The move is recognition of a disturbing trend: In December 2021, US Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy issued an advisory declaring a mental health crisis for American children, citing “an alarming number” of young people struggling with “ feelings of helplessness, depression, and suicidal thoughts. Between March and October 2020, at the height of the pandemic, the percentage of children visiting the emergency room for mental health problems increased by 24% for children aged 5 to 11 and by 31% for children aged 12. at 17, according to the Children’s Hospital Association.
In 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide was the second leading cause of death among adolescents, a 31% increase from 2019
Christine M. Nicholson, a clinical child psychologist in Kirkland, Wash., who sees many children with mental health issues, said she supports this effort to enable mental health days. She said children sometimes need to skip school, go for a hike, see a movie, or even stay home and bake a cake or watch a movie.
“I think mental health should be valued as much as physical health,” she said. “The kids are going through a tough time and they need a break.”
“The pandemic, with its isolation, hasn’t helped,” said California State Senator Anthony Portantino, a Democrat who introduced a bill that was signed into law in 2021. The bill does not specify not how many days a year a child can take. Portantino, whose brother Michael took his own life in 2010 aged 52, said he hoped other families could avoid the tragedy his family suffered: “The pandemic has exacerbated the need, but if it can speed up the solution, then that’s a positive thing.
New mental health days at school? How parents can make them work for kids.
Proponents of such measures say they are long overdue and can help de-stigmatize mental health in the eyes of parents and children. So far, Washington, California, Illinois, Maine, Virginia, Colorado, Oregon, Connecticut, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and Kentucky are offering mental health days.
“If nothing else, it makes a huge statement that mental health matters as much as physical health,” said Mike Winder, a Republican state representative from Utah who sponsored a bill that became law in 2021. Winder introduced the bill after conversations with his daughter who was struggling with her own mental health issues. “This policy communicates at the highest levels that it’s okay to take care of your mental health,” he said of the bill, which doesn’t limit the number of days a child can take.
But how does taking a “mental health day,” which Americans have traditionally interpreted as a “wink, nudge” excuse to skip school, improve mental health?
“When students are not feeling well physically, it is universally accepted that they should stay home and take time to feel better,” said Barb Solish, director of youth and youth initiatives. young adults from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), which supports the use of Mental Health Days.
“School policies that recognize mental health as an acceptable reason for absence can help students take the time they need to care for themselves and regain their health,” Solish said. “Concretely, if you have a fever, you don’t pay attention in class, do you? You don’t learn the lesson. If you feel overwhelming anxiety, you don’t learn either.
In states that have adopted them, policies vary, although in all cases parents must sign a note excusing their child. Some impose limits on the number of days off a child can claim – for example, in Connecticut, students can have two days a year and they may not be consecutive – while others, such as California, don’t.
As with all absences, missed schoolwork must be made up. But the policies don’t dictate how the days off can be used — whether that’s to stay in bed or attend therapy appointments or anything else. Some suggest that this could lead to abuse. Portantino bristles at the idea.
“We have no doubt that a parent wants Johnny to stay home because he has a cold. That is exactly why we need to have this bill. This is a stigma that we need to correct. We do not distinguish between physical and mental health. If your child is sick, your child is sick,” he said.
Most laws passed or introduced require a parent to provide the same kind of apology note that a physical illness would require.
Some fear that offering mental health days is not the right approach to this crisis.
In the National Review, Daniel Buck, editor of Chalkboard Review, an education-focused newsletter, wrote that school mental health days “could ease immediate distress but ease habits that don’t only aggravate long-term anxiety and depression.” He suggested they would teach children about avoidance rather than how to deal with the real issues plaguing them, like too much social media. “By popularizing Mental Health Days, we encourage our students to allow the world to dictate their emotions instead of teaching self-regulation and emotional control,” he writes.
Instead, he suggests, “What if we build resilience in our schools? What if we trained students in the stoicism of Marcus Aurelius and the habits of virtue of Aristotle so that they could face the inevitable difficulties of life? And these would include habits of emotional awareness such as regular reflection, talking with loved ones, or planned and well-timed rest days.
Solish said there’s a fine line between taking the day off to feel better or skipping school to avoid a test you didn’t study for. This is why it is important for parents to understand why a child may request leave. And, she added, if a child asks for or takes an abundance of those days off, it could be a sign that something is wrong and indicates a need for professional help.
Solish said: “We are not going to solve the youth mental health crisis with a few mental health days. But it’s a good starting point. »
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Dave Anderson, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute in New York, which studies mental health services in high-need school districts across the country, agrees.
Days off will help, he said, but “there are too few [mental health] providers, too few online resources, too few school counselors trying to serve too many students, and far too little information given to educators on how to support children. Of more than 100,000 clinical psychologists working in the United States, only 4,000 are child and adolescent clinicians, according to a 2022 report from the American Psychological Association. “School psychologists are also in short supply, leaving children without enough support in school,” the report said.
Jack Ramirez, 19, of Spring Township, Pennsylvania, said he believed mental health days could literally save the lives of many young people.
He had urged Pennsylvania State Senator Judith Schwank (D) to introduce a Mental Health Days bill in 2020 when he was an intern in her office the summer before his senior year of high school. He was still reeling, he says, from the suicide of a classmate a few months earlier. Maybe if this student had felt like he could stay home to take care of his sanity, Ramirez thought at the time, he would still be alive.
The measure, which would provide two sanity excused days per semester, is still in committee in the Pennsylvania State Senate.
“This is not a bill to skip school,” said Ramirez, now a sophomore at Rutgers University in New Jersey who has dealt with his own feelings of isolation and anxiety. “High school students feel isolated, they feel the pressure of grades. They are competing against each other. It gets really scary, and we don’t pay enough attention to it. … If we’re going to start saving lives and start talking about solutions, it’s so important to pause on a lot of these things that we’re dealing with.
Enjoy a “mental health” day
Should you encourage your children to occasionally take a step back from their miniature rat race? And if you do, is there a way to get the most out of it?
“There’s no perfect way to take a mental health day,” said Barb Solish, director of youth and young adult initiatives for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). “But it helps to be intentional.”
Here are some of Solish’s tips for making the most of a “mental health day”:
Listen to your child: Ask open-ended questions about their relationships and experiences and why they think they need the day off. So let them talk.
Make sense: Try to avoid catching up on schoolwork or getting lost in social media. “Those are stressors for kids,” Solish said.
Practice calming activities: Walk, cook, draw, get lost in nature. “Anything that brings your child back to the center is a good thing to do,” Solish said, adding that you don’t want to schedule the day too much because it will be stressful in its own way. Should parents allow children to indulge in video games, television, or other screen time? “Nothing is really off limits,” Solish said. “You just want to make sure you’re really thinking about what’s going to help you.”
Relax on the talk of feelings: “You don’t have to push kids to talk about their feelings all day,” Solish said. You can talk about the importance of taking care of your mental health.
Know when you need more help: If your child shows increased irritability, insomnia, depressed mood, low motivation, or regularly asks not to go to school, you may need the help of a mental health professional, a said Dave Anderson, clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute in New York. York. Contact a pediatrician, school counselor or your family doctor to find a recommendation.
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