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Mental Health Days: What Are My Children’s Rights in Virginia Public Schools?

by | Dec 18, 2023 | Children and Teens, Mental Health, School

Forward, Together with western tidewater community services board

Taking a “mental health day” has become more common over the last few years, and not just for adults. But do public schools even allow students to stay home from school for a mental health day? And what are the impacts of taking a mental health day, both good and bad, for children and teens?

What Is a Mental Health Day? 

For years, we’ve lived with entrenched societal beliefs about work and education. One of these beliefs is that it’s not ok to take a day off unless there’s a “real” need – i.e. you’re sick, you have an important appointment or you’re going on vacation. But just like taking time off for “staycations” has become more acceptable, so have mental health days. “Taking a mental health day” refers to the practice of taking a day off from work or school to simply relax, recharge and care for your mental health. 

Why Mental Health Days Matter for Children and Teens

Our concern for our mental health has been steadily growing, especially since the COVID pandemic brought new considerations to the forefront. The pandemic, particularly the months-long nationwide shutdown, led to increased rates of mental health concerns like depression and anxiety. Lockdown protocols also meant that we were isolated from our social groups. This was especially problematic for children and teens, as social connectedness is very important when it comes to their emotional growth and development.

Social connectedness in youth is linked to:

  • Higher self esteem
  • Increased empathy for others
  • Youth who are more trusting and cooperative

When youth feel socially connected, they’re less likely to:

  • Have mental health issues
  • Experience violence
  • Engage in risky sexual behavior
  • Use substances

Terriyln Rivers-Cannon, a school social worker for over 20 years, says that educators and staff hoped that “after settling for the first year and returning to in person learning that some things would have slowed down.”

But that doesn’t appear to be the case. Even now in 2023, “school social workers are finding that youth are still experiencing a high level of mental health challenges.”

Related: What To Do When a Child Is Having Suicidal Thoughts

It’s not just the pandemic that’s impacted the mental health of children and teens. Increased workloads and higher stress levels, highly publicized school shootings, rapid changes in the way we live and socialize and social media are all contributing factors.

Can My Child Miss School for a Mental Health Day in Virginia?

So now you understand why children and teens might feel the need to take a day off, but is it ok to let them?

A law passed in 2020 in Virginia requires the Virginia Department of Education to grant excused absences to students due to mental or behavioral health. So yes, students in Virginia can miss school for a mental health day, but the different school districts are allowed to handle that requirement any way they see fit.

Should I Let My Child Miss School for a Mental Health Day?

While mental health days can come with lots of benefits, they shouldn’t be used as an excuse to avoid difficult situations. When you’re deciding whether or not to let your child or teen stay home from school, use your best judgment.

Do you know of any tests, presentations or other assignments that they might be trying to avoid or delay? Are they in the midst of any conflicts with classmates or teachers? 

Allison Dubinski, a LCSW at the Child Mind Institute, says that “mental health days can be positive for any child, as long as they’re done in a way that’s not reinforcing avoidance or anxiety.” 

Avoiding a problem usually just makes it worse, especially in the case of anxiety-inducing situations. Taking a mental health day is a valid form of self-care, but it shouldn’t be used as a crutch to avoid life’s challenges.

The Rhithm App: Mental Health Support for Suffolk Public School Students

The Suffolk Public School has also rolled out an additional program to help students who may be struggling. 

In 2022, Suffolk Public Schools looked into new ways to ensure student safety. About the changes they’ve made, Dr. Rodney Brown, Chief of Administrative Services for Suffolk Public Schools, says:

“When we think about safety, we always think about physical safety, but what about the emotional part? That’s important to student achievement.”

Part of their initiative to protect student mental health is a new app called Rhithm, which allows students to do an “individual daily check-in to start their day, sharing where they are mentally, emotionally, physically, socially, and energy-wise.”

About the app, Cindy Devers, coordinator of social emotion support for Suffolk Public Schools says:

“The teacher is going to be able to see, OK, does Cindy need a little extra support today? Do I need to reach out to the counselor, just give a little extra nudge throughout the day, just to just check in.”

The responses also go to school counselors and our administrators, so the school is able to intervene before things get too serious.

Mental Health Support for Children and Teens at Western Tidewater CSB

If your child or teen is struggling with their mental health, we can help. We’re proud to offer compassionate and effective behavioral health care for children and teens, including:

  • Mental health counseling
  • Case management
  • The REACH program for youth living with ID/DD
  • In-school mental health support via SCIP OP
  • Crisis stabilization
  • Functional Family Therapy
  • Youth substance abuse treatment

At WTCSB, we do more than provide care. We advocate for the child and their entire support system. 

Ready to get help? Schedule an appointment for same-day access online or call us at 757-758-5106. 

Let’s move forward, together.

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