Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Haliey Hardcastle and title of Debbie Plotnik.
SALEM, Oregon – Oregon will allow students to take “mental health days” just as they would sick days, expanding the reasons for excused school absences to include mental or behavioral health under a new law that experts say is one of the first of its kind in the U.S.
But don’t call it coddling. The students behind the measure say it’s meant to change the stigma around mental health in a state that has some of the United States’ highest suicide rates. Mental health experts say it is one of the first state laws to explicitly instruct schools to treat mental health and physical health equally, and it comes at a time educators are increasingly considering the emotional health of students. Utah passed a similar law last year.
Oregon’s bill, signed by Gov. Kate Brown last month, represents one of the few wins for youth activists from around the state who were unusually active at the Capitol this year. Along with expanded mental health services, they lobbied for legislation to strengthen gun control and lower the voting age, both of which failed.
Hailey Hardcastle, an 18-year-old from the Portland suburb of Sherwood who helped champion the mental health bill, said she and other student leaders were partly motivated by the national youth-led movement that followed last year’s Parkland, Florida, school shooting.
“We were inspired by Parkland in the sense that it showed us that young people can totally change the political conversation,” she said. “Just like those movements, this bill is something completely coming from the youth.”
Hardcastle, who plans to attend the University of Oregon in the fall, said she and fellow youth leaders drafted the measure to respond to a mental health crisis in schools and to “encourage kids to admit when they’re struggling.”
Debbie Plotnik, vice president of the nonprofit advocacy group Mental Health America, said implementing the idea in schools was an important step in challenging the way society approaches mental health issues.