Over the past several years, the mental health needs of Kentucky students have prompted appropriate concern. Between fear and instability brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, the killing of Breonna Taylor and the protests that followed, and the cataclysmic tornado that ravaged much of Western Kentucky, the challenges to our mental health have been exacerbated by factors beyond the typical stressors of adolescent life.
According to the Kentucky Student Voice Team’s May 2020 Coping with COVID survey, which drew 9,475 student responses from 573 Kentucky middle and high schools, almost one in six students identified their mental health as a primary concern. And despite youth mental health dominating headlines and policy conversations, students have expressed a need for more support from our schools. 2019’s School Safety and Resiliency Act sought to add mental health professionals to schools across the state but failed to provide funding for the initiative. Subsequently, the Student Voice Team’s Coping with Covid data revealed a 50% increase in the number of Kentucky students who wanted but lacked access to mental health services, and that was at the beginning of the pandemic.
House Bill 44, filed in the current legislative session, is a straightforward, easy-to-implement intervention. By providing flexible school attendance policies for mental health, the bipartisan bill allows students and their families more agency over their mental health needs and gives administrators a simple way to provide support.
Since the establishment of compulsory attendance policies under KRS 159.030 in 1942, students have been allowed excused absences for physical health concerns. Despite this, when the need to care for our mental health arises, our justification is often questioned. There should be no difference between the two — as the link between mental health and academic achievement is clear, and mental health is similarly essential for our well-being and success in school.
Mental health issues can greatly affect students’ welfare in the present, but as a body of research shows, unaddressed, they can also have negative impacts that continue deep into adulthood. Patrick O’Rourke, a Bowling Green High School teacher, knows firsthand the long-term impacts ignoring trauma can have on students. “I think, as adults, we want to give ourselves the luxury of going ‘eh, it’s fine, kids are resilient,’ but I went through a tornado when I was in third grade, and that’s stayed with me my entire life,” he told us. “Those things sit on the shelf and they pop up later in inopportune moments if they’re not dealt with.”
The most recent Kentucky Youth Risk Behavior Survey reported that, excused or not, 25% of high school students in Kentucky miss one or more days of school for mental health reasons. When asked about how schools can support them, over 80% of Kentucky students who responded to our survey expressed the desire for flexible attendance policies, including excused absences for mental health-related concerns.
While excusing students from school for mental health reasons is a necessary measure to protect our well-being, the Kentucky legislature must not stop there. House Bill 44 should not be treated as a comprehensive solution to student mental health, but rather as one step to improve our school systems’ protection of it.
Somewhere in the seemingly endless deliberations of how to support the mental health of students, the simplest need we have expressed has been forgotten until now: time. Kentucky has the opportunity to give students the time we need to take care of ourselves and to pause when we need a break from what can all too often feel like the overwhelming chaos of school.
Clay Wallace is a senior at Bowling Green High School. Hayden Watkins is a sophomore at Rowan County Senior High School. Tala Saad is a junior at Kentucky Country Day School. All are members of the Kentucky Student Voice Team, comprising young people co-creating more just and democratic Kentucky schools.