Schools Must Offer & Normalize Mental Health Days


Media by Emmie Foley

Schools have an obligation to prioritize students’ mental and emotional health, affording them equitable access to mental health services and mandatory lessons, events and information, whether or not the student is attending virtually or in-person. RSD and MHS must serve as role models and demonstrate that the importance of students wellbeing outweighs their academic performance, so young people may grow to value the importance of self-preservation and self-care.

As a sophomore, I developed a daily routine: I’d wake up with an early morning depressive episode, suppress my hopelessness at school and end the day with a panic attack. I was lifeless, shielding my instability behind a keen work ethic and bright smile. 

One day, I was hotlined and sent to the counselor’s office, only to be trapped in a seemingly interrogation-like session where I spoke with professionals who encouraged me to speak about my mental illness, which I was not ready to acknowledge like I am now in my senior year. 

Outside of school, I’ve delved into an abundance of opportunities to prioritize and address my mental health issues in a personalized manner, rather than facing deficits in mental health staff in public schools and the underlying stigma associated with mental health awareness.

The privilege to take care of oneself, devoid of judgement and criticism in a stressful environment, should be universal with the implementation of a “mental health day” for RSD schools. This specific excused absence would allow students suffering from emotional, mental and physical illnesses five ‘valid absences’ over a three-month period. In addition, district-based mental health services, tips and resources could be offered upon request to students in comparison to traditional sick days.

Teens’ often normalize their mental and emotional turmoil for the sake of their main priority—success in school—and disregard self-care and stress relief as an optional, side task.”

I am not alone in struggling with mental health issues as 1 in 6 children between the ages of 6 and 17 experience a mental health disorder each year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among people ages 10-34 nationwide and youth ages 10-24 in Missouri, according to the Missouri Institute of Mental Health.

Students have had to live through mass shootings, political polarization, racial unrest, economic downturn and social isolation due to the global pandemic. This unprecedented chaos is only intensified by concerns of overwhelming coursework, a competitive academic environment and the pressure to excel in extracurriculars and college applications. 

Teens’ often normalize their mental and emotional turmoil for the sake of their main priority—success in school—and disregard self-care and stress relief as an optional, side task. 

Missed class time can be made up, but a students’ life can’t be. It should not be the standard for students to suppress their struggles, avert an emotional breakdown and place their value in their grades in order to survive the school day or avoid being labeled “weak.”

A mental health day would allow students to begin their path to find self-care, therapy or other specialized support, potentially with the support of family or peers, and to learn to use their independence and leisure time effectively.

Virtual learning has put up a screen between students seeking guidance and connection with their teachers, lessening the role of educators’ in recognizing and helping their students on a daily basis in class more than that of counselors’ who serve hundreds of students schoolwide.

As an agent of change, schools are responsible for taking this crucial opportunity to stigmatize and validate students’ mental and physical health concerns. Continuous improvement to mental health policies and services as well as increased support for minority and students of color who often face prejudice and discrimination is vital for districtwide progress.

Trust in students and an emphasis on promoting personal accountability will be key as it is inevitable that mental health days will face criticism for allowing students more opportunities to leave school. 

Students and staff deserve to attend a school where administration provides the ability to consider mental health awareness, holistic health and academic performance with equal importance.