Schools Are Allowing Mental Health Days for Students and This is How Kids Should Use Them
Experts call the move toward excused school absences for mental health necessary and life-saving. Here’s what parents should know about making the most of mental health days for your child.
Depression affects about 20 percent of teens, suicide is the third leading cause of death in Americans aged 10-24, and in a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, about 70 percent of high school students said their peers struggle with depression and anxiety. It only makes sense then, that teens might need a day off every once in a while to rest, recover, and take care of their mental health. In the working world, we call those personal or mental health days.
In July, the state of Oregon passed a law giving students up to five mental health days in a three month period. Inspired by students in Parkland, Florida, Oregon students who spearheaded the campaign wanted to ensure their peers had a way to address mental health in school. One student, Derek Evans, explained the necessity of mental health days to Fox 12 Oregon: “Dealing with anxiety throughout high school has always left me tired, exhausted up against some weeks, and the difference one day makes is honestly life-changing,”
In 2018 Utah schools broaden the definition of “excused absence” to include illnesses “which may be mental or physical.” Advocates say the change in policy will help reduce the stigma surrounding mental health and empower students to be more open in discussing their struggles. “When you’re able to call up and say I’m having a panic attack and can’t come to school today, instead of having to make up a cold, that really begins to normalize the fact that mental health conditions are the same as physical health conditions, and we shouldn’t be ashamed of them,” Robin Henderson, Psy.D., chief executive of behavioral health for Providence told Fox 12 Oregon.
How Can Mental Health Days Help Your Child?
Kids from elementary school to high school are faced with pressures their parents could only try to imagine. From school shootings to rampant bullying both in real life and online, to the climate crisis and the divisive state of American politics, our kids are carrying a heavy emotional load along with typical coursework anxiety. Experts say mental health should be treated more like physical health—kids should be able to say they’re struggling and take a day to recover.
“Young people can benefit from having a break from social pressures by reconnecting and spending quality time with family—this can help lessen anxiety and depression,” explains Anabel Basulto, a licensed marriage and family therapist for Kaiser Permanente in Santa Ana, CA. “Often we allow our children to take time off when they have a cold or are under the weather. However, we don’t do the same for mental health. Issues of mental health are not often seen to the naked eye, so they are often dismissed. In reality, issues of mental health often lead to physical problems. Youth and parents would benefit from taking a mental health day to decrease stress and bolster resilience, the ability to bounce back from challenges.”
What Can Parents Do?
We all lead busy lives, and sometimes it might be difficult to tell if your child is struggling with their mental health. The nature of invisible illnesses is that they are just that, invisible. There’s usually no outward manifestation of depression or anxiety or any of the other mental illnesses that are so prevalent today. Signs your child might be struggling include dramatic behavior changes, slipping grades, loss of interest in hobbies or extracurricular activities, or spending less time with friends.
It is important, however, to not let kids use mental health days irresponsibly. “While we want to be responsive to our kids' needs and signals, we also want to be sure that we aren’t inadvertently reinforcing escape,” explains Stephanie Lee, Psy.D., senior director of the ADHD and Behavior Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute. “Parents should be conscious of big assignments or tests that may be approaching in their child’s schedule so that these stressors can be approached together and with support for the student.”
Making The Most Of Mental Health Days
If you and your child determine they need to take a day, there are a few things parents can do to ensure their child gets the most out of it. The goal is to reduce depression and anxiety. “It’s not about taking a day off from school,” according to Basulto. “Just like taking a sick day, parents need to monitor, spend time, and talk with their child. Creating or strengthening a connection is important. There must be a balance between fun and focusing on a solution.”
Encouraging children to step away from devices and social media during a mental health break can help them avoid some of the stress they’re experiencing. Dr. Lee recommends that parents encourage an unplugged day, where children and teens spend time “without their screens and electronics by engaging with them in other calming activities.”
Some suggestions include:
- Just as you would do with the flu, encourage them to take the time to rest
- Use this time to go to therapy
- Let your child know they’re not alone. Your child should spend time with a family member who will listen and let your child know they’re being heard
- There are mental health benefits to going outside, so go to the zoo, on a hike, and otherwise enjoy nature
- Exercise can definitely boost your mood—take a walk, ride a bike, go to the beach, swim, do yoga
- Get those creative juices flowing by drawing, painting, doing pottery, or sewing
- Listen to music and dance
If you’re concerned that your child is experiencing symptoms of mental illness consult with your pediatrician. It’s never too early to begin counseling so ask your child’s doctor for a referral if you’re concerned.