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Illustration by Zoë Petersen

Why schools increasingly offer mental health days for students

The list of state legislatures greenlighting a day to decompress has grown, to cheers from students and mental health experts.

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Lawmakers nationwide are making it easier for students to give themselves a day off from school for mental health, with parental approval. And mental health advocates say that’s a welcome step that will help students decompress and avoid bigger problems, while reducing stigma that can prevent young people from seeking professional help for anxiety, depression or other problems if they need it.

As many as 1 in 5 adolescents have a diagnosable mental health problem, according to Margaret Cochran, a mental health expert in San Jose, California. And virtually everyone deals with varying types and degrees of stress and distress.

“Having mental health days allowable in the school calendar is highly desirable. The key is how you use the days,” said Cochran, who has master’s degrees in education, social work and psychology, as well as a doctorate in transpersonal psychology.

When Mental Health America, a national advocacy organization, surveyed teenagers, asking what would most help their mental health, more than half said they’d like to have a mental health break from school or work. And when a Harris Poll asked more than 1,500 teenagers in May 2020, 78% said schools should allow mental health days so students could take care of themselves.

Still, it’s crucial students not use a mental health day for avoidance. Children dealing with school-avoidance anxiety need to go to school, said Cochran, who calls it the job of adults to help the child learn to power through difficult times. “That’s what helps them be resilient.”

On the other hand, if a student just finished a bunch of exams and needs a day to decompress, that’s OK. “It’s important that kids get chances for breaks just like adults do,” she said.

Minnesota led the way by excusing students from class for mental health more than a decade ago, expanding on rules states already have that excuse absences to deal with a diagnosable mental illness. That’s a different issue than allowing a mental health day to step back and hit reset.

The New York Times reported that in the past two years, ArizonaColoradoConnecticut, IllinoisMaineNevadaOregonUtah and Virginia passed laws that let children miss school for mental or behavioral health.

Pandemic toll

Education Week recently reported on the trend and how children signal they need a day off: “They miss class. Their schoolwork is weak or nonexistent. They’re exhausted, unfocused. As schools step up their support, one simple, concrete step is becoming popular: Allowing excused absences for mental health days.”

And the stress created by COVID-19 has increased the need.

Issues related to mental health kicked up during the pandemic — and they’re not confined to children or teens. The just-released American Family Survey by the Deseret News and BYU found that most Americans didn’t seek help for mental health, but half of the adults surveyed said their mental health suffered. And half of those people didn’t get the care they said they needed.

Experts say the pandemic has been as hard on kids as on adults — and maybe even more so, with school closures and canceled events. But it didn’t take the pandemic to create a mental health crisis among American teens, who in unprecedented numbers have dealt with anxiety and depression, as the Deseret News reported in a yearlong project in 2018.

Teens want to play a larger role in their own mental health, according to a 2020 survey by Mental Health America, that found nearly half of teens would like to learn how to care for their own mental health needs. Mental health days are an example of taking that initiative.

Mental Health America’s report said that young people most need “support for their own mental health, opportunities to learn about mental health, connection to a mental health advocacy community and training to support their peers’ mental health.”

Besides giving young people a much-needed break, it’s believed allowing mental health days will help decrease the stigma associated with mental health and mental illness, allowing young people to ask for and receive help before a significant crisis.

While “popular culture loves to depict mental health days with air quotes and a wink, an excuse for perfectly healthy people to play hooky from work, taking ‘decompression days’ occasionally can be one effective way to manage emotions and stress,” as Jill Cook, executive director for the American School Counselor Association told Education Week writer Catherine Gewertz.

She, too, said the days are not intended for the school-avoidant, however.

As EducationWeek reported, “Most of these laws permit parents to report such absences. But experts and policymakers don’t seem too concerned that the policies will be abused.”

Assessing the need

“It’s important to talk to children and listen to their concerns, then take it seriously,” Cochran told the Deseret News. “I hear people say, ‘She’s just being a teenager’ or ‘It’s a kid problem.’ It is a big deal to that kid,” she added. “Children are often stressed when they are experiencing something challenging for the first time. It matters.”

How can you tell a day off is needed?

Cochran said children — especially those 12 and younger — may act out their stress by isolating themselves, or being irritable or clingy. They may have headaches, stomach aches or disturbed sleep patterns. Parents should spend some time figuring out what’s going on.

Younger kids don’t know how to identify what’s troubling them unless parents ask specific questions, Cochran said. “They will tell you if you are specific. Teens are very concerned about appearing inadequate or appearing to depend on adults. And they are terrified about having their freedom restricted. If it was something bad at a party, for instance, or with friends, they worry they won’t be allowed parties or friends.”

She said kids need to know there’s no consequence for telling, though parents may decide the child is not hanging with a good crowd. “You need to not make a change, though, in the moment of telling,” she said.

Cochran suggests scheduling a mental health day occasionally, just like adults do with work, then make a plan for how to spend the time.

Cochran’s list of good ways to use a mental health day include:

  • Sleeping in and resting.
  • Reading for pleasure.
  • Playing.
  • Time with grandparents or animals or a favorite adult.
  • Watching a movie.
  • Video games — not more than 90 minutes.
  • Baking or cooking.

“Very seldom do parents have special time with kids, so take a half hour and do what the kids want to do. Kids adore that,” Cochran said. For older children, it might be lunch out, just the two of you, talking.

“As a therapist, what I hear is ‘Mom made me go to lunch with her. It was the best day ever.” or “Dad made me go on vacation. It was so much fun.’”

Cochran noted that kids are more or less vulnerable to stress based on how their role models handle stress. If parents are highly reactive about something, children will tend to mirror that stress in their lives. “It’s important to keep high-level details to ourselves. Talk to other adults, but walls have ears,” she counseled.

Mostly, she said, “we have to listen to what our children need, not what we want them to need.”