High school has changed. We no longer have cliques of nerds, jocks, and theater kids. Now, students are expected to juggle everything at once. In today’s high school environment, we must play sports, participate in extracurriculars, and engage in school clubs and activities, all on top of achieving good grades. This is accompanied by an increasingly competitive environment among students. Students are more and more frequently finding themselves competing for grades, job opportunities, and anything else that could give them a leg up in the college application process. This modern high school environment fosters backstabbing over collaboration, ridicule over support. This results in students drowning under the ensuing anxiety: the stress of academics, the perpetual game of catchup in their extracurricular workload, the fear of their future, alongside everything else that accompanies adolescence. Today’s students are trapped in a cycle of escalating work with no avenue for respite. What’s worse, due to the mental health stigma engrained within high schools, students remain isolated from support.
Data supports the detrimental effect this ‘new’ high school is having on students’ mental health. In the past decade alone, there has been a 10.6% increase in US students who experience feelings of persistent sadness or hopelessness (CDC, 2019). Currently, over 1/3rd of students across the nation experience persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness (CDC, 2019). Maryland is not excluded from this trend. In a recent study, the Maryland Department of Health discovered that 1/3rd of Maryland students also had these feelings (MD Department of Health, 2019). Even more concerning in Maryland’s case, though, is that 1/5th of Maryland students have seriously considered suicide (MD Department of Health, 2019). The entire front row of a regular 30 student class sees suicide as their only option. This is a problem.
Sadly, the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the diminishing mental health of students. An August 2020 CDC report showed that anxiety has tripled, and depression has quadrupled across the US (CDC, 2020). COVID-19 related stresses – whether from financial instability, familial conflict, constant anxiety, or the persistent fear for the safety of ourselves and loved ones – are directly contributing to student mental illness (Guessoum, 2020). Additionally, the lack of social contact that students are facing as a result of quarantine has been extremely harmful to our wellbeing. Without friends as outlets to de-stress, we are left with limited avenues to support our mental health. Extended periods of isolation, like these, have been clearly linked to increases in suicidal thoughts and behaviors (McClelland, 2020). It is time we heed the warnings of researchers and experts, and act to support students in our most vulnerable time.
House Bill 0461 currently seeks to combat this rising crisis. HB0461 would set in place a simple measure: providing students with Mental Health Days. Simply put, Mental Health Days are days that students can take excused absences from school for mental health-related reasons. This bill would involve no financial investment from the state and is easy to implement statewide. This is not a new concept. Mental Health Days have been adopted across the country in states such as Oregon, Utah, and Colorado, leading to incredible success in supporting student wellbeing. Students agree that HB0461 is a crucial step forward. In its current edition, the bill would give students an unprecedented opportunity to support our own mental health and fight the stigma surrounding it. However, amendments to HB0461 are necessary if we hope to achieve the same results that other states have seen. A stipulation needs to be added to the bill that requires students who exceed the Mental Health Day limit to meet with a counselor or school psychologist at school. This amendment would enable schools to practice active prevention of mental illness, as opposed to the current reactionary system of support in place. In addition, HB0461 only allows students a single Mental Health Day per school quarter (roughly three months); this needs to be increased to at least three per school quarter.
In the modern high school environment, students are not given a break. We are expected to continue non-stop alongside increasing workloads and diminishing free time and sleep. Mental Health Days would provide students the break we have been calling for, enabling a space for self-reflection, sleep, exercise, and reduced stress. This is especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic, as students are experiencing new stressors and adapting to difficult circumstances. However, with the barrage of work from both in and out of school, students are struggling to properly cope with the adversity we are all facing. HB0461 would give students the respite they need to deal with all the intricate aspects of their lives that affect their mental health, in addition to academics.
From a young age, students’ perception of mental health is tainted by the stigma surrounding it. We were taught to ‘suck it up,’ that we’re simply being ‘overdramatic.’ However, seemingly insignificant phrases like these stand in the way of students and the professionals they need. “We have a lot of kids that are dealing with [mental health issues] in silence,” says Jennifer Rothman, senior manager for youth and young adult initiatives for the National Alliance on Mental Health. “They’re embarrassed or they think people are going to judge them and not believe them.” Overall, young people see the stigma surrounding mental health as the leading barrier to accessing mental health services, with 69.5% of young people perceiving it as a significant barrier to professional support (Bowers, 2012). But state action in support of student mental health, such as HB0461, would signal to students that they no longer need to hide what they are going through. Having proper state sponsored mechanisms for Mental Health Days will encourage students to begin crucial dialogues with friends and family, as they can point to this legislation as explanation and validation for their struggle. Mental Health Days “help reduce the stigma” argues John Larson, President of the Oregon Education Association. They will help students cultivate support systems from loved ones, while they work to support their own mental health in the open.
Though HB0461 will undoubtedly support the wellbeing of students, it is incomplete in its current state. In Maryland public schools, when a student needs support of any kind, they can go to the counseling department. There, counselors will help to address whatever may be causing stress in the student’s life. However, this system relies on a flawed, reactionary approach of support. Due to the stigma surrounding mental health, many students will not actively seek support – fearing the repercussions. As a result, the counseling department largely has to wait for a student to reach crisis before they even know that student is struggling. We often fail to catch students before they fall. Currently, schools nationwide are attempting to implement new, preventative approaches to support in an effort to leave this reactionary system behind. Oregon was able to take a step in this direction with their specific implementation of Mental Health Days. They require students who exceed the Mental Health Day limit to meet with a counselor. This has allowed schools to see which students are struggling, and provide them the mental health resources that already exist on campus. However, HB0461 currently would punish students who exceed the Mental Health Day limit with an unexcused absence. Why should we punish students who are in need? Instead, I propose we add a stipulation that requires students who exceed the Mental Health Day limit to meet with a counselor, psychologist, or any other professional on school campus. This will enable our schools to practice active prevention of mental illness, helping Maryland to catch our students before they fail.
In addition, I seek to raise the number of Mental Health Days allocated to students from one day per quarter to at least three. For a student in crisis, one day simply may not be enough. Students need time to properly address whatever may be going on, and to regain a mindset wherein they can absorb what they are learning and produce quality work. Conversely, a student may be struggling in a specific quarter, but not in any other. For instance, they may need to take multiple Mental Health Days over the course of quarter 2, but not use any in quarter 1,3, or 4. In either case, HB0461 does not provide enough leniency within today’s complex high school environment for students to adequately support their own wellbeing.
In an era of deteriorating student mental health, especially now during this unprecedented time of adversity and isolation, students need help. Maryland needs to do its part to support our students’ well-being. HB0461 will give students the ability to support their own mental health for the first time, while actively fighting the mental health stigma that plagues the Maryland student body. But if we want to ensure the mental health of our students, we need to adopt these amendments. These additions will help schools proactively identify and support struggling students, while also allowing students more space to address their own well-being. As students, parents, teachers, or any Marylander, we need to do our part to push HB0461 and these amendments through the Maryland General Assembly. We need to reach out to the sponsor of the bill, Delegate Washington; members of the Ways and Means Committee; and our representatives in the Maryland House of Delegates to express our support. Click here to find the contact information for Delegate Washington, here to find the contact information for members of the Ways and Means committee, and here to find the contact information for your Maryland General Assembly delegates.
Additionally, if you are a student, consider joining my coalition: DMV Students for Mental Health Reform. We are a coalition of students, clubs, and schools set on improving the mental health resources and education students are provided in the D.C., Maryland, and Virginia area.