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Statewide legislation will mean an enhanced focus on mental health locally as well

Last month, Gov. Kate Brown signed House Bill 2191, which expands the definition of an excused absence from school and allows Oregon students to take up to five "mental health days" in a three-month period, similar to sick days. Four Oregon students advocated for the bill and fought for its passage; it will take effect in September.

The bill and effort by the students received national attention and is part of a larger movement to destigmatize mental health issues. Locally, the Newberg School District is embracing the change as it continues to expand mental health services for students.

Superintendent Joe Morelock said he was happy to see mental health treated on the same level as physical health. One in five people on a national level suffer from mental illness and suicide rates in Oregon are higher than the national average. Suicide and suicidal ideation is of particular concern in Newberg, where a number of young people have taken their own lives in recent years.

"I think that a focus on mental health in Newberg and statewide is really important," Morelock said. "We probably don't pay enough attention to how mental health impacts kids' experience in school, so overall it's a good thing. I think it's important for us to have a much broader focus on mental health and not have it be stigmatized."

Detractors of the bill argued that it would just create more excuses for students to skip school. Morelock is skeptical of that argument and said the legislation creates another avenue through which the district can identify students struggling with their mental health.

"They could just tell us they're sick with the flu anyway," Morelock said. "It's not like this is creating some new way for kids to skip school. If we're getting better information about how students are feeling in terms of their mental health, this is a positive thing."

Students calling in to take mental health days, Morelock said, puts the district on alert and allows them to link the student with resources in the community and at the school. The district has already established numerous partnerships with local entities that can assist students in this realm, and it continues to expand the mental health services provided in its schools.

The fact that HB 2191 was advocated for and pushed through by actual students says a lot about this generation's acceptance of mental health as an important part of life, Morelock said. He added that – on a number of issues – it is important for administrators and teachers to actually listen to their students' needs.

"I think it's important for us to take in the students' perspective, not just at the legislative level, but at all levels," he said. "It's their experience at school, and often we spend too much time worrying about adult need rather than student need. To hear a students' voice in important conversations like this is fantastic. If we don't listen to them, we are missing hearing from the population we are endeavored to serve."

Those struggling with their mental health can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or the Crisis Text Line by texting "Home" to 741741.


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