by Misty Pratt
When I was in Grade 10, I decided to volunteer to work on our school's fashion show committee. The event was a hoot (the fact that I've called it a "hoot" may indicate how long ago I was in high school). Local clothing stores sponsored us, and hyped-up teenagers took to the stage with music pumping and lights flashing. In a school with a large music and arts program, it was an amazing event.
But let's count how many other activities I was involved in that year: school orchestra, city-wide orchestra, choir, cheerleading, and piano lessons...with the occasional art class thrown in just for fun.
To say my schedule was packed is an understatement. I remember trying to finish math homework in the auditorium one afternoon, while waiting for my turn on the catwalk (because of course, I had to maintain my straight A's during this busy time of my life!) A friend made a joke, and I started to giggle. The giggle quickly turned to tears, but not the good kind of tears - this was a big ol' sob fest that lasted ten minutes. My friend shot me a strange look and left me alone to sniffle into my tissue.
I read a comment the other day that took me right back to that day in my school auditorium. The parent who was writing did not agree with children taking time off school for no reason (other than true physical or mental illness). The parent's argument was that teachers have enough to deal with, without having to catch up the kids who decide that school just doesn't suit them that particular day.
Are mental health days appropriate, even for children with no diagnosed mental health issue?
When I go back to that younger version of me in the auditorium, I wonder what might have happened if someone had told me to take a day off. Honestly, I probably would have said "no way, no time." High-achieving kids with anxiety have a wonderful knack for working themselves up into full-on breakdown mode. But a community that's supportive of taking time when it's needed might have prevented some more serious issues down the road.
Let's look at some mental health facts (source - CAMH):
70% of mental health problems have their onset during childhood or adolescence
Young people aged 15 to 24 are more likely to experience mental illness and/or substance use disorders than any other age group
The economic burden of mental illness in Canada is estimated at $51 billion per year. This includes health care costs, lost productivity, and reductions in health-related quality of life
In Ontario the annual cost of alcohol-related health care, law enforcement, corrections, lost productivity, and other problems is estimated to be $5.3 billion.
A growing body of international evidence demonstrates that promotion, prevention, and early intervention initiatives show positive returns on investment.
Based on these statistics, should we not be taking mental health days more seriously? In the long run, I wonder if children who truly need to step back and take a breather should be encouraged to do so, BEFORE a "true" mental health issue develops.
But how many days? Will children abuse the privilege of taking mental health days?
To answer my second question, yes they will. Some kids would certainly take the opportunity to take time off school, just as there are adults all over the world doing the same thing at work. It's a fine line to walk - when does your child truly need a break, and when should they be encouraged to suck it up?
To determine what might work best for your family, here are some questions to consider:
- How many days has your child been away from school in the past month? The occasional day off will not have an effect on your child's academic achievement, but frequent absences can certainly impact grades.
- Is the desire for a mental health day coming from the child, or from the parent or teacher? Often children who are struggling have difficulty with self-regulation - they don't really know it's time for a break.
- What's going on in the child's life? If a child is frequently needing time off school, are there underlying issues that need to be addressed? A busy schedule that could be pared down? Bullying? A learning disability?
- Do you need to consider alternative forms of education for your child? It's possible they are not being challenged enough in their school, or struggle in a traditional education setting.
- How has your past relationship with school informed your current view? Maybe you were forced to go to school every day by your parents, even when deathly ill - you feel strongly that your child should do the same. Or maybe you were allowed to stay home from school anytime you wanted, and your academic performance suffered. You need to take into account your own biases towards schooling and mental health when making a decision.
In a country where 1 in 5 people struggle with mental health illnesses, we need to be looking a the heart of the issue. So many factors are at play - genetic, environmental, and societal issues - that determine why one child will develop a mental health illness and another will not. It's complicated, but early prevention and intervention can be key.
I'm not arguing that the solution is as simple as taking the occasional break. But it's certainly an easy way to educate children on the importance of self-care and down time. Our world may operate at lightening speed, but our children don't have to.
Do you let your children take mental health days? Why or why not?