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Why student life should have mental health days

Why student life should have mental health days 

When I was a kid, my mom and I made this deal. I was allowed to take threemental health rest days every semester as long as I continuedto do well in school. This was because I startedmy mental health journey when I was only six years old. I was always what my grade-school teacherswould call "a worrier," but later on we found outthat I have trauma-induced anxiety and clinical depression. This made growing up pretty hard. 


I was worried about a lot of thingsthat other kids weren't, and school got reallyoverwhelming sometimes. This resulted in a lot of breakdowns, panic attacks -- sometimes I was super productive, and other daysI couldn't get anything done. This was all happening during a time when mental healthwasn't being talked about as much as it is now, especially youth mental health. Some semesters I usedall of those rest days to the fullest. Others, I didn't need any at all. But the fact that theywere always an option is what kept me a happy,healthy and successful student. Now I'm using those skillsthat I learned as a kid to help other studentswith mental health challenges. I'm here today to offer you some insightinto the world of teenage mental health: what's going on, how did we get hereand what can we do? But first you need to understand that while not everyone hasa diagnosed mental illness like I do, absolutely everyone -- all of you have mental health. 


All of us have a brainthat needs to be cared for in similar ways that we carefor our physical well-being. Our head and our body are connectedby much more than just our neck after all. Mental illness even manifests itselfin some physical ways, such as nausea, headaches,fatigue and shortness of breath. So since mental health affects all of us, shouldn't we be coming up with solutionsthat are accessible to all of us? That brings me to my secondpart of my story. When I was in high school I had gotten pretty goodat managing my own mental health. I was a successful student, and I was president of the OregonAssociation of Student Councils. But it was around this timethat I began to realize mental health was much a bigger problemthan just for me personally. 


Unfortunately, my hometownwas touched by multiple suicides during my first year in high school. I saw those tragediesshake our entire community, and as the president of a statewide group, I began hearing more and more stories from students where this hadalso happened in their town. So in 2018 at our annual summer camp, we held a forum with about100 high school students to discuss teenage mental health. What could we do? We approached this conversationwith an enormous amount of empathy and honesty, and the results were astounding. 


What struck me the most was that every single oneof my peers had a story about a mental healthcrisis in their school, no matter if they werefrom a tiny town in eastern Oregon or the very heart of Portland. This was happening everywhere. We even did some research, and we found out that suicideis the second leading cause of death for youth ages 10 to 24 in Oregon. The second leading cause. We knew we had to do something. So over the next few months, we made a committee calledStudents for a Healthy Oregon, and we set out to end the stigmaagainst mental health. 


We also wanted to prioritizemental health in schools. With the help of some lobbyistsand a few mental health professionals, we put forth House Bill 2191. This bill allows students to takemental health days off from school the same way you woulda physical health day. Because oftentimes that day off is the difference betweenfeeling a whole lot better and a whole lot worse -- kind of like those days my momgave me when I was younger. So over the next few months, we lobbied and researchedand campaigned for our bill, and in June of 2019it was finally signed into law. (Applause and cheers) This was a groundbreaking momentfor Oregon students. 


Here's an exampleof how this is playing out now. Let's say a studentis having a really hard month. They're overwhelmed, overworked, they're falling behind in school,and they know they need help. Maybe they've never talked aboutmental health with their parents before, but now they have a law on their sideto help initiate that conversation. The parent still needs to be the oneto call the school and excuse the absence, so it's not likeit's a free pass for the kids, but most importantly, now that school has that absencerecorded as a mental health day, so they can keep track of just how many studentstake how many mental health days. If a student takes too many, they'll be referredto the school counselor for a check-in. This is important because we cancatch students who are struggling before it's too late. One of the main things we heardat that forum in 2018 is that oftentimes stepping forwardand getting help is the hardest step. 


We're hoping that this lawcan help with that. This not only will start teaching kidsyoung how to take care of themselves and practice self-careand stress management, but it could also literally save lives. Now students from multiple other statesare also trying to pass these laws. I'm currently working with studentsin both California and Colorado to do the same, because we believethat students everywhere deserve a chance to feel better. Aside from all the practicalreasons and technicalities, House Bill 2191 is really specialbecause of the core concept behind it: that physical and mental healthare equal and should be treated as such. In fact, they're connected. Take health care for example. Think about CPR. If you were put in a situationwhere you had to administer CPR, would you know at leasta little bit of what to do? Think to yourself -- most likely yes because CPR trainingsare offered in most schools, workplaces and even online. 


We even have songs that go with it. But how about mental health care? I know I was trained in CPRin my seventh-grade health class. What if I was trained in seventh gradehow to manage my mental health or how to respondto a mental health crisis? I'd love to see a worldwhere each of us has a toolkit of skills to help a friend, coworker, family member or even stranger going througha mental health crisis. And these resources should beespecially available in schools because that's where studentsare struggling the most. The other concept that I sincerely hopeyou take with you today is that it is always OK to not be OK, and it is always OK to take a break. It doesn't have to be a whole day; sometimes that's not realistic. But it can be a few moments here and thereto check in with yourself. Think of life like a race ... like a long-distance race. If you sprint in the very beginningyou're going to get burnt out. You may even hurt yourselffrom pushing too hard. But if you pace yourself, if you take it slow,sometimes intentionally, and you push yourself other times, you are sure to be way more successful. So please, look after each other, look after the kids and teens in your life especially the ones that looklike they have it all together. 


Mental health challengesare not going away, but as a society, we can learn how to manage themby looking after one another. And look after yourself, too. As my mom would say, "Once in a while, take a break." 
Thank you.

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