New CT law allows students to take mental health days

Students are now allowed to take two days off from school each year as mental health days.

Students are now allowed to take two days off from school each year as mental health days.

Ned Gerard/Hearst Connecticut Media

MILFORD — Students have always had the chance to take days off from school for illness. Now the same can be said for those students needing a mental health day.

On July 1, 2021, the Legislature passed Public Act 21-46, allowing students to have two mental health wellness days in a school year. But while it has been in place for more than a year, the law remains one that is still not widely known.

“The idea behind providing two mental wellness days is first to support self-care and help create good mental wellness habits early in life,” said state Rep. Liz Linehan, co-chair of the Committee on Children. “Secondly, by classifying mental health days, we reduce the stigma of mental health concerns and give our kids a way to talk to the adults in their lives about their struggles.”

The legislation gives local or regional boards of education the ability to permit any student in kindergarten through 12th grade to take two mental wellness days during the school year. However, students can't take mental health wellness days during consecutive school days.

Linehan said enacting this law is key to aid students, who she says are overworked, over-scheduled, and many times overwhelmed.

“According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), almost 6 million in the U.S. have been diagnosed with anxiety, and many go undiagnosed," she said. "In addition, almost 19 percent of adolescents aged 12-17 reported seriously considering suicide, and that statistic is from before the pandemic.

"One of the best things we can do for our children's mental wellness is teaching them it's OK to say you need a break to regroup and rejuvenate before there is a concern like anxiety and depression," Linehan added. "That, coupled with other good habits like a full night's sleep, eating healthy foods, exercise, and mindfulness, provide a strong foundation for mental wellness throughout their lives.”

State Sen. Saud Anwar, also co-chair of the Committee on Children, said the idea for the law came after conversations with parents and students.

“Students who had been struggling with emotional challenges within our school systems sometimes wanted a little break from the stresses they had difficulty coping with,” said Anwar. “We also looked at data where truancy has been looked at as a symptom of an underlying mental health difficulty that student might be facing.”

Anwar said it was essential to have a plan to give some days for students to use as mental wellness days.

“We started with a conversation of two to four days, and then we landed on two days because we wanted to make sure we don’t compromise students’ educational curriculum,” he said. “Two days was a compromise because some of the families we talked to had recommended four days for this.

“Not all children can cope with the stresses, especially with the mental health challenges our students face,” Anwar added. “We felt having a couple of days with no questions asked and no notes needed from a doctor's office would be the best approach to help them out.”

Jennifer Close, a teen and young adult life coach based in Milford, said she is thrilled to see state legislation provide increased support around mental health.

“Encouraging our students to positively utilize their two mental health days from school is very important,” she said. “Our students experience the same stress as adults and can struggle even more when they do not have strategies to cope with their schedule demands.

"Taking a day to themselves can be just what they need to reset and focus on their responsibilities with a rested and more positive mindset,” Close added. “Many of our student's jam pack their schedule with academics, athletics, clubs, and volunteering, which can cause burnout or feelings of overwhelming.”

Area superintendents said students have already begun to use the two mental wellness days since the start of the 2021-22 school year, although not every district is tracking the use of these days. The number of students using the days differs as well, with some districts seeing little use.

In Shelton, Superintendent of Schools Ken Saranich said 14 families utilized mental health wellness days last school year; two families used both days. “We have not had any families use any of these days this school year,” Saranich added.

Trumbull Public Schools Superintendent Martin J. Semmel said some of their students had also used the mental school days since it was approved by legislation. No data was given on how many students used them.

Ridgefield Superintendent of Schools Susie Da Silva said that in the 2021-22 school year, 195 students took 249 mental health days from kindergarten to eighth grade, and 54 used both days. At Ridgefield High School, 89 mental health days were taken by 70 students, of which 11 used both days.

Da Silva noted that elementary students had taken zero mental health days this school year, but five high school students have taken six mental health days, and one has used both days this school year.

Darien Public Schools Superintendent Alan Addley said there is no conclusive record of how many students have taken a mental health day in that district since there is no separate monitoring beyond the general excused absence. However, he said the number is probably low because it’s not widely known to the community as a day students can take.

“It probably wasn’t on people’s radar," he said.

Close said students should use their two mental health days wisely and take time to think about specific activities or strategies they would benefit from engaging in during their time off.

“Self-care looks different for everyone, so maybe it’s a day to organize their space, read a new book, rest on the couch or catch up on sleep,” she said. “No matter what it is, we all need a day to reset, and there should be no stigma around the need for some extra time to ourselves.”