Exploring the need for mental health days

Pressure—it’s the one commonality among almost every top school at every level above elementary in the United States. The quality of your education and how well you do in school play a large role in determining the quality of your life, so while it isn’t the end all be all, education is serious business for everyone involved, not just those that sell school supplies.

The pressure on students, in particular, can strain and damage their mental health. A combination of high-profile celebrities opening up about their struggles and increased focus on the mental health crisis in America has put some pressure on educational institutions to safeguard student mental health. One way to do so is to have a mental health day. 

Mental health days serve to give students a break and an opportunity to seek help if they need it. There isn’t a consensus on how to properly have a mental health day on a college campus, so how should colleges plan mental health days?

Before we even consider how colleges should plan mental health days, we should articulate why. The purpose of mental health days should first and foremost be to help students stay mentally healthy, cope with stress, etc. The negative effects of stress and pressure to succeed in college are best handled with proactive action from institutions.

With this reasoning in mind, a new question arises. Are organization-wide, scheduled mental health days the best method available to educational institutions for keeping students mentally healthy? 

I would say no. Scheduled mental health days assume everyone has similar mental health needs and that those needs can be met by a scheduled day off. Both of those premises aren’t necessarily true. The easiest way to illustrate this point is to look at how we take care of our physical health.

For those that want to stay physically healthy, the best way is regular checkups, exercise, and avoiding too much exertion. Coupled with the occasional medical intervention in reaction to major issues like a broken bone or serious sprain, these strategies can help safeguard physical health.

As a society, we don’t just occasionally give everyone a day off to work on their physical health and leave it at that like with mental health. We combine proactive care and intervention.

If we apply this strategy of proactive care with occasional major interventions to mental health, what would it look like on a college campus?

Well, firstly the hypothetical students would be able and be encouraged to see a medical professional regularly to evaluate their mental state. They would regularly work on managing their mental health themselves and teach themselves how to cope with stress. They would also have a manageable workload with plenty of time to rest while also seeking help if the pressure they feel or stress becomes overwhelming.

This is a good starting point, but now the question is how can colleges or universities help their students emulate this model.

Firstly there would be regular breaks for students to rest and recuperate during the school year, more so than just holidays. If we view both class time and time spent doing homework and studying as mental labor, the average student is exerting themselves a lot, and that much labor necessitates time off to prevent burnout.

Students would also be equipped with the tools to get help for mental health issues, and not just major ones. Students should be able to see a therapist or psychiatrist for whatever issues they have without excessive red tape or stigma.

Finally, students should be allowed and encouraged to simply take days off if they feel like they need to. Educational institutions can’t predict when an individual student will need some time off, so they shouldn’t be planning days off for everyone, let everyone decide when they will need one.

That last point might seem to be the hardest to implement as it could be gamed and make learning hard for the student taking time off, but almost every school already has an incredibly similar system in place with sick days. Simply allowing for mental health “sick” days, excused time off for students with opportunities to make up work, could go a long way.

Keeping students mentally healthy is in the best interest of all educational institutions, but the best way to do so isn’t to occasionally announce a school-wide day off. To really protect the mental health of students, colleges should be consistently giving students time off and making it easy for them to address their personal mental health needs with professionals.