This morning, I gathered my two oldest kids and my husband to come watch a segment on the Today Show because I knew it would spark conversation in our house. Teen activists successfully lobbied for the Oregon School Board to approved “mental health days” for students. According to the report, the difference is that mental health days are treated like sick days, of which they are allowed 5 days off every 3 months without disciplinary repercussions.
Oh my gosh.
I have to say I’m not a mental health expert, not a child psychiatrist, psychologist, behavioral therapist or otherwise. I am a concerned citizen. I am a mom and a nurse who knows a bit about the 25% of adults who have mental health disorders and know that multiple sources say adolescents are experiencing mental health at higher rates, some suggest above 30%.
The premise of this movement was to allow kids to call their absence a mental health day, to remove the stigma associated with mental health disorders. Okay. Fine. You can see if that works. But I like Florida’s system better where they will be providing mental health education for students. Although if you don’t educate parents, you aren’t going to get very far. But at least it’s a positive response to our social crisis and maybe can identify and help kids who are suffering and need to learn how to cope with stress and triggers—not stop at identifying a problem, but provide solutions.
And I understand that we all need days to focus on mental health, even those who don’t have a diagnosis. Everyone needs a break—even God rested on the seventh day. That’s what Sundays were supposed to be for—rest and recreation, as in re-creation, spiritually renewed, spiritually ready to face challenges with God throughout our lives. I’m not even saying that I do this—after all, I’m a nurse and weekends are fair game in this career, but I’m pretty sure most school systems in our country don’t operate on the weekends, so kids are off two days a week, yes?
Not to mention holidays, half-days, voting days, teacher work days, Spring Break, Christmas Break, and summer vacation.
The problem here is our society does not value Sundays or days off as they were meant to be valued, to help us renew our strength and bodies to deal with stress and life and school and work. They became days to catch up on all the work that was neglected throughout the week; days for taking kids to their activities; days for entertaining and socializing, which is more work especially for introverts; and for 22% of the population, it’s just another day at work.*** But in the long run, what happens when we don’t take God’s advice to take a day of rest (and spend some time with Him)? Depression? Anxiety? Substance abuse? the list goes on.
Aside from our questionable food supply, our world contamination, our reliance on technology, our distance from nature (and God), and all the other contributors to our mental health, I don’t think we are teaching people (kids and adults) how to cope with stress. When we don’t wire our brains properly when we experience stress, we end up with damage which leads to many diagnoses. We often teach kids how to avoid stress altogether, so when they experience stress they don’t know how to manage. We have hovering parents who won’t let their kids feel disappointed; we have busy/tired parents who stick kids on devices instead of letting them figure out how to entertain themselves; we have well-meaning school staff who take away kick-ball at recess because someone might get hurt; we won’t let our kids out of sight in case they get hurt or approached by a stranger; we’ll offer magical pills that are supposed to work and cure just about everything; and we have redesigned our world to promote comfort and convenience at all times.
What is a mental health day for a teen actually going to look like? Maybe there would be a handful of students who might find a constructive way to benefit, but if they are already struggling, someone reliable and hands-on (hopefully parent and a mental health professional) needs to be seriously involved here. Me, the forever pessimist, sees the more likely picture. How easy would it be for students who are already having a hard time dealing with depression or anxiety to take a day off to now be on their electronic devices (average is now 4 hours a day)*, which may perpetuate the problem, lose a day of instruction, which will lead to more academic problems, vape or use alternative substances for stress relief (now up to 35% of HS seniors)**, which will cause health problems in the long run and will lead to more stress? Plus, this will teach them that they will require mental health days when they are an adult in the real, working world, where, I’m sorry to say, you don’t get to take off 5 days every 3 months. At my current job, if you are full time, you are allowed 3 sick days a year. I think my husband gets 5. When we were both in the service, if we had asked for a mental health day, we would have been laughed right out of the commander’s office.
And, while I’m on the subject, we don’t get to take an emotional support animal to work either. Although I did have a patient bring one in to the hospital, and I had to chase it down the hallway when it wandered into someone else’s room. #gottalovenursing
I suppose it will be a good test for the Oregon Schools. They can see if this makes a difference, learn from it and continue to address the problem. They do have one of the highest suicide rates in the country, and that is a huge concern. But unless students (and parents) are changing something in their lives and their brain wiring (which is what needs to happen), then the problem won’t go away by taking a day off, no matter what you call it.