A 2020 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the proportion of mental health-related emergency department visits for children aged 5–11 and 12–17 increased by about 24% and 31%, respectively, compared to 2019. A year of pandemic restrictions, virtual schooling, limited socialization with peers and more time online has conjured a perfect storm for the mental health of children and teenagers.
Now, as this demographic returns to the classroom and readjusts to a school environment while still dealing with the ongoing stress of the pandemic, states and school administrations are expanding their permission of mental health days for kids and teens.
In the past three years, several states, including Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, Virginia, Washington, and Kentucky have passed bills allowing students to miss school for mental health reasons. And many others have introduced bills for the same reasons. This is a major step in prioritizing mental health and providing support.
“We’ve spent decades raising our standards of learning, now is the time to raise our standards of care,” says Matt Shenker, MEd, a former elementary school counselor who now serves as resident in counseling.
The Importance of Mental Health Days
In school, students navigate academic and social lives, processing new knowledge while being held to increasingly higher standards at an increasingly faster pace. Most children will, at some point, have difficulty handling this.
“School is stressful,” Shenker says. “Even with the most caring teachers and the most supportive systems, the most well-resourced children still experience immense stress at school.”
According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, in the United States, one in six children aged 6–17 experience a mental health disorder each year. And 50% of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14. Statistics like these demonstrate the importance of prevention and support.
“Giving students more tools and opportunities to de-stress by allowing them to take ownership of their mental health and take breaks when they need can be helpful for learning,” Shenker says. “A chronically stressed brain is not in learning mode, it is in survival mode. So there is an argument to be made that giving students mental health days makes teaching and learning more effective as students will grasp concepts sooner and retain them more deeply if they experience less chronic stress.”
Shenker notes that schools have consistently communicated that students’ production and performance levels are top priority. But many schools fail to invest the time and resources necessary for adequate emotional support for their students.
Offering mental health days is a step in the right direction, and students are in support. A poll conducted in 2020 found that, of the 1,500 teenagers who completed the survey, 78% believed schools should support mental health days.
“Schools need to treat mental health as a priority,” Shenker says. “Not just by allowing their students to treat their mental health as a priority, but by serving as partners in nourishing student’s mental health.”
When Should a Child Take a Mental Health Day?
While mental health days shouldn’t be used to help a child avoid situations at school that could be making them uncomfortable, like a person, test or presentation, Shenker says it’s difficult to relay objective mental health day criteria that fits every child.
However, there are some signs to look out for that can indicate a negative shift in mental health. Some of these include exhaustion, stomach aches, headaches and “erratic” shifts in mood. If a child isn’t taking interest in activities they typically enjoy, it might be time for a mental check-in.
“Ultimately, the best way for a parent to know if their child needs a mental health day is to know their child and to communicate with them,” Shenker says. “Behavior is a form of communication. Parents shouldn’t worry about overstepping or making their child uncomfortable by asking them about how they’re doing.”
However, it is important to pay attention to how you ask. Respect is necessary, as children won’t always want to share every detail of their inner and outer worlds with their parents.
“The more a parent insists a child shares things with them that they’re not ready to, the more likely a child is to hide and lie about aspects of their life,” Shenker says. “Instead, it’s essential parents learn the art of connecting with their child while allowing emotional ownership.”
Parents should give children the option to share while emphasizing it’s their choice. Parents can remind their kids that they are interested and available to listen and help. Shenker recommends questions as simple as “How do you feel right now?” and “Do you know what you need right now?”
How to Spend a Mental Health Day
First and foremost, a mental health day should be focused on relaxing and recharging. An attempt to cram too many wellness activities into a single day could just lead to further stress. But allowing a child to spend the day scrolling or staring at a screen may not be helpful either.
To help a child spend their mental health day in a healthy way, keep in mind that this can be an opportunity for fun and celebration of their efforts in schools, child and adolescent psychiatrist Harold S. Koplewicz, MD, president and medical director of the Child Mind Institute, told the New York Times. Spend some quality time together preparing a healthy meal or incorporating some physical activity or time in nature into the day. Plan at least one fun event that can take a child’s mind off any stressors.
Perhaps most importantly, take time to talk and help your child better understand their emotional needs. Shenker recommends starting a conversation to find out why your child’s mental health is being impacted and discussing the best ways to fuel mental well-being. Initiating this conversation could sound like, “We’re going to practice figuring out what you need so that you and feel your best. We start by figuring out how you feel and then figure out what you need to feel most full, rested, and alive.”
Every child’s method of mental refueling will differ; the important thing is to help them figure out what that method is and how best to incorporate it into not only their day off but their daily lives.
This article was originally published by Verywell Mind. Content may be edited for style and length.