none of the adults in their lives knew what was happening with them,” Hardcastle told FOX 12.

She said students in need of mental health days would still miss school, but they’d have to lie about the reason behind it to get the absence excused, rather than having an open conversation with their parents and teachers about what they were really struggling with.

Evans was among them.

“I’ve always found myself to be in need of mental health days,” Evans said. “Dealing with anxiety throughout high school has always left me tired, exhausted up against some weeks, and the difference one day makes is honestly life-changing.”

“We actually have had a large increase in the number of students seeking care in our Emergency Departments and primary care,” Dr. Henderson added. “What we’re finding is schools are reaching out for help because their students are reaching out to them.”

According to the Oregon Health Authority, suicide is the second leading cause of death among Oregon teens. Advocates hope that this new law will help take the stigma away from talking about mental health and encourage people who are struggling to be open and honest in seeking help.

“One of the things we heard is people will just abuse it, life doesn’t get any easier,” Evans said of the opposition they heard along the way. “There’s a thousand things people can say, but the bottom line is we’re just trying to save lives and keep students healthy.”

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