A new bill passed in Illinois by Governor J.B. Pritzker allows students five excused absences from school without the need for a doctor’s note, beginning in January 2022. The bill acknowledges the increasing number of mental health concerns of students through this preventative measure. In the last two years, other states such as Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, and Virginia have done the same.

The number of mental health emergency visits by children has increased significantly (+24% for aged 5 to 11 years old and
+31% for children 12 to 17) from March 2020 to May 2020 (according to the CDC). Finding ways to support children’s mental health has never been more important. Whether you live in Illinois, another state, or another country- mental health days can be an important tool for student success- both academically and emotionally.

Why should students take mental health days?

Just as a sore throat or headache can make it difficult to focus and participate in class, symptoms of mental health concerns like anxiety, depression, or ADHD can do the same.

For example, children struggling with anxiety can suffer from recurring thoughts and panic attacks, while children experiencing depression can have difficulty sleeping and can struggle with a lack of motivation.

Just like a traditional sick day, a mental health day provides students an opportunity to reset and recharge. This could be as simple as taking a day off from that college essay that is causing anxiety and frustration and returning the next day rejuvenated and ready to work again. It could also be engaging in a sport or physical activity that allows for a release of energy and an increase in positive emotions. Mental health days allow students the opportunity to learn what helps them to recharge, while also noticing what feels good for them and their mental well-being.

How do I talk to children about mental health days?

While mental health days are different from sick days, the reason is consistent for when to use them- you are not feeling well enough to learn, be social, and be productive at school that day. It may feel tricky to figure out a balance for what a mental health day is and means for individual children, but continued conversations around the topic can help to bring clarity.

Educating children about their own limits and body cues is important. Just as you would do for a fever or sore throat, asking children what psychological and physiological symptoms they are experiencing can help to create the next steps. Are they feeling distracted and emotional? Are they having intrusive and repetitive thoughts? Are they having difficulty sleeping? Take time with the child to assess their symptoms and the severity of those symptoms to make an informed decision.

Along with educating and assessing, helping children to come up with a plan of steps to actively cope that day can be helpful. Starting with “What do you need today?” can be a helpful first question to build off of. Helping children to brainstorm the next steps and ways to take care of themselves and their mental health is a great way to create awareness, practice strategies, and build confidence in the ability to conquer days that feel difficult to overcome.

While a day of rest to reset will not be the answer to all mental health concerns during the school year, the opportunity to take mental health days can be a helpful tool in a student’s toolbox for a fulfilling school year.