In this podcast (episode #398) and blog, I discuss a question I was asked recently: should we have mental health days at school?
We all go through difficult times, and we all battle with “mental health.” If there is a mental health day, it should be something that raises awareness that all people suffer from the “human condition”, that emotions like sadness, stress, grief and unhappiness are a normal part of life, and that we are here to help one another. This should not be a day to stigmatize some people with the label of “mentally ill” and deem others as “normal”.
We should use a “mental health day” as a means of teaching children how to manage stress and anxiety daily. For example, we should teach our children that stress can actually be good for them, as it prepares their bodies for action and helps them get ready to take a test or run a race. However, if they are constantly stressed, it can have a negative impact on their mental and physical health, so it is important to take days off and rest, such as spending the day playing board games with their loved ones or going to the dog park with their pets. Children, like adults, need to be taught how to cope mentally with the demands of life, and mental health days can be times where they can earn to do this.
Does this mean that exhaustion or “just not feeling like it” are acceptable reasons to take the day off and skip school? This will depend on what is going on in your child’s life. We should always listen (in a non-judgmental and loving way) to our child’s story—what they are going through and what is happening in their life. We need to learn to tune into our children, but we will also need to teach them to manage the ups and downs of life (including through positive lifestyle habits such as sleeping well, eating well and moving often) and how to turn scary things like tests into something challenging and exciting.
Most importantly, as parents, teachers and guardians, we need to be careful not to put too much pressure on our children to get straight As and be at the top of their class all the time. This can easily put a child into toxic stress and make them hate school. We need to teach our kids that working hard and giving school our best is the most important thing, not necessarily what grades we get.
And, if your child is really struggling and needs just a day to sleep in and talk, let them! But make this an exception to the rule, not a commonplace occurrence—you don’t want them to develop a habit of running away from what makes them uncomfortable. But we all do need a break at times!
A mental health day can be a “decompression day”, a way to show young children and teens how to deal with stress and anxiety. “Mental self-care” is something that is not taught often in school, and is desperately needed in our fast-paced society. If our children don’t learn to take care of their minds, they will continually battle in life.
It is a good idea to have “rest days” which can give children and teenagers a time to recoup mentally, as school and growing up in general can be incredibly stressful and taxing. Yet, more importantly, we need to focus on helping our children manage stress and not be afraid of pressure or hard work, because stress is a constant part of life.
Indeed, we need to teach our kids that they should not see themselves as “broken” if they are anxious, stressed or sad. We need to teach them that these are warning signals and show them how to listen to them, self-regulate, and reconceptualize their struggles. This will allow them to see stress as something that can work for them and not against them, build up their mental resilience, and teach them how to make every day enjoyable despite their circumstances.
When your child takes a mental health day, it is good to take this time to teach them how to cope with the stress of life by building up their brains, which will improve their mental resilience when they are going through tough times. This includes reading books and news articles, playing outside and using their imagination, eating well and exercising, getting more sleep, and talking to someone when they are feeling sad or anxious. If they need to spend some time watching TV or playing video games for a bit to decompress and temporarily distract themselves, this is okay too, if it does not become the only way they cope with their mental distress.
This is why I think instead of calling these days mental health days, we should call them “mental self-care days”. This term is less direct, and can help children feel safe to talk about and deal with what they are going through in a loving and non-judgmental environment. Then they can learn mechanisms by which they can cope with stress and build up their mental resilience.
Most importantly, we need to make sure that our children understand that stress, sadness, anxiety and unhappiness are normal parts of life, and that they do not have to suppress their emotions. We should encourage them to talk about how they feel and help them manage their emotions and thoughts every day, not just on mental health days. We need to teach children of all ages to practice mental self-care from the start.
For more on children’s mental health, listen to my podcast (episode #398). If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing. And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media. (Don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).
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2:40 Should children have mental health days?
4:15 Mental health should not be singled as different from the challenges of life that we all face
5:30 The importance of using mental health days to teach our children to manage stress & hardships
9:50 Children also battle with their mental health!
12:20 Why our children need to rest & have fun
15:00 Why we need to find ways to connect with our children
18:00 How to help your child manage the pressures of school
24:00 Why we need to teach our children the value of mental self-care
31:00 A mental health day shouldn’t be a one-off day
This podcast and blog are for educational purposes only and are not intended as medical advice. We always encourage each person to make the decision that seems best for their situation with the guidance of a medical professional.