Proposed bill would allow Kentucky students to take mental health days

House Bill 44 unanimously passes
Posted at 10:47 PM, Jan 20, 2022

NEWPORT, Ky. — A proposed bill making its way through Kentucky’s General Assembly is putting students' mental health in the forefront.

House Bill 44, or an act relating to student mental health, would require local school districts to provide a policy granting excused absences for mental or behavioral health, essentially paying the way for student mental health days. The House unanimously passed the bill this week and sent it to the Senate for consideration.

Rep. Lisa Willner, cosponsor of the bill, said it is a student-driven piece of legislation that several teens across Kentucky requested.

“The first conversation I had with one of the students, (was) what is preventing you now from having your parent or guardian calling the school and saying my child doesn’t feel well today and leave it at that?” Willner said. “And their answers were very clear. Some families are very open and comfortable talking abut mental health, but because of the stigma that is still associated with mental health concerns, many families without this explicit language, would feel like this was cheating somehow. Or that it was not as legitimate to have anxiety or depression or to be sleep deprived, as to say, have a sore throat.”

Locally, many districts have added more resources to help students struggling with mental health issues, including Newport Independent Schools. However, the district's absentee policy does not specifically list “mental health” as an excused absence. Illness, medical appointment, or other circumstances as approved by principal, among other reasons.

Former Newport student David Aschraft said he supports the bill.

“If that’s what it takes to help us through this, it absolutely needs to happen,” he said.

RELATED | Kentucky House passes bill requiring schools to allow excused absences for student mental health days

Aschraft graduated from Newport High School in 2021 and now works as an instructional assistant at Newport Intermediate School. He said attending school during the pandemic was difficult and exacerbated existing mental health struggles.

“School was probably the most stability I had, and that just got taken right beneath our feet. And I can say the same with current students, and students that have graduated. It was a complete loss of stability,” Aschraft said. “Anxiety definitely with not knowing what was coming next, depression was a big issue, isolation, (students) are not seeing their friends. For a lot of our Newport students it was not even knowing when you are going to get your next meal.”

Jessica Rigas, a nurse practitioner who works at the Cincinnati Anxiety Center, agreed that the pandemic has increased mental health issues for kids and adults a like.

“With the back and forth of school, online to in person, to masks one week, no masks one week, I think a lot of the kids don’t have a good solid foundation and so with the things moving and turning and every month looking a little different for them, the anxiety of what’s coming next is really scary to them,” Rigas aid.

Rigas said that solid foundation is essential for kids. She encouraged parents not to ignore it if their child is struggling.

“The younger we are and the sooner we overcome, it the better it is to treat,” said Rigas.

Ashcraft said he hopes students will seek help if they need it and the bill will make a difference.

“Because they’re students, it’s just, go to school you’re fine. And it’s just now really coming to light after the pandemic. There’s a lot more consequences,” Ashcraft said.

It's unclear when the Senate might consider House Bill 44.

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