Students have always dealt with the timeless struggles of balancing academia and personal life. However, nowadays, the stress has only been compounded by additional issues such as climate change, gun violence, and the current, narrow-minded political climate. Given this extensive list of worries and difficulties, it is no wonder that student mental health is at all time low. The states of Utah and Oregon took the initiative by allowing mental health days in 2018 and July 2019 respectively. While this policy is a commendable start to combating student stresses, the criticisms it has received demonstrate its need for revision.
The Argument for Mental Health Days
Current mental health research depicts a harrowing picture of teenage psychology, supporting the need for intervention. According to a 2019 Pew Research Center study, “seven-in-ten teens today see [depression and anxiety] as major problems among their peers”. In addition, “[w]hen it comes to the pressures teens face, academics tops the list: 61% of teens say they feel a lot of pressure to get good grades”. Thus, students recognize that their mental health is deteriorating, and much of this stress happens to be school-related.
Suicide rates have also been steadily growing in the United States, as the national overall rate of suicide increased by 25.4% between 1999 and 2016. In comparison, Oregon’s suicide rate rose 28.2% while Utah’s rose a whopping 46.5% in that same time frame. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reported a suicide rate of 14.46 for adolescents and young adults aged 15-24 in 2017.
Therefore, the implementation of mental health days was intended to relieve some of the stresses associated with education. By providing the option for a much needed break, lawmakers hoped to lower the high suicide rates. Many students have applauded the intervention for its “positive and open approach on mental health”, reducing the stigma around mental illness and promoting healthy discussion. These responses of approval show that mental health days are much appreciated by a majority of the students.
Dissatisfaction with the Current Policy
However, not everyone endorses the idea of mental health days. The main concern is that “people will just take advantage of it and skip school” without actually being in significant distress. Others argue that students will not “learn to be responsible” or develop “proper time management skills”, and that mental health days will only “[teach] them that when things get tough [they] can just stay home”.
While the objectors make reasonable points, they need to understand that stress debilitating enough to warrant time off from school is often not just related to grades and academics. Other stressors, some largely uncontrollable, pile up and only exacerbate the situation. As one pupil puts it,“Allowing students to learn how to achieve self care is a much more important lesson than any physics or math class”. A life-long skill is knowing when to take a break in order to avoid burnout and work at max efficiency once again.
Even several of the opponents acknowledge that some people truly do need mental health days. One student states that they could “understand people with actual mental health [issues] getting a day off”. Another believes that mental health days are unneeded for the most part, but admits that the exception is “if there is truly nothing [one] can do to fix [their] problems”. To prevent abuse of the system, a student recommended requiring a “doctor’s note”. Thus, while some are reluctant to accept the current mental health day policy, perhaps an improved version will gain more approval.
Recommended Revisions to the Policy
The proposed updates seek to provide help based on students’ individual needs while limiting exploitation of the program. First, considering that most students will only need one day at a time to recuperate, a doctor’s note may not be necessary (unless the student plans on missing a consecutive, extended period of time). However, students should fill out a short survey to assess the severity of their mental state. It is important to note that this appraisal is solely meant to record a student’s psychological history- not to enforce action upon the student based on the results of their test. For example, while measures of severity can bestow useful insights, they should neither be used to deny students mental health days nor force unwilling persons into treatment. It is presumptuous and unhelpful to set arbitrary parameters that can define a person’s distress as too mild or too severe because individuals have different capacities for dealing with stress. What is barely stressful for one person may be extremely stressful for another and vice versa.
To deter students from taking advantage of the system, there should be a limit on mental health days. Naturally, additional days will be given to students with extenuating circumstances. When a student has used up all their mental health days, they should be allowed to receive another day if they go through a therapy session. These terms and conditions will not only prevent people from excessively skipping school, but also aid the particularly struggling people (who are likely the ones that need extra mental health days) with therapy. Of course, therapy should be provided as an option to all who take mental health days, not just the most severe cases.
While the disheartening trends of teenage mental health justify the need for mental health days, several people are dissatisfied with the current policy, claiming that it may be too lenient. Thus, revisions are needed to help students on a more individual basis and prevent abuse of the system. As stated before, students applying for a mental health day should take a mental health survey to record their current state of mind. Only a set number of mental health days should be given, and if students find themselves needing more, they should undergo therapy sessions to gain additional days. Note that these proposals emphasize options over mandates to maintain personal autonomy. Providing students with the ability to make their own decisions will be empowering, allowing them to seek assistance if they please without pressuring them into an unwanted procedure.
This post was written by one of U4SC’s Courses 4SC Teaching Assistants, Tara.