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Pennsylvania Youth Gather at the Capitol to Advocate for Student Mental Health Days Legislation

Over 100 students from 10 counties traveled to Harrisburg on November 15 to participate in

Senator John Kane leads a press conference announcing SB 886, which would provide students with excused mental health days.

a Student Mental Health Advocacy Day at the Pennsylvania Capitol. JHF's PA Youth Advocacy Network worked with legislative champions, more than 15 youth-serving organizations and school districts, and teens themselves to plan the advocacy day.

Students participated in a press conference and met with over 25 legislators to advocate for recently introduced legislation that would provide Pennsylvania students with excused mental health days as part of a teen-led initiative of the PA Youth Advocacy Network. The day also included opportunities for students to share their concerns about mental health with legislators, observe House and Senate sessions, tour the Capitol, and hear from speakers about various mental health initiatives.

State Senators John I. Kane and Judy Schwank introduced Senate Bill 886, which would ensure K-12 students can take a mental health day without a doctor's note or diagnosis, allowing students to connect with resources and support instead of truancy court. Representative Napoleon Nelson introduced a companion bill in the PA House, HB 1519. If passed, the legislation will enable Pennsylvania to join 12 other states, providing students excused absences from classes to focus on their mental well-being.

"Empowering our students to take mental health days sends the message that taking care of your mental health is as important as your physical health and reduces the stigma around seeking help," Senator Kane said. "We must prioritize the mental well-being of our students and provide them with the necessary tools to succeed both academically and personally. We've talked to students from around the Commonwealth, and they are letting us know loud and clear that this is exactly what they need."

JHF Teen Mental Health team members Deborah Murdoch, Sarah Pesi, Jessica Segal, Carol Frazer, and Katie Weidenboerner supported a state-wide committee of students from the PA Youth Advocacy Network over the past year as they met with legislators about the need for the bill, provided feedback on the draft bill, and prepared and designed the statewide advocacy day.The committee includes Mia Bell, Saanvi Vereddigari, Grant Cibulsky, Niharika Shukla, Hallie Dong, Minji Kim, Vanesa Aguay, Ishani Bansal, Emily Kwon, Tyler Nolt, Mohammad Shedeed, Karla Aguay, Samantha Dasika, and Alekhya Buragadda.

Student Vanesa Aguay, left, discusses her mental health advocacy efforts with Senator Judy Schwank, middle, and members of her staff.

Youth advocates participating in the advocacy day represented the Beaver County Youth Ambassador Program, Boys & Girls Club of Western Pennsylvania, Neighborhood Academy, Pittsburgh CAPA Stand Together, Central Dauphin High School Multicultural club, Crossroads, Cumberland Valley High School, The Friendship Circle, GirlGov, Greater Valley High School, Highlands High School/The Teen Spot, Linden Hall, Pittsburgh Public Schools Student Voices, Propel Braddock Hills High School Stand Together, Sewickley Academy, SLB Radio Productions, Inc., South Fayette SHOUT (Social Handprints Overcoming Unjust Treatment), Sto Rox High Junior/Senior High School, Upper Merion High School, VOiCEup Berks, Washington Health System Teen Outreach, WeReign, Woodland Hills School District, and Wyomissing Area Junior-Senior High School.

Student advocacy efforts and this bill come at a crucial time as 1 in 6 U.S. youth aged 6-17 experience a mental health disorder each year and with 50 percent of all lifetime mental illness beginning by age 14. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among people aged 10-14. Legislators in support of the bill have touted it as a no-cost way to begin addressing stigma, jumpstart conversations, and build a culture of care within schools. Student Tyler Nolt designed a leave-behind to make a case for excused mental health days that can be viewed here.

The students were recognized on the floor of the House and rallied during a press conference held in The Rotunda to advocate for the bill. Vanesa Aguay (Grade 12- Berks County), Niharika Shukla (10th grade- Cumberland County), Aubrie Moon (Grade 12- Allegheny County), Demeitris Taylor (12th Grade- Beaver County), and Colana Tymes (Grade 9- Philadelphia) shared their experiences and voiced the need for excused mental health days. Alex Gariepy, a social worker and school-based therapist, also spoke.

As part of her remarks, youth advocate Niharika Shukla shared: "This legislation recognizes that our emotional well-being is as essential as our academic performance." Alex Gariepy, a school social worker from Sto-Rox School District, powerfully shared that "Our students deserve compassion. They deserve to feel safe, and they deserve this bill."

"It is past time that mental health support in schools is normalized," Nelson said. "This legislation will allow for school administrators and educators to help students who need to take absences and give parents peace of mind that their children won't be penalized for taking steps to deal with their stress and emotional health," said Nelson. "While we must take the time to grapple with billion-dollar education funding debates, it should not prevent us from addressing this simple, free, effective solution to our students' mental health needs."

The PA Youth Advocacy Network empowers and connects youth advocates across Pennsylvania to build a safety net for teen mental health by providing skills-building and advocacy opportunities for teens and youth-serving organizations interested in mental health.

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