Radiah Jamil and Kymani Hughes are alums of Youthcast Media Group, a nonprofit that trains high school students in journalism.
Updated May 8 to remove the last name of a student and to note improvements in her mental health.
Marilyn Pani, a 16-year-old senior at Flushing High School in New York, almost never misses school, even when she’s ill.
“I have to be deadly sick,” she said. “Like I am dying.”
Like many other students, she has found it difficult to deal with added stress from the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, 37% of high school students reported they experienced poor mental health during the pandemic, and 44% reported they persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year, according to a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But when she needs a day off for mental health reasons, Pani, whose family emigrated from Ecuador in 2000, has found it hard to talk to her parents due to the stigma around mental illness. “I’ve been sent home before, and I’ve pretended to be sick, when mental health was the real problem,” she says.
Many other students do the same – or continue to push themselves to come to school when they really need a break.
Legislation that’s passed or is pending in more than a dozen states may make that conversation easier, though: Since 2019, 12 states have passed legislation to allow students to take excused days off from school for their mental health. A few states such as New York and Maryland still have legislation pending, but more than 30 states have no bills pending to legally allow mental health days off.
Nana is a 16 year-old junior at The Brooklyn Latin School who asked that her last name not be used. She said that during the pandemic in 2020-2021, “half of the days I attended school, I wasn’t in a state to actually study and be productive because I was under so much stress, and I just couldn’t focus.”
She took two unofficial mental health days off in the past school year, and said she should have taken more. “I mostly just cried and slept and repeated the process,” she said. She reached out to MindSite News in May to say that she is “in a much better mental state now.”
Dr. Nikki Poindexter Ham, president of the Maryland School Counselor Association, said when a student needs time off for mental health reasons, the symptoms can look very different than a physical illness.
“It may look as if you’re sleepy, you’re sad, you’re anxious, so we need to account for that,” she said. A student may need to “decompress, to self-regulate, to address some of the feelings.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has both exposed and exacerbated socioeconomic inequities, particularly amongst people of color when it comes to health care – including mental health care. Even though the demand for mental health has spiked during the pandemic, Blacks, Latinos and Asians are all much less likely to receive treatment for mental illness than their white counterparts, according to the American Psychiatric Association and government health agencies.
The list of barriers preventing people of color from receiving mental health care is long: distrust in the health care system, familial stigma, financial strain, inaccessibility, lack of awareness, no insurance, lack of diversity among mental health care providers and language barriers, among others.
Familial stigma around mental illness is a big reason why Marilyn Pani, the Flushing High School student, doesn’t take mental health days off from school.
“We don’t really talk about mental health, and you kind of get mocked if you do bring it up,” she said.
This cultural attitude that many minority groups share may be prevalent in New York City, which is the largest and among the most diverse school districts in the country.
Poindexter Ham said that schools can help parents understand that when it comes to mental health they are their child’s first advocate.
While granting mental health days off to students won’t solve the youth mental health crisis, Poindexter Ham said it’s a step in the right direction. She expects more states and school districts to pass bills allowing for mental health days.
“It’ll be a ripple effect,” she said. “If you don’t allow students to take the time off to deal with their mental health, there will be a decrease in organizational skills, self regulation skills.”
Nana, the Brooklyn junior, thinks her Gen X parents would have mixed feelings about an official school policy for mental health days, in part because they weren’t exposed to the nuances of mental health in their youth.
“They initially harbored a ‘suck-it-up’ disposition and didn’t believe that mental health was something worth acknowledging,” she said. “However, when my parents began noticing the physical toll that poor mental health took on me and my siblings, they were essentially forced to confront its very real detriment. In this sense, I believe that many parents would consider excused mental health days to be absolutely crucial.”
One thing she’s sure of: “My parents wouldn’t want me to abuse the enactment of excused mental health days or use mental health as a scapegoat to avoid school. It’s a fear that I’m sure many parents share.”
Pani doesn’t think her parents would automatically agree with the concept of mental health days, but could be convinced of the value.
“I feel like if it’s explained properly and explained why some students may need this…it would lead them more into letting me have mental health days,” she said. “I’ve always been really open about mental health with my teachers, which really allows me to connect with them and they really understand me if I am struggling.”
When schools began to shut down during the pandemic, Adrian Oyola was a freshman in Miami. His first year of high school was transformed, and he, like most students, struggled with depression and the stress of attempting to manage and comprehend classwork while attending online school.
A senior at Miami Lakes Educational Center in South Florida, Oyola believes that excused “mental health days” are a step in the right direction, but that schools can do more.
“Students would benefit from mental health days, but schools can provide more resources. Students should also have access to individual and group counseling, as well as a 24-hour app that provides online chat or phone support,” he said. “After the pandemic, having a long-term plan and immediate support would benefit the mental health of students.”
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