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Students, Stress and Suicide 

A recent City Club forum took a closer look at Oregon's new 'Mental Health Days' law and how it could help students

In February, a group of Central Oregon students proposed a new bill to the Oregon Legislature—one that would allow high school students the opportunity to take five mental health days over a three-month period without academic consequences. The bill was inspired by the nationwide effort among youth to change the stigma surrounding mental health, by promoting open conversations and increased awareness. In June, Gov. Kate Brown signed Oregon's bill into law. 

From left, Erin Rook, Angelina Montoya, Lindsay Overstreet and Sean Reinhart discuss the implications of the new 'Mental Health Days' law at a Central Oregon City Club forum on Nov. 21. - CAYLA CLARK
  • Cayla Clark
  • From left, Erin Rook, Angelina Montoya, Lindsay Overstreet and Sean Reinhart discuss the implications of the new 'Mental Health Days' law at a Central Oregon City Club forum on Nov. 21.

The goal is to encourage students struggling with mental health issues to be honest about their difficulties. In general, it's seen immense community support. At the Nov. 21 City Club of Central Oregon forum, "Mental Health Days in Schools—It's Now the Law," community members gathered to speak on resources for youth mental health and discuss the implications of the new law. On the panel were Sean Reinhart, executive director of special programs for Bend-La Pine Schools, Lindsay Overstreet, a pediatric behavioral health supervisor and Angelina Montoya, a psychiatric specialist. Erin Rook, diversity coordinator at OSU-Cascades, moderated the discussion. 

The law was well-received. Parents and teachers agreed that no harm could come from promoting open communication and working toward widespread de-stigmatization. State Rep. Cheri Helt (R-Bend), a major facilitator of the bill, said it was crucial to "change the culture around asking for help." She noted that the true intention of the law was to initiate conversation.

Reinhart noted that youth today are extremely vocal about their needs and concerns—that it's parents and guardians who needed to communicate more openly and effectively. "Kids are coming in with a high number of ACEs—Adverse Childhood Experiences," he said. "The single most common factor is a lack of positive adult relationships."

Overstreet added, "The most powerful tool that I have as a psychiatrist is my ability to listen." 

Student advocates, child psychologists and mental health professionals believe this is a conversation that is both necessary and urgent. Why now?

A study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that suicide rates among those age 10-24 had increased 56% from 2007 to 2017, and a report published by the American Psychological Association this year found that suicidal thoughts among teens age 18 to 19 had increased a staggering 46% from 2008 to 2017.

Oregon has one of the highest suicide rates in the country. According to the Oregon Health Authority, 825 people died by suicide in the state in 2017. Rates of suicide in Oregon have been consistently higher than in the rest of the U.S. for the past 30 years. While mental health professionals are unable to pinpoint one reason behind the sharp incline, they believe it's a combination of increased stress at school, the prevalence of social media, bullying and stigma-related shame. 

Still, some believe that the new mental health law is doing students more harm than good. John Hirschauer, contributor to the National Review, believes that the bill "exacerbates the problems it purports to allay." Hirschauer believes that there is an important distinction between mental health and mental illness that is being overlooked. "The very premise of the bill — that days off from school will abate the suicide problem—misdiagnoses the cause of the suicide epidemic. Does sapping kids of their fortitude and resolve, indulging the timid impulse that tells them they're just not strong enough to go to history class today, really convince them that their lives are worth living? There is a morsel of truth in the drunk-uncle sentiment that 'our grandparents didn't have 'mental-health days,' and they turned out just fine.' Because they didn't. And they did." 

Legislators passed the bill to help those suffering from diagnosable mental illnesses and those who authentically feel mentally overwhelmed—not those with a looming test or an aversion to gym class. Hailey Hardcastle of Sherwood, Oregon, a student advocate responsible for the bill, confirmed this sentiment in an interview with CNN. "You take a day off if you have a cold, because resting up will make you feel better, and if you're having a really bad anxiety attack or you're going through a bout of depression, taking a day off can make you feel better," she said. 

Alicia Viani, a licensed clinical social worker and longtime therapist, believes that the newly passed law is a valuable tool—not a solution. "When students can make an empowered choice about their own mental health needs, especially in a preventative way to lessen crises down the road, that can help teach tools of self-care for greater success in their futures. It's typical for people to address mental health issues when they have already escalated," she explained in an email to the Source Weekly. "This tool can teach teens to address needs before symptomatic implosions or explosions."

"Stigma" is a word that came up consistently throughout the forum, and the statewide consensus seems to be that de-stigmatization og mental illness is a top priority. "Acknowledging the reality of mental health issues, de-stigmatizing them and teaching students to assess their own stress levels is important," Viani noted. "There needs to be much more support for students in Bend."

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