Oregon legislation touted by teenagers to give students mental health days off from school has received extensive national and even international news coverage, sparking overdue conversation about the growing problem of teen suicide.
House Bill 2191, which Governor Brown has signed into law and will go into effect in the upcoming school year, is thought to be first-of-its-kind legislation. The measure reinforces a broader drive in Oregon and elsewhere to treat physical and mental health equitably.
Passage of the bill took the energy and empathy of four students to recognize the problem, identify a step in the right direction and lobby it successfully through the Oregon legislature. Their story is an echo of the successful call to action Parkland students launched following a mass shooting at their Florida high school.
Sam Adamson, Lori Riddle, Hailey Hardcastle and Derek Evans were determined to tackle an Oregon suicide rate that has exceeded the national average for three decades, even as the national average has risen. The Oregon Health Authority says suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Oregonians between the ages of 15 and 34.
Adamson’s mother is Jessica Adamson, who handles Oregon government relations for Providence Health & Services and is a legislative veteran. She and Dale Penn II, CFM partner and contract lobbyist for Providence, met with student leaders last summer and provided a primer on the Oregon legislative process. The students later approached them with their concept of treating mental health and physical health days off equally.
Under the rubric of Students for a Healthy Oregon, legislation was drafted and a strategy developed. Penn laid the groundwork with legislative leaders and key committee members and worked to secure stakeholder support or neutrality. The students came to the state Capitol twice during the 2019 legislative session to testify on their bill before the House and Senate education committees.
In her House testimony, Hardcastle, who admitted to bouts of anxiety, said, “House Bill 2191 is important to me because it would reaffirm the idea that mental illness is no different than physical illness and it would offer support to the masses of students that are struggling with mental health challenges every day. One in nine children struggle with a severe emotional disturbance in their lives. That means that about 180 students at my school are struggling every day.”
Evans testified, “House Bill 2191 is important to me, and my peers, as it allows students to take their health into their own hands. Students across Oregon, and the US alike, have been prone to silently suffer throughout the school year, as we are not currently allowed to take mental health days to lessen the effects of any mental health conditions.”
The practical advantage of the legislation, the students said, was allowing students to make up tests or homework assignments if they missed a day of school to cope with anxiety or attend a therapy session.
Beyond days off, the student advocates for HB 2191 want to see greater effort to identify student mental health issues earlier before they turn into serious, life-altering problems.
The students acutely anticipated critical comments that compared their idea to a Ferris Buehler prank. In response to concerns that students would lie about why they needed to take a mental health day off, the student advocates said, “They are lying now.”
“I personally am in need of mental health days,” Evans testified. “I deal with high-functioning anxiety, which has restricted me from prioritizing my mental health because it is not a physical illness, and therefore it is not excused. The thought of missing school for an unexcused mental health day only adds to the anxiety I already deal with, and I can assure you that this is a common trend among students.”
Getting legislation enacted into law is difficult for seasoned lobbyists, not just first-timers. Hardcastle told NPR the experience has kindled her interest in becoming a professional lobbyist. She plans to attend the University of Oregon and major in political science.
"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," Hardcastle said.
Legislative champions for the legislation included Senator Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego and Reps. Cheri Helt, R-Bend, and Margaret Doherty, D-Tigard. HB 2191 initially passed the House on a 48-12 vote and the Senate by a 22-6 margin.