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Why a mental health day can be good for your child

Parent taking their child to school

An occasional day off can help kids manage stress and get a chance to recharge. Here’s what parents should know.

Being a kid: It really is one of the best times of your life. You’re making friends, learning new things, and having fun. But there are challenges, too, from standardized tests and competitive sports to social conflicts and cyberbulling.1

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that nearly 10% of kids between ages 3 and 17 have been diagnosed with anxiety at some point in their lives. That’s 5.8 million children.2

School and a busy activity schedule can be a source of stress for kids. One way to help: a mental health day. Here’s what parents need to know.

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What exactly is a mental health day?

A mental health day is a day off from school, weekend chores or any other activity that lets a kid rest and recharge. “[It’s] a retreat from daily responsibilities,” says psychologist Michelle G. Paul, PhD. She’s the executive director of the UNLV Practice: A Community Mental Health Clinic at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. And the idea is growing in popularity across the country.

In fact, at least 12 states now allow students an excused absence from public school for a mental health day. Ten of those states started this policy during the pandemic.3 Check with your school district to learn about their policy.

But one thing’s the same no matter where you live. Lots of kids are feeling stressed out and overwhelmed, and parents are noticing.

One recent poll by the National Alliance on Mental Illness found that 70% of parents supported mental health days for their children.4 And 89% said that their children’s mental health is more important than their academic achievement.4

How can kids benefit from a mental health day?

It’s no secret that kids today are under a lot of pressure. And a lot of that pressure comes from school. Half of middle schoolers and 56% of high school students say that stress, anxiety and depression are obstacles to learning. That’s according to a recent national survey by YouthTruth, a nonprofit organization.5

This time off from school and extracurricular activities can give students a chance to connect with these important “re” words, says Paul:

  • Restore: Return to a feeling of calm.
  • Recharge: Renew interest in school and activities. 
  • Relax: Let go of tension.
  • Refocus: Change the focus of problems.
  • Reconnect: After a break, tap back into your social networks.
  • Recuperate: A little extra rest goes a long way toward improving health.

How can I tell if my child needs a mental health day?

Think your child might need a one-day break from school or other activities? The Child Mind Institute suggests asking questions like:6

  • Are you feeling overwhelmed at school?
  • Did something upsetting happen, such as an argument with a friend or an embarrassing moment in class?
  • Are you worried about schoolwork?
  • Did you just finish a big project or take an important test?
  • Are you feeling anxious or sad?
  • Are you worried about something at home, such as a sick pet or moving?

These questions can be great conversation starters. Your child’s answers can give you important clues about their emotional wellbeing. And their answers may help provide information on whether it would be beneficial for your child to be evaluated or treated by a mental health professional.

Sometimes starting a good conversation with the children in your life can be tough. Need some tips? Download these conversation starter cards to help check in and move beyond one-word answers.

So, trust your gut. If your child seems to really need a break, give them the green light. Discourage the myth that they have to keep pushing through, no matter how bad they feel.

“Going to school, doing homework, learning a new instrument and trying hard things are all great,” Paul says. But doing too much can make a child feel overwhelmed. A mental health day may be just what they need.

On the other hand, you should seek help if your child is consistently struggling with anxiety or depression. Speak with your child’s doctor, as recommended by the National Institute of Mental Health.7 They can refer you to a mental health professional who treats children. Your kid’s school may also offer counseling services.

What should my child do on a mental health day?

Remember, a mental health day isn’t an all-day at-home study hall. Nor should it be a day of napping or scrolling on their phone.

Your child may spend some of their time catching up on school work so they don’t fall behind. But encourage them to engage in healthy, calming and restorative activities, too, like:

  • Taking a walk outside. Spending some quiet time in nature.
  • Getting creative. Doing some baking, drawing, needlework or painting.
  • Trying mindfulness activities or doing some yoga poses.
  • Going for a run or a bike ride.
  • Listening to calming music or reading a book for pleasure.

And you’ll want to follow up with them about whether it worked. If they start asking to stay home from school regularly, you’ll want to be sure they’re not trying to avoid:

  • Going to school
  • Interactions with certain kids or groups at school or adults they interact while at school. 
  • Schoolwork
  • important tests or quizzes

It’s also important to note that a mental health day isn’t a replacement for an evaluation or treatment by a mental health professional. Talk to your child’s doctor about the best path forward if their stress, anxiety and depression persist.

Sources:

  1. Office of the Surgeon General. Protecting Youth Mental Health: The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory. Published 2021. Accessed September 12, 2023.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Data and Statistics on Children’s Mental Health. Updated March 8, 2023. Accessed September 12, 2023.
  3. Education Week. More Schools Are Offering Student Mental Health Days. Here’s What You Need to Know. Published January 19, 2023. Accessed September 12, 2023.
  4. National Alliance on Mental Illness. NAMI Poll: Parents Want Mental Health Education in Schools, Mental Health Days Off for Students. Published December 15, 2021. Accessed September 12, 2023.
  5. YouthTruth. Insights from the Student Experience: Emotional and Mental Health. Published 2022. Accessed September 12, 2023.
  6. Child Mind Institute. Should Kids Take Mental Health Days? Last updated January 26, 2023. Accessed September 12, 2023.
  7. National Institute of Mental Health. Children and Mental Health: Is This Just a Stage? Last revised 2021. Accessed September 12, 2023.

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If you or someone you know is in crisis— seek safety and get help right away. If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 911 or go to the closest emergency room.

To reach a trained crisis counselor, call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (previously known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) at 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255). You may also text 988 or chat at 988lifeline.org. The lifeline provides 24/7 free and confidential support.

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