In response to the rising rates of depression and suicide among young people in the United States, some states are taking action.
In 2018, Utah passed a bill that states students are allowed to take a mental health day as an excused absence from school. Oregon followed Utah’s lead in 2019 when it enacted a similar law.
“This is a great idea, particularly for adolescents and teens, because depression and anxiety has so much prevalence among these age groups,” Caroline Clauss-Ehlers, PhD, psychologist and associate professor at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, told Healthline.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness states that 1 in 6 children between the ages of 6 and 17 experience a mental health disorder each year.
“Mental health days are not only good for the practical aspect of giving young people a break, but they also validate that the community and society are saying, ‘We understand and we’re supporting you in this way,’” said Clauss-Ehlers.
Shelli Dry, OTD, occupational therapist and director of clinical operations at Enable My Child, agrees that these days can help eliminate stigma around mental illness.
“For schools to recognize that sometimes it’s better to take a mental health day than push through when you cannot seem to cope, is a tremendous support for students to feel understood and accepted, and [this, in turn, encourages] students to understand and accept themselves more,” Dry told Healthline.
Why your child may need a mental health day
Whether your child’s school recognizes mental health days or not, the following may be reasons they need one.
Because many adolescents and teenagers are working on relationship building with both peers and with romantic prospects, Dry says when something goes wrong with a relationship, kids can take it hard.
“They may feel like the world is ending and they can’t seem to cope with things because [the relationship issues] are overwhelming their thoughts. This can create stress and anxiety. They are overly focused on what’s going wrong in their relationship and might not be able to study or respond to other people,” she said.
Achieving good grades can create stress for kids.
“The pressure of doing well academically or for some students getting into the school they or their parents want them to, or for older kids getting into a certain college, is stressful. One of the questions that comes up for students is, ‘Am I good enough? Am I smart enough?’ So there is a lot of self-doubt at this age, which is hard,” said Clauss-Ehlers.
She adds that high school students particularly feel extra pressure when it comes to higher education.
“Because it’s so expensive, there is another pressure from families figuring out those tuition dollars. Parents think their child has to excel so they can get a scholarship and financial support to be at the school,” she said. “Kids feel that pressure.”
This can also apply to sports or other extracurricular activities.
“Sports are a tremendous pressure for a lot of adolescents because it’s their way to shine, and if something goes wrong and they are not playing their best, they can be hard on themselves,” said Dry.
When parents get divorced or lose a job or become ill, Clauss-Ehlers says kids experiencing anxiety is a typical reaction.
“These situations all bring uncertainty. A lot of what anxiety is, is the uncertainty of what’s going to happen in the future. It may be that children need to help the family out in different ways and they can’t be in activities because they have to watch a younger sibling after school,” she said.
In this situation, she says parents can help ease anxiety by having open communication.
“You don’t have to give all the details, but children absorb what’s going on and what their parents are experiencing. Telling your child something like, ‘I don’t know the next steps, but here’s what we’re doing to try to make it OK can help them process it,” said Clauss-Ehlers.
Existing mental illness
If a child already has a known mental health condition, Dry says they may not have the resiliency to handle life events. Because of this, they may be more likely to need to take a mental health day or more frequent mental health days.
“Mental health days are a great start [for children with known mental health conditions], but we also need to make sure they are getting the treatment they need if they are experiencing stress. Maybe they need to talk with a therapist to work with them on their coping skills,” said Dry.
When is it time to take a mental health day?
While some stress is normal, Dry says it can become problematic when there is a collaboration of events that happen in a child’s life.
“Mental health experts look at… how many things happened in a row. If there is a divorce, that creates a little stress, but doesn’t always get to a toxic level. But if a child experiences a divorce, and a death, and is failing with grades, or experiencing relationship issues, all that happening together in a short period of time can create toxic levels of stress,” she said.
Dry and Clauss-Ehlers say signs that your child may be overwhelmed by events in their life include:
- Behavior and personality changes. For example, your child is typically outgoing and suddenly becomes reserved.
- Begins isolating themselves. While adolescents and teens may stay in their rooms for periods of time, they tend to come out and interact with other people in the house.
- Easily irritated. If your child becomes short-tempered or displays anger issues.
- Physical changes. Mental health issues can first present as headaches, stomachaches, and sleepiness.
If your child displays signs that they’re ready for a mental health day, Dry says the day should be a time for them to relax, recharge, talk about their concerns with a parent, and get help from a mental health professional, if needed.
“While not always realistic, the best thing would be to have someone hang out with the child so they are not alone, especially if they came forward and said they are having trouble coping,” said Dry.
Clauss-Ehlers, agrees, noting that giving your child the time to de-stress and seek out help isn’t something parents should feel guilty about.