Health experts have expressed concern over the mental health effects of the pandemic, and the media has reported on issues like increases in loneliness, distress, and depression in the wake of stay-at-home orders. One group that may be particularly vulnerable to the stress of the pandemic is adolescents, who have experienced complete changes in their lifestyles. Prior to the pandemic, they enjoyed extracurricular activities, time with friends, and the excitement that comes with transitioning into a more independent role.
As the pandemic took hold, teens were forced to give up sports, isolate themselves from friends, and find a way to stay on top of schoolwork from behind a computer screen, with no in-person instruction from teachers. This has had undeniable effects on teens’ mental health. In fact, a review of 12 different studies found that teens were especially vulnerable to anxiety and depression as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
With increases in mental health problems in youth, educators, policymakers, and mental health experts have come together to find solutions. In Illinois, lawmakers recently passed a bill, which goes into effect January 1, 2022, allowing students across the state to take a mental health day. Students will be permitted to make up work, but they do not have to submit a doctor’s note when missing school for this reason. After a student’s second mental health day, a school counselor is required to contact the family to help them get professional intervention for the student.
Is this plan of allowing mental health days appropriate? A look at the facts surrounding mental illness can be helpful for determining the answer to this question.
Symptoms of Mental Illness and Stigma
One thing to consider in the discussion of whether teens should be able to miss school for a mental health day is the stigma, or negative attitudes, that people hold toward those with mental illness. Research suggests that people tend to have negative perceptions of those with mental health conditions, which can make people who live with conditions like depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder feel rather ashamed and fearful of seeking help.
Stigma only ends up making things worse for teens who have mental illness. They may be less likely to stay in treatment if they feel that others have negative attitudes toward them, and they are also at risk of damaged self-esteem, difficulty with peer relationships, and increased severity of mental health symptoms. What all of this means is that a teen who has a mental health condition may have a difficult time functioning at school. Not only are adolescents who live with mental illness fighting against the stigma that can come along with asking for help; they are also experiencing mental health symptoms that can make it difficult to perform their best at school.
Consider the fact that symptoms of mental health disorders can include some or all of the following:
- Excessive worrying
- Extreme sadness
- Difficulty with learning and concentrating
- Severe mood swings
- Withdrawing from friends and leisure activities
- Changes in sleep patterns, resulting in extreme fatigue
- Thoughts of suicide
- Extreme difficulty completing daily tasks or managing stress
A teen who is experiencing the above symptoms will likely have some difficulty being successful at school. On days when mental health symptoms are particularly severe, or the student is in a mental health crisis, it is understandable that they would be better off staying home and caring for themselves, rather than trying to go through the motions at school. Just as a high fever or bouts of nausea can keep a student home from school, significant mental health symptoms can lead to the need for a sick day.
So are mental health days a viable solution?
Based upon what is known about mental illness, and the fact that mental health disorders are legitimate health conditions, it is reasonable that a teen who has a mental health condition may sometimes need to miss school to address their symptoms. After all, mental health disorders affect the brain, which is undeniably a part of the body, and it would quite frankly be discriminatory to allow students to miss school for the flu but punish them for staying home when they are suffering from a panic attack.
Allowing students to stay homesick when they are having significant mental health symptoms seems appropriate and just, but it’s important that repeated mental health days do not become a solution. Simply allowing students to stay home from school, but never requiring them to seek treatment, does not seem productive. Illinois lawmakers seemed to have students’ best interests at heart when they developed the requirement that schools reach out and offer help to students who have taken a second mental health day. If a mental health disorder goes untreated, symptoms are likely to worsen, and a student may miss more and more school over time, which ultimately harms them.
The best solution is for students who are struggling to be linked to resources, such as professional counselors, social workers, or therapists, who can help them to process their feelings and learn to cope with symptoms so that they are not interfering with daily life. Just as we allow students to miss school for infections or for medical problems like diabetes, they should be permitted time off to address mental health symptoms. Perhaps by normalizing the act of caring for mental health, schools and policymakers will reduce some of the stigma around mental illness, making teens more likely to speak up when they need help in the first place.
If a teenager in your life is in need of mental health treatment in the Santa Barbara area, Mission Harbor Behavioral Health serves this community and surrounding Southern California locations. We have a treatment track that specifically addresses adolescent mental health, and we invite family members to participate in the teen’s treatment. Contact us today to learn how we can help your teenager learn to cope with mental health symptoms so they can perform their best at school and in other important areas of life.