Admin Insights: Mental Health Days for Students

Dr. Rick N. Bolling
Dr. Rick N. Bolling
Division Superintendent of Schools; Ed.D. in Leadership
A teacher comforts a sad looking student.

Schools granting excused absences for mental health days has become a recent trend. The reality is that mental health issues can impede the ability to attend in the same way as physical illness.

Students are living in a more complex world than ever before. Technology and other societal advancements have made it difficult for anyone to escape from ongoing demands ranging from societal concerns to work or school tasks. In addition, youth do not have fully developed coping skills for these ongoing pressures. Lacking fully matured thought processes, youth are more sensitive to stress. The effects of the pandemic have heightened stress and anxiety among our young people. The shutdown period compounded student mental health concerns as society attempts to return to more normal daily activities.

Showing further importance of the consideration of mental health days for students are concerning statistics regarding depression and suicide among our youth. Parents and schools alike need to pay close attention to students and check in with them. Effective and frequent communication is the key.

The Rise of Mental Health Days for Students

Legislation allowing for excused absences based in mental health concerns is recent with most passing in the last three years. Slightly more than 25% of states now include these days in legislation. Five days is a common number of allowable excused absences related to mental health.

Illinois is an example of a state that recently passed legislation regarding excused mental health days for students. This state started allowing up to five mental health days each year starting in January 2022. No doctor’s note is required for the use of these days and all work can be made up. The purpose of Illinois student mental health days is to allow students to cope with social and academic pressures.

Schools often cite the importance of caring for the whole child yet there is a lack of acceptance related to mental health concerns of students. Schools must combine mental health days with other efforts to increase awareness. Prioritizing mental health is proactive and an investment that will create school cultures and classroom climates in which all students feel welcome and safe to learn.

Schools investing in providing centers of emotional support and give focus to social-emotional learning is essential. Mental health days should be viewed as only one possible component of a support network for students and families. Schools can even add mental health discussions to health curriculums to further the impact and education on this topic.

Pros and Cons of Mental Health Days for Students

An occasional mental health day can be crucial to regain perspective and recharge for the days that lie ahead. Timing is an important consideration when planning a mental health day. These days should be taken when stress levels are rising and time away will let one recharge and be more productive when returning. Taking these days lightly with little thought is a con of mental health days for students.

Another con related to mental health days for students is that these days can enable avoidance when approached and timed incorrectly. Students should not use these days to escape difficult assignments or dreaded interactions with peers. When these days are used as avoidance, stresses of returning to more work that has piled up or missing critical discussion related to success on an assessment can add additional stress. These days should be used during a long stretch instead of extending a break.

As mentioned previously, there are many benefits of mental health days for students. The possibility of rest is a pro for the use of mental health days. Many studies have shown the importance of sleep regarding productivity and innovation. As such, mental health days would allow students to catch up and return to a regular sleep schedule. This benefit could increase academic thought processes leading to more success in school. Families can also focus on healthy and balanced eating during these days as mental health and physical health are closely linked.

The wise use of mental health days allows a person to regain composure and focus on self-care.  Once a person is grounded and has regained perspective, he or she can focus making instruction and learning more effective. Mental health days can help maintain a healthy balance.

Mental Health Day Activities for Students

Mental health days provide an excellent opportunity for focus on one’s overall health. When one of these days is needed, sleep should be prioritized. Physical exercise should be combined with balanced meals and a focus on nutrition.

Parents can invest in healthy parenting when their children need a mental health day. These days can provide some time for fun and quality time with parents. Board games, sports, and walks outdoors are just examples of family time that could occur. Further, these days allow time for meaningful family conversations.

Starting further treatment for mental health is another example of a wise use of mental health days if needed. If a student needs a few mental health days a year, outside support should be considered. Outside counseling and school counseling are examples that can provide additional support.

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