When most people have a cold or a migraine, they take the needed time off to recuperate. So why are feelings of stress and anxiety — feelings all too familiar in the American high school of today — not given the same attention?
A few years ago at my school, the district announced a new policy. Students could be exempted from taking their midterm exams — provided they didn’t miss over three days of school.
On face value, as a student, this is an extremely attractive policy — Naturally, skipping hours of studying for exams seems like a plus for the average high schooler. The policy succeeded in increasing students’ attendance — but there’s also been an unintended consequence. Some students feel pressured to show up to school because they know there will be negative consequences, consequences that will be tied to their grades. In our district midterms and finals are worth 10–20% of students’ final grades, a considerable portion of the letter grades that factor into grade-point averages.
This policy has led students who are suffering from issues like anxiety and being overworked to come to school anyway, especially since the three allotted sick days are often necessary during flu season in Michigan. The fact is, mental health is treated differently than physical health.
The attendance incentive at my school isn’t just a localized, one-off policy. It’s indicative of a culture within schools of showing up at the expense of well-being. Students are expected to be active participants in their education: but they can’t give their 100% when they aren’t feeling their 100%.
Enter the mental health day. Merriam Webster defines a mental health day as personal time off “that an employee takes off from work to relieve stress or renew vitality”. In much the same way that working adults take time off to de-stress from the everyday pressures of the office, students should be able to take time off from school to protect their own mental health.
After all, high school can be a hyper-stressful environment: After a full day of school, most high school students devote a couple of hours to extracurricular activities like clubs and sports. Then they might come home to hours’ worth of homework. Some students have part-time jobs. Some students have to drive their siblings around. juggling personal and school responsibilities can be a balancing act: it’s only natural that students may need a break from the constant stimulation.
In Oregon, student activists have argued in favor of the mental health day and won. Just this year, starting July 1st, a bill was signed into law allowing teenagers to take five mental health days within a three month period.
Oregon’s policy is easily replicable in other states. States like Michigan, my home state, would benefit from a similar practice to address mental health issues in Michigan schools.
According to a 2017 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 37% of Michigan high schoolers — and 31% of high schoolers nationwide — indicated “feeling sad or hopeless almost every day for two or more weeks in a row so that they stopped doing some usual activities”. Mental health is clearly a crisis in schools: a silent one. Students who are struggling with issues like depression shouldn’t feel like they are interrupting their own path to progress by taking time to sort out their mental health.
In my district, a mental health day policy wouldn’t have to interrupt our attendance incentive: specially-designated mental health days could be added on to the existing sick days. Students could get a certain amount of mental health days within the quarter or semester.
Taking care of mental health isn’t about coddling students: With teen suicide rates on the rise, it can be a matter of life and death. So if a student says they need to take some time away from school to recharge, trust them. Mental health days should be a mandatory policy in all U.S. secondary schools.