More than a third of high school students reported mental health challenges during the pandemic.
Taking care of our mental health is just as important as our physical health, and letting students and staff take mental health days is paying off in one school system.
“I think it’s always hard to be the first school division to do something, whether that’s across the country or in the state,” said Brenda Drake, Montgomery County Public Schools Director of Communications.
Students and staff at Montgomery County Public Schools in Virginia can take mental health days. It just counts as a sick day, which is an excused absence. The policy started in 2019, after students pushed for the change.
“There is no tracking or anything that they can just say they were out they were ill, and that is all that it takes to use a mental health day,” said Drake, who said these days can be used for a variety of things. “Stress, overwhelm, feeling like you just need a little bit of a break to really assess a situation, whether it’s school-related or work-related or not. These mental health days allow for that break to happen, so that we can all be at school or at work being our best selves.”
She says there’s no way to track how many mental health days are being used because of the way its reported, but it is helping connect families with resources.
“When a parent indicates that it was a mental health reason, whether a diagnosed condition or not, then the school is able to follow up with the family,” Drake said.
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“School for kids is their job, and sometimes they need to take a step away from their work just like we need to take a step away from our work,” said Jamie Starkey, who works for Family Service of Roanoke Valley.
The organization provides mental health services, at a time when there’s a growing need and not enough providers.
“Mental health days are planned time away, to step away from your normal responsibilities, to intentionally reconnect and rejuvenate your mental health,” Starkey said. “I think a lot of times with kids, we sort of minimize the fact that they really know themselves best and allowing them to take a mental health day really is just us listening to them telling us what they need.”
She says no matter how young your child is, if they’re showing stress, they may need some time away.
“If a kindergartener seems extra tired or irritable, or doesn’t want to go to school one day and you think, ‘Are they just manipulating me?’ Maybe they just need the day,” said Starkey, who adds it doesn’t have to be an entire day.
It can be an afternoon or an hour.
“Maybe you let them go in late, maybe it’s a tardy, maybe it’s breakfast with mom before they go to school, or whatever the case may be that allows them that opportunity to just take a breath and reconnect,” Starkey said. “I think if we can reduce the stigma around mental health, and just look at mental health as health, then it helps kids to realize that everyone has these experiences and these struggles. It keeps kids from, from being other, or disconnected from people because they feel like they’re doing something, or feeling a way that’s different from someone else.”
In Montgomery County, these mental health days are working.
“We’ve been able to connect some students who were flying, kind of right under that radar of things that we might normally look out for, and we were able to get them the help that they needed. That’s what this is about at the end of the day,” Drake said.
A school counselor checks in with the student when they get back to school to see how they’re doing and if there are resources they can provide.
There are some limitations. If a student is out for more than three days, the school may require verification.
If a mental health day doesn’t feel like enough, Starkey says talk to your doctor because you may need more help.
“If you’re sick, you go to the doctor. If you have a mental health challenge, then you seek someone to help you with that. Not addressing your mental health can be detrimental. It can result in physical stress, it can show signs of wear and tear on your body,” Starkey said.
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