Proposal would provide students an excused absence for mental health

FRANKFORT, Ky. (WTVQ) – A measure prefiled by state Rep. Bobby McCool (R-Van Lear) and state Rep. Lisa Willner (D-Louisville) would provide Kentucky students dealing with mental health issues a simple but valuable tool to manage their conditions – an excused absence.

The two legislators filed BR 185 and are working to build awareness of the measure among colleagues.

“Anxiety and depression were concerns before the pandemic. Now, with so much uncertainty in their lives, our children are suffering with mental health issues in record numbers,” McCool said. “I think it speaks volumes that it was brought to us by high school students who know firsthand how trauma has impacted their lives. Stress is their new normal, and I’m proud of them for identifying ways to manage it.”

McCool and Willner were approached with the idea for BR 185 by high school students Cole Butcher of Johnson County and Kameron Julian of Jefferson County.

“The most powerful policy ideas come from the people closest to the issue, so I was honored when students advocating to improve mental health approached me about this critical legislation,” Willner added. “The bill encourages students to make their own mental health a top priority, and it opens the door for family conversations around mental health.  These courageous conversations are essential for reducing stigma, and are a first step in addressing one of the most important issues facing every Kentuckian. We all know someone who struggles with mental health challenges, as this pandemic has made clearer than ever.  As a psychologist and a legislator, I’m passionate about improving the mental health of every Kentuckian.  I could not be prouder to be part of the good bipartisan work to advance this student-led effort.”

Butcher, a student at Johnson Central High School in Paintsville, shared the measure will have an impact beyond the excused absence by opening conversations about mental health and helping schools identify students who may benefit from additional mental health resources.

“After seeing some alarming data about the state of students’ mental health during COVID-19, I decided something needed to be done to assist in preventing the worsening of students’ mental health as kids reintegrate into in-person schooling,” Butcher added. “This bill allows students to take mental health days, but the true effects are broader. In rural Kentucky, there is a stigma among parents regarding their children’s mental health. This bill would make headway in breaking this stigma. If parents see that schools are taking mental health seriously by adopting these mental health days, then parents may be more open-minded to take their children’s mental health seriously and have those tough conversations.

A school district-wide approach to building resiliency helped stir Kameron Julian of duPont Manual High School in Louisville to reach out to Willner.

“Last year I joined a district-wide Jefferson County Public Schools club called Mental Health Matters. This club opened my eyes to many mental health issues. I did research to see how other school districts talked about mental health in their schools. I learned that several states voted to have mental health count as excused absences. This legislation excited me, so I created a proposal to get mental health language added to my school attendance policy,” Julian added. “The reality is students have been taking days off of school to deal with their mental health for years. They’ve just had to lie about it and say that we were ‘sick’.  By implementing the policy of counting mental health days as excused absences, we are saying it is okay to take care of yourself whether it is for a physical ailment or a mental health issue. Even though we are just adding mental health language and not adding days, it still opens up room to talk about mental health. This policy will allow students and parents not to hide or lie about it.”

“These are our children, our future. It is past time to decrease the stigma associated with this topic and realize that mental health is a health care issue,” McCool added.

The Kentucky General Assembly has passed several pieces of legislation aimed at addressing improvement of children’s mental health, including the School Safety and Resiliency Act of 2019. That measure required local boards of education to develop a plan for implementing a trauma-informed approach and drew attention to the social and emotional aspects of pediatric health.

BR 185 is filed for consideration during the 2022 Regular Session, which will convene on Jan. 4, 2022.

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