Oregon's suicide rate has outpaced the national average for the past three decades. In an effort to combat stigma around mental illness, four local teen activists took matters into their own hands and championed a proposed state law.
Oregon schools will now excuse student absences for mental or behavioral health reasons, as with regular sick days. In other words, if a student is feeling down, they can stay home from school without getting docked for missing classes.
Previously, students were only allowed to miss school due to physical illness, a family member's physical illness, doctor or dentist appointments or an emergency. According to state law, students are allowed up to five excused absences within a three-month period, the Associated Press reported. Further excused absences require a handwritten note to the principal.
The law, signed by Gov. Kate Brown last month, will take effect this coming school year and is widely believed to be one of the first of its kind in the country to treat physical and mental health equally.
The mental health of teens and young adults in the country has dropped dramatically since the mid-2000s.
"We're not talking about 'I just don't feel like going to school.,' We're talking about real disorders, real things that have real impacts," Chris Bouneff, the executive director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Oregon, told NPR. "It's hard to address them systematically if they have to stay hidden because of stigma and prejudice and shame."
Critics have argued that students can technically already take mental health days by lying or pretending to be sick. Taking a mental health day often carries a negative connotation, therefore some claim this new law will prompt students to find more excuses to miss school. Oregon has one of the worst absenteeism rates in the nation — during the 2015-16 school year, more than 1 in 6 children were chronically absent from school.
Bouneff said the new law not only creates equity for health care conditions that are commonly hidden away. It also allows students to be honest about their reason for not going to school. It may lead to greater acceptance and encourage individuals to seek help and get on track to recovery.
"You would have circumstances where students have a mental health disorder that impacts their ability to attend school at a given day but they would have to hide the reasons that generated their absences and you don't do that for any other health care condition," Bouneff said.
The national suicide rate increased 33 percent from 1999 to 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among Oregon residents aged 15 to 34, and the eighth-leading cause among all ages in the state, the Oregon Health Authority said.
Taking this statistic into account, 18-year-old Hailey Hardcastle, along with three other students, started lobbying for the mental health bill.
Exactly a year ago, Hardcastle was at summer camp for the Oregon Association of Student Councils where she assisted in holding workshops for students across the state regarding mental health issues. There, students brainstormed the importance of taking "Mental Health Days" from school.
"A big issue for students with mental health is when you have to miss a day because you're going through depression or you have a therapy appointment," Hardcastle told NPR. "It's really hard to make up tests and homework because teachers or the administration might not take it as seriously as a physical illness."
She realized nearly all of her peers had a story about someone they knew who had tried to commit suicide or was dealing with a mental health problem.
Hardcastle said she herself struggled with handling anxiety in high school where she was "always pressured to do as much as I can all the time so that way you could be competitive in college and jobs." Along with witnessing her closest friends struggle with depression, she knew it was time to help fix the problem rather than just hear about it.
Hardcastle will attend the University of Oregon where she plans to study political science. Despite feeling nervous talking to government officials for the first time, this entire process made her aware of how receptive the political system is.
"When I went down [to the Capitol] I saw people who looked just like me walking around and trying to make a difference so it really made me realize that if you believe in something, you can do something about it, no matter how old you are or where you come from or what you already know about politics," she said.
Inspired by the change she helped influence, Hardcastle said she hopes to become a lobbyist one day. For her, the new law is definitely not the end.
"I have three younger sisters who are in middle school right now...and part of the reason I do this is so high school and beyond will be even easier for them than it was for me," she said.
If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.