Washington state students will be able to take mental health days off from classes at the start of the new school year. A new state law will allow excused absences for students with symptoms related to mental illness, mental health condition challenges, and mental health appointments. Students will have no limit on the number of mental health days they can take.
Washington Mental Health Counselors Association (WMHCA) President Dr. Susan Leveridge is a mental health therapist who sees kids, teens, and adults at a private practice in Gig Harbor. Her methodology includes educating parents in hopes of bridging the gap between a child’s inner reality, home, and the child’s community. She discusses how the new law will benefit students in this Q&A.
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State of Reform: “Do you think the new law will be effective in improving the mental health of students? If so, in what ways will it do so?
Susan Leveridge: “We do believe this new law will be effective in improving the mental health of students. Research tells us that emotional regulation is primary to mental well-being. Emotional regulation oftentimes has to be learned, especially in our fast-paced world in which children experience an increased amount of stressors.
By being aware of the level of stress a child is carrying, and learning to take a self-care day, we are teaching children to self-regulate. This is a life-long skill and needed well into old age.”
SOR: Have you heard students discuss a need for time off for mental health purposes? What types of comments have you heard from students regarding mental health concerns?
SL: “Yes, as a provider and an educator, the research and students alike have informed us of the increase in need for mental health days. Our students continue to be traumatized by the pandemic. However, even before the pandemic, children and parents alike [reported] an exorbitant amount of homework and pressure to earn high grades believing that their future depends on it.
It is well researched that the main element to reaching success and contributing positively to society is by being emotionally intelligent. Emotional intelligence requires knowing how one feels, what one is thinking, regulating oneself, and slowing down enough to make positive choices for the well-being of the individual and the community.
Mental health days are not only healing, but by allowing the child’s nervous system to remain in a ventral vagal state longer—the preferred neurological state for learning—it is also an element that prevents mental illness.”
SOR: In what ways can school be stressful for students?
SL: “School can be stressful for students in multiple ways. The learning environment is not only academic, but it’s relational as well. Students’ senses are stimulated to a high degree in the school setting. Even if the teacher provides a quiet time in the day, the students are still stimulated by their surroundings of having other students in their midst. It is impossible to get time alone. Time alone is a necessary ingredient to mental well-being.
Furthermore, students are under a lot of pressure to learn from the outside in. They are asked to learn for [a] grade or test. They are under a lot of pressure to succeed by getting high marks and an overall high GPA. Students report pressure from parents and teachers to get good grades. They also report the pressure they feel to compete with their peers rather than cooperate and collaborate.
Children and adults alike are built for social engagement. Positive social engagement is encouraged through group work. However, it must be taught. If children received [mixed] messages of working in groups and competing with each other for high grades, this [causes] stress for students.”
SOR: According to the CDC, more than a third of high school students reported feeling sad or hopeless in 2019, up from just over 25% who said they had those feelings 10 years ago. What types of situations may have led to that increase?
SL: “These negative statistics are a result of several factors. High school students’ brains are actively pruning. Adolescents are more emotional, seek novelty, crave social engagement, and are creatively expressive more so than at any other age in the human lifespan. Therefore, for an adolescent’s environment to be a good fit for optimal brain maturation and overall well-being, they need an environment that encourages their passions, scaffolds collaboration with peers and adults, offers nuance, and allows for the teen to question the status quo in a non-violent, logical manner.
Our schools often teach from the outside in. They are more concerned with lecturing students than offering [them] the opportunity to learn about themselves and develop a sense of self and high self-esteem. Instead, a student’s esteem is based on outside rewards, such as good grades and trophies.”
SOR: In addition to being able to take days off for mental health issues, what other preventive measures can students take to alleviate stress?
SL: “Children and parents need to be educated on social and emotional well-being. This includes teaching interpersonal neurobiology and how to be a valued member of a community. Ensuring that children have access to medical care, good nutrition, quality sleep, time for playing, and time alone also helps to alleviate stress.”
This Q&A was edited for clarity and length.