Florida's new mental health bill would give kids excused absences to see a professional in the field

Mental health generic
Posted at 4:57 PM, Jan 18, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-18 17:46:39-05

Two years into the pandemic and new statistics prove kids are having difficulty adapting to this new normal.

In 2021, the nonprofit group Mental Health America found that more than half of teenagers surveyed needed a mental health break or absence from school or work to cope with their mental well-being.

With suicide rates rising, several states have created new mental health laws for kids, and Florida could soon be following suit.

"It's incredibly difficult for kids who have mental health concerns to maintain their performance at school," said Dr. Jennifer Katzenstein, the co-director of the Center for Behavioral Health at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital.

She said the ongoing pandemic has tremendously impacted children's mental health.

"We've seen increases in anxiety and depression. For our adolescents, our teenagers and our younger kids as well. We continue to see the stress of the pandemic and the uncertainty take its toll on the mental health of children and adolescents," Katzenstein explained.

Recent statistics prove it.

A Harris Poll of more than 1,500 teenagers conducted last year found 78% said schools should support mental health days to allow students to prioritize their health.

Katzenstein believes we were in a mental health epidemic before the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I am hopeful because the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light the mental health needs of our kids and our families and how important mental and physical wellness are in combination. But we remain in a mental health epidemic," she said.

"Mental health is as equally if not greater importance than physical health," said State Representative Susan Valdes, whose District 62 covers part of Hillsborough County.

Valdes said kids' mental well-being declined substantially due to the stress from COVID.

Valdes is sponsoring House Bill 289. It would allow students to take an excused absence for their mental health and see a licensed professional instead of a medical doctor.

"School boards cannot alter their attendance policies because the statute says that excused absences must be issued by a licensed practicing physician," Valdes explained.

The change to the statute in House Bill 289 would allow the student to see other professionals in the mental health field and not be penalized at school for a behavioral health crisis.

"An unexcused absence means you can't make up your work. You get a zero for the day," Valdes said.

Valdes believes broadening who a child can see for help will better serve students' mental wellness in all of Florida's 67 counties.

"We don't have a lot of pediatric psychiatrists available, and sometimes you don't need to go to that level of a pediatric psychiatrist. You might just need a mental health therapist or a social worker," Valdes said.

Nine other states are already on-board in supporting students' mental health.

Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Virginia have passed bills permitting children to be absent from school for mental or behavioral health reasons and not just for a physical issue needing a medical doctor.

According to the CDC, suicide is now the second leading cause of death among adolescents 15-19 years old, so many believe we need to act now.

"Mental and physical health are really one. We can't have one without the other. And so it's important to be able to excuse those absences when our kids or children or teenagers are experiencing mental health concerns, and certainly when they're seeking treatment," Katzenstein said.

Katzenstein said we need to focus on the mental health of struggling children before it's too late.

"Kids on average will wait ten years for appropriate diagnosis and treatment from the start of symptoms. And if we can build this in and help everyone to understand the importance of mental health and therapy as part of a full treatment plan, we can get our kids the help that they need sooner and do so in a way that is excused absences from school," she said.

House Bill 289 has a companion bill in the Senate known as Senate Bill 1070 written by Senator Shevrin Jones.

Valdes hopes this new state bill will pass so each school district can approve excused absences for mental health issues as they see fit.