Accomack Schools Consider Mental Health Days for Students, Staff

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By Stefanie Jackson – A Nandua Middle School student spoke to the Accomack school board last week to raise awareness of mental health issues in teens and what the school board can do to help.

Ciara Onley described a typical school day for a teenager. “You walk into school. To your right, you see a group of girls whispering, probably talking about you. Then you go upstairs to the teacher who likes to give you crap because you’re the student they’ve chose to pick on this year.

“Then your day goes on. And you get to algebra, and you don’t understand, but the teacher can no longer help you because the rest of the class has moved on.

“Your school day has ended and you get home, and you have your daily breakdown. And you turn the water on because no one can hear you crying.

“And then you do it all over again the next day,” she said.

Ciara’s recommendation to the school board was to allow students to take mental health days when they are overwhelmed and need a break.

Each student would be allowed a certain number of mental health days per semester.

One in 16 teens is affected by mental illness, 62,000 youth have died by self-harm, and suicide is the second leading cause of death in teens age 14 to 16, she said.

“There are so many students struggling in silence, but it only takes one person to speak up and invoke change,” Ciara said.

The Virginia General Assembly showed its support for student mental health days when it passed House Bill 308 earlier this year, which was approved by Gov. Ralph Northam in April and took effect July 1.

The bill required the Virginia Department of Education to write guidelines for allowing student mental health days to be counted as excused absences. VDOE was given a deadline of Dec. 31 to write the guidelines and distribute them to school boards.

Student absences due to behavioral health issues also would be excused, according to the bill.

Virginia school boards will be given the framework to follow the example of the Montgomery County school district in midwestern Virginia, the home of Virginia Tech.

The Montgomery County school board voted unanimously in late 2019 to count student mental health days as excused absences, and no one from the public objected, according to the channel WHSV3 website.

The story got the attention of the Washington Post, which noted in a January report that students had lobbied the Montgomery County school board for months before a decision was made.

At the time of the report, Oregon and Utah were already giving students mental health days, and California, New York, and Florida had proposed related legislation.

The COVID-19 pandemic may be increasing the prevalence of mental health issues in teens.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a survey in June, and 25.5% of participants reported symptoms of anxiety disorder compared to about 8% of U.S. adults in the second quarter of 2019, about three times more.

About 24% of participants reported symptoms of depression in June compared to 6.5% of U.S. adults in the second quarter of 2019, approximately four times more.

Only adults were surveyed, but the youngest group, ages 18 to 24, reported symptoms of anxiety and depression most often.

Nearly 63% of adults age 18 to 24 reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder compared to about 40% of ages 25 to 44, 20% of ages 45 to 64, and 8% of ages 65 and up.

School board Vice Chairman Ronnie Holden requested Superintendent Chris Holland and staff meet with Ciara to discuss her ideas, and Chairman Paul Bull asked that both students and school staff be included in the resulting recommendation on taking mental health days.