Leave of absence

Students work toward excused mental health days at SDSU


Miranda Sampson

Savanna Peterson and Thane Henschel discuss mental health day excused absences.

Lauren Franken, Managing Editor

A survey conducted by the American College Health Association found that in the spring of 2018, 42.9 percent of students surveyed felt so depressed that it was difficult to function at some point in the 12 months prior.

The same survey found that 56.8 percent of students rated their overall stress levels “more than average” or “tremendous.”

The correlation between mental health and academic success is the reason sophomore psychology and sociology double major Savanna Peterson and sophomore human biology, pre-medical major Thane Henschel are working to make mental health accommodations accessible to students as an integrated part of SDSU’s attendance policy.

Peterson and Henschel are developing a program in which students with a diagnosed mental illness can be granted “mental health days” in addition to course-mandated excused absences.

The idea sprang out of their involvement in LeadState, a program that encourages underclassmen to pursue and act on their leadership skills.

“So many people struggle with mental health disorders and there’s so little we truly know about them,” Henschel said. “People can’t always explain themselves as to what’s going on and I think these mental health days provide them that time to recuperate from a seriously bad situation.”

SDSU’s current policy states: “Any exceptions to the faculty member’s written attendance policy due to verified medical reasons, death of a family member or significant other or verified extenuating circumstances judged acceptable by the instructor or the Office of Academic Affairs, will be honored. Absences for vacations, breaks or personal interviews do not constitute a valid reason for absence.”

SDSU does not currently have any standards set in place for absences that are a direct result of mental illness.

“We are fortunate to have Counseling Services at the Student Health Clinic and campus-wide events and programming that increase awareness about well-being,” said Tyler Miller, associate professor of psychology. “But more could always be done to increase students’ access to health services and reduce stigma related to those receiving those services.”

Peterson said the idea behind the program is that mental health days become a “reasonable accommodation,” which is the same policy that allows students to have emotional support animals on campus.

“It’s kind of hard for people who don’t struggle with mental illness or don’t really know about it to understand why it’s reasonable,” she said.

Peterson and Henschel don’t want students to abuse mental health days, which is why the program would require they have a doctor’s note to become eligible for the accommodated excused absences.

“Of course, they can’t just skip class. They [students] will have to contact their professor and say ‘hey this is what happened, I missed class because of a mental health day’ and that way the professor can’t just, you know, deny them an excused absence,” Peterson said.

Miller said when a student misses class he asks for further documentation of the absence, but ultimately responds to students in a standard way.

“I respond very similarly, with empathy and sincere wishes for their recovery,” Miller said.

Peterson and Henschel will first propose their idea to the Office of Diversity, Inclusion, Equity, and Access, but would eventually like to see it become an official part of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), so students who qualify will be accommodated the additional excused absences, and professors will receive a notification of their status in the program upon their enrollment in a course. Neither of them knows if or when the program will be put into place.

Peterson said she thinks a reasonable number of mental health days would be no more than five but ultimately depends on the illness severity.

“The hardest part is people taking it seriously and understanding that mental illness is just as important as physical illness,” she said.