State Senators John I. Kane and Judy Schwank have teamed up to introduce new legislation that will allow K-12 students to take excused mental health days in Pennsylvania. In collaboration, Representative Napoleon Nelson has introduced a companion bill in the PA House, HB 1519. If passed, Senate Bill 886 will enable Pennsylvania to join 12 other states, providing students excused absences from classes to focus on their mental well-being.
Senate Bill 886 will ensure that students have the option to take a mental health day without a doctor’s note or diagnosis and recognize everyone has mental health. Allowing students to take mental health days allows for students to connect with resources and support as opposed to truancy court. It is a no-cost way to begin to address stigma, jumpstart conversations, and build a culture of care within schools.
A statewide committee of high school students, coordinated by the PA Youth Advocacy Network, provided feedback and input on the legislation and organized advocacy efforts around the legislation. This collaboration is part of the PA Youth Advocacy Network’s goal of bringing youth and youth-serving organizations together to advocate for mental health system change.
“Empowering our students to take mental health days sends the message that taking care of your mental health is as important as your physical health and reduces the stigma around seeking help,” said Senator Kane. “We must prioritize the mental well-being of our students and provide them with the necessary tools to succeed both academically and personally. We’ve talked to students from around our Commonwealth, and they are letting us know loud and clear that this is exactly what they need.”
“Students today are under a lot of pressure and deal with a whole host of distractions that can impact their mental health,” Schwank said. “Everyone feels overwhelmed from time to time, which is why giving students the freedom to step back and catch their breath is so important. Granting students mental health days allows them to take the time they need, clear their heads, and recharge. This minor change to the Public-School Code, I believe, could have a major impact and help Pennsylvania students achieve balance.”
“It is past time that mental health supports in schools are normalized,” Nelson said. “This legislation will allow for school administrators and educators to help students who need to take absences and give parents peace of mind that their children won’t be penalized for taking steps to deal with their stress and emotional health,” said Nelson. “While we must take the time to grapple with billion-dollar education funding debates, it should not prevent us from addressing this simple, free, effective solution to our students’ mental health needs.”
The bill has gained momentum and support from both parents and students throughout Pennsylvania. According to a recent poll by Verywell Mind and the magazine Parents, 75 percent of parents feel that schools should offer mental health days to students. The pandemic has exacerbated the mental health crisis in the United States, especially for children. Almost half of parents surveyed said their teen experienced a new or worsening mental health condition after the pandemic started, and pandemic restrictions made it difficult to seek help.
“Students want to feel valued and understood, and by acknowledging mental well-being, they can be more focused and engaged, creating a positive culture benefiting the entire school community,” said Saanvi, a grade 12 student from Chester County.
“As a student, I can attest to the importance of mental health days,” said Ishani, a grade 11 student from Montgomery County. “Excused mental health days not only give students a much-needed break but also show that we’re making progress in getting rid of the negative stigma often associated with teen mental health.”
The PA Youth Advocacy Network empowers and connects youth advocates across Pennsylvania to build a safety net for teen mental health. Founded in 2018, the PA Youth Advocacy Network provides skills-building and advocacy opportunities for teens and youth-serving organizations who have an interest in mental health. Learn more at payouthadvocacy.org.