Courtesy Hailey Hardcastle Hailey Hardcastle
Sometimes we all just need a break.
That is something Hailey Hardcastle learned in kindergarten, when anxiety would at times overwhelm her. She would get a bad stomachache, or feel scared to touch anything with the color red.
So her mom, Sarah, came up with an idea: each semester, Hailey could take up to three days off from school as 'mental health days,' a practice that continued through her teen years.
"I could go to my mom and tell her I was feeling heavy," Hailey, now 21, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. "But even more powerful than being able to take the days was the assurance it gave me that my mental health was important."
By the time she was in high school, that conviction drove Hailey and a group of fellow students to push their home state of Oregon to create and pass a law in 2019 giving students the right to take days off for their mental health in the same way they might take a sick day.
"We wanted mental health and physical health to be on the same playing field," says Hailey, whose 2020 TedEx talk on why students need mental health days has over 3.2 million views.
Courtesy Hailey Hardcastle Hailey Hardcastle, left, and mom Sarah Hardcastle
Since the Oregon legislation passed, another 11 states have passed similar laws since, with bills pending in at least four more.
The laws can't come soon enough, says Dr. Robin Henderson, chief clinical officer for Work2BeWell, an educational and wellness program in Oregon, who also advised Hailey and her student group on the legislation.
"We are failing students right and left," says Henderson. "So many are struggling with mental health issues."
A recent CDC survey of teens found that more than 40% reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless in the past year, and last year the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national state of emergency in children's mental health.
For more on Hailey Hardcastle and her campaign to get students mental health days, pick up a copy of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday
Courtesy Hailey Hardcastle Hailey Hardcastle
Taking a mental health day, says Henderson, "can open the door for a conversation."
It did for Hailey, whose challenges began after she experienced sexual abuse at the age of 6.
"I found certain numbers, colors and shapes scary. I had to do things in threes. I was obsessive about making sure all my teachers liked me," she says. "I would have panic attacks because I was so anxious about not having perfect homework or not making this adult proud of me."
After her mom, Sarah, noticed the concerning behaviors, Hailey was diagnosed with trauma-induced anxiety and clinical depression. Sarah then suggested the mental health days.
"Knowing I could come to my mom was an important part of my healing," says Hailey, now a senior at the University of Oregon. "The days off," says Sarah, "were there when it became too much."
And they acted as a reset when Hailey felt overwhelmed, like the afternoon she got locked in at school during an active shooter drill.
"She called me in a panic," recalls Sarah. "On her rest days, we'd talk and do a check-in. Sometimes she'd read a book, sometimes we'd make a counseling appointment.
"It was for her to know it was okay to not feel okay, and we could figure it out," she continues. "We tend to think we have to be tough, but it takes a lot of courage to say 'This is too much right now.' "
When Hailey was a junior in high school and serving as president of the Oregon Association of Student Councils, her community of Sherwood was rocked by a series of student suicides.
"A lot of my friends were struggling as well," she says.
So Hailey shared her mom's "mental health day" idea with her fellow student leaders, and together they came up with the plan to make it a law.
The days "give students the right to advocate for their mental health," she says. "The law is behind them. It helps remove the stigma."
Some states offer counseling help as well. In Illinois, where a new law took effect this year, students are allowed five excused absences for mental health — but after the second, a school counselor will reach out to the family.
"When somebody's using a mental health day, it can be a cry for help," says Henderson.
So far the response from kids and parents has been overwhelmingly positive.
"I get messages every day from students telling me they took a mental health day and it was good for them," says Hardcastle. "We all have emotions and challenges, and even if it's not diagnosed or severe, your mental health journey is still real and important. All of us have a brain that needs to be cared for."