Mental health days may soon be a thing for students in Montgomery County

Superintendent is in favor of plan, other mental health care items proposed

CHRISTIANSBURG, Va. – Middle and high school students at Montgomery County Public Schools may soon be able to take a mental health day. It's all part of a new student driven program addressing the mental health needs of young adults.

The division is in the process of forming the new Mental Health Advisory Committee and it would take input from students, teachers, parents and other community stakeholders. Its goal is to destigmatize things like seeking help or just admitting that there are issues. There has been tension around this topic in Montgomery County Public Schools over the last year, but both sides are proud of the progress they've made.

Young adults today face daunting challenges both inside and outside of the classroom. That's why Montgomery County School administrators and students want to make it easier, and less stigmatizing, to get mental health care.

"In March, I felt as if there was a large injustice committed in our county," student Carson Hopkins said. "Thanks to an outpouring of community support and the efforts of student activists, dedicated teachers, and the collaborative efforts put forth by our central office I believe we are on the road to change."

Students formed the Montgomery County Students for Mental Health Awareness group following the removal of a Blacksburg High School teacher who said it was because he openly discussed his previous struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts in class. Last week, the group met with superintendent Mark Miear to talk about what the division already does and what it can do going forward.

"Just recognizing that students do have anxiety, they have trauma in their life that they need to work through and address," Miear said.

The group isn't wasting time with the start of classes less than a week away. When middle and high school students attend grade level presentations in their first week of classes, they'll be educated on what mental health services are available to them. This has typically never been done before, indstead students only learned of the available services if they were referred to them. 

Miear said he's investigating parent training, peer counseling and a mental health first aid program that would coach students and staff on signs and symptoms, as well as things they can do to help get a person care.

He also said he's on board with excused mental health days for students, a topic embroiled in debate in Oregon, that would be uncharted territory for schools in Virginia.

"We would love for parents to be honest about why they were out because if we get a note saying that it was a mental health day then it can help us, help the kid if we know that the kid is struggling," Miear said.

The new mental health advisory committee will work to make students and families more aware of the services they can use. Students said anything that makes it easier for them to get the help they need is a step in the right direction.

"If we seek to procure a better future for our schools we now must turn our anger into activism and hold our representatives accountable for the promises that they have made to us," student Christian Shushok said.

Students are hoping that a lot of these wheels will be in motion by December, but school administrators said it's not quite that easy as changes that need approval by the school board require many steps. Miear said however, he's proud of the students' efforts and hopes to make as much forward progress as possible.

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