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New Hampshire considers mental health days for students

New Hampshire State House
Dan Tuohy
New Hampshire State House

A woman whose teenage son died by suicide in 2017 urged New Hampshire lawmakers Tuesday to pass legislation allowing kindergarten through 12th-grade students excused absences from school to deal with mental and behavioral health issues.

Martha Dickey told the state House Education Committee that the bill would complement two other proposals she championed: a law passed last year adding the telephone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to the back of every student ID card and a 2019 law that requires schools to develop policies and offer staff training on suicide prevention. The former was named the Jason Dickey Suicide Prevention Act in honor of her son, who died at age 19.

Dickey said the new proposal would help reduce the stigma of mental illness and help raise awareness that such conditions often interfere with a child's education.

"A mental health day is not intended for a student to avoid classes or assignments, rather an approved mental health absence can help open the door for schools to assist struggling students with overall mental health care," she said.

Twelve other states have similar laws and others are considering it, said Emma Sevigny of New Futures, a health advocacy group.

"Removing this barrier of having an absence on their report card removes the stigma of having mental illness and also improves the ability for students to take that time without fear of negative consequences to their grades and other aspects of their education," said Sevigny, the organization's policy coordinator for children's behavioral health.

No one at the public hearing spoke against the bill, which has both Republicans and Democrats as sponsors. That bipartisan support bodes well at a time when the 400-member House is nearly evenly split between the two parties.

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