October 9, 2019

Keeping kids’ mental health in mind

Oregon’s new law supports schoolchildren’s plea for excused mental-health days.

If a child gets strep throat, it’s acceptable to take a sick day. But what about debilitating panic attacks or bouts of depression?

Kids today are bombarded with disturbing media (think school shootings, unsettling politics, and looming climate disasters) — all heady topics bound to trigger emotional reactions they aren’t equipped to navigate.

And in Oregon, where suicide is the second-leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 34 (40% above the national average), it’s not surprising that a student-led coalition proposed House bill 2191 to allow schoolchildren 5 excused mental health days within a 3-month period — the same as illness and injury.

A healthy conversation starter

Parents and teachers teach kids to monitor their own physical well-being; by asking if they’re cold and need a jacket, children learn to observe their own needs. By validating mental health’s importance, Han- Chun Liang, MD, child and adolescent psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente, thinks this law — which went into effect July 1, 2019 — will prompt similar conversations about children’s mental well-being and boost their emotional resiliency.

“I’m hoping this will encourage parents to feel comfortable talking with their kids about stressors, coping skills, and monitoring how they’re feeling emotionally,” he says. “And the idea of having our schools in support of that is exciting.”

Dr. Liang hopes that, in classrooms, the law will provide teachers with feedback about mental health absenteeism, which is poorly documented since mental health hasn’t been a recorded reason to keep your child home. With this new data, educators can measure their classrooms’ mental wellness and take steps toward implementing universal precautions for emotional health — similar to promoting hand-washing during flu season.

“Can schools improve attendance by further supporting education around emotional well-being?” asked Dr. Liang. “Could that be teaching mindfulness at schools? Exploring meditation? Or discussing how we talk about our feelings and label our emotions — that’s a learning opportunity.”

A chance to unplug and reset

While the law’s skeptics deem it flawed, offering kids an excuse for why they skipped school, many see it as encouraging kids to speak up about their anxiety, depression, or stress. “It allows us to pay attention to when our kids ask for a mental health day,” said Dr. Liang. “Having the ability for kids to vocalize this may give us the chance to target our interventions.”

Which begs the question: What should kids do on a mental health day, and how can parents and teachers provide direction?

“It’s important that parents know whether their child is someone who recharges with physical, creative, or quiet activities,” says Dr. Liang.

For example, for a child who is physical and gets recharged by time outside, hiking could be the best self-care. For the creative child, writing or drawing might provide healthy outlets. Regardless of how someone regains their spirit, Dr. Liang recommends remaining unplugged. “Let’s explore something else besides TV, social media, or YouTube,” he said.

“We’re all in this as a community to figure out how to support the emotional well-being of our kids — I think it’ll be a learning process for all of us, but a good learning process.”