If one thing has come from the global coronavirus pandemic, it’s that mental health deserves to be a priority. For those who ignored the importance of it before, weeks of lockdown and forced isolation proved just how significant our mental health is for over wellbeing and happiness. But while the mental health crisis has long been overshadowed by other issues, across much of the world, people are now talking about it without shame or judgment. And for kids in the United States, they’re now pushing for mental health to be a priority, with a number of schools adopting a bill that will allow students to be absent from school due to reasons pertaining to mental health.
It’s hard to grasp just how profound the pandemic has been for school students. Even for University students, theirs is a life that has been turned upside down as they resort to remote learning. For teachers across the country, this has been a challenging period and it’s hard to imagine just what it’s doing to children who can’t meet up with friends, have play dates, or are perhaps feeling left behind due to inadequate equipment, resources, or simply a difficulty with the online learning system.
As the New York Times reports, sweeping changes across the United States have seen a number of states embrace a new pill that permits children to be absent from school for mental or behavioural health reasons. Already, such bills are in place in Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Virginia, with Utah now becoming the latest to decide that a “valid excuse” for a student’s absence can now include “mental or behavioural health”. It’s a significant milestone for schools and students alike, and not only allows children to acknowledge and prioritise their mental health, but broadens the definition from that which used to solely identify mental illness.
While some still believe the idea of a mental health day is murky territory, with no resounding definition currently being used to define it or how best to spend it, it essentially affords a day to reset and take a break from your regular routine. Even for adults, a mental health day can be vital. Think about those instances where you suffered a loss, went through a tumultuous breakup, or simply felt burnt out and exhausted. Having just one day off without judgment to recalibrate can do wonders.
As NYT reports, many of these changes were a direct result of campaigns led by students themselves. According to reports, in 2020 advocacy group Mental Health America surveyed teenagers about the top three things that would be most helpful for their mental health. More than half of the respondents cited the ability to take a mental health break or absence from either school or work. This is further supported by a poll of more than 1,500 teenagers conducted in May of 2020 by Harris Poll, which discovered 78 per cent of those surveyed said schools should support mental health days to allow students to prioritise their health.
Medical directors and experts have cautioned parents to use the mental health day their children choose to take carefully. Some advocate for using it as a means of celebrating your child’s efforts in school, but caution that such days off should not be taken simply to help your child avoid situations at school that are making them uncomfortable. In these instances, if it’s a result of anxiety or depression, it involves a deeper conversation and perhaps, a long-term solution that can’t be addressed with a day or two off.
Still, the implementation of such a bill in the United States is cause for celebration, and certainly illustrates the need to keep advocating for and championing mental health. Hopefully it will only be a matter of time before such a thing becomes a law here in Australian schools, too.