Across the country, the majority of American students attend school for nine months out of the year, only excused from showing up due to physical illness. Simultaneously, more school shooting incidents, suicides, and mental illnesses are taking place within the teenage population than ever before. Do these two facts have anything in common? Student activists in the state of Oregon seem to think so. They have recently banded together to get a bill passed allowing students to take a certain number of ‘mental health days’ as they would sick days during the school year. In their eyes, taking a few ‘mental health days’ every few months might be just what students need to better their well-being and change the stigma around mental health, as Oregon has one of the highest suicide rates in the United States. However, not everyone agrees with their reasoning. While mental health days may sound helpful in theory, they are not the perfect solution for decreasing suicide rates across the nation.
The student activists who pushed this new legislation say there are many reasons to implement ‘mental health days’ into schools in Oregon, including helping to change students’ views on the mental health conversation, encouraging students to speak up about their struggles, and treating mental and physical illnesses equally. Because Oregon has one of the highest suicide rates in the United States, the group of students felt like they needed to take action in a bigger way to combat it. Discussing the concept of suicide in health classes just wasn’t enough. With the new bill, partially inspired by the student-led movement after the Parkland school shooting in Florida, it will be easier for students to speak up when they are struggling. Instead of lying to their parents and the school about needing a sick day, students can come forward with their challenges rather than dealing with them alone.
Making the Law a Reality
Oregon students have done what few others have been able to accomplish. Many student activists have failed in their missions to pass laws for better gun control, lowering the voting age, etc. But this group of students worked with lobbyists and mental health professionals after coming up with the idea at leadership camp to make this law a reality. Therefore, this coming school year in Oregon, students will be allowed up to five excused absences per three months for ‘mental health days,’ and teachers will allow students to make up tests and work when these absences occur.
The Argument Against
However, not everyone is ecstatic about the new ‘mental health day’ policy in the Oregon school system. The main issue many opposers to the bill have is with the vast difference between a student with a mental illness (schizophrenia, severe depression disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, etc.) using a ‘mental health day’ versus a student who is very stressed because they have a hard test the next day or have to run the mile in gym class taking that day off. This concept is not discussed in the bill at all, and the opponents do make a reasonable point.
There is a huge difference between the ‘mental health’ that is tossed around so frequently and mental illness. Everyone has mental health, but not everyone has a mental illness. Mental health is about mental well-being while mental illness is an illness that affects the way a person thinks, feels, and behaves. People can have poor mental health without mental illness or mental illness with good mental health, but the two terms are not interchangeable.
The opponents of this bill also claim that the majority of Oregon students, or students in any state, are not on the verge of a mental breakdown due to a mental illness or disorder and therefore don’t need days off for their mental health. They also say suicidal students and students with severe mental illnesses that can’t hold themselves together in school shouldn’t be going. In turn, there would be no need for those ‘mental health days.’
Whether or not ‘mental health days’ are a part of a school system, students should reach out to a trusted adult or parent if they are feeling suicidal or are battling a mental illness. It’s hard, so hard, but no one should have to face it alone.
These ‘mental health days’ sounded like a good idea at first. However, I have to agree that there is a huge difference between mental health and mental illness which should not be ignored. Not everyone is on the verge of a mental breakdown and needs that extra day off to take a breather. Though some students are, the majority aren’t. I don’t disagree with these ‘mental health days,’ but I don’t completely like the reasoning behind them. Yes, students are more stressed than they should be and sometimes do need a day to recuperate. Yes, students with mental illnesses might just need a break sometimes. But no, I don’t think this is the solution to lowering the suicide rate or breaking the mental health stigma. A couple of days every few months off of school isn’t going to “cure” someone who wants to end their life. It might help other students keep their head on straight through all the madness, but it won’t “fix” those who are suicidal or make them want to talk about it. Mental illness and suicidal thoughts are both ongoing problems that need ongoing treatment. For the typical student, these ‘mental health days’ sound like a great idea. Everyone gets overwhelmed, sad, anxious, and frustrated. A day or two off might help with that, but these days aren’t the solution for those of us with more complicated situations.
Students should take action and start a conversation if they want to implement this policy into their state’s school system. Nevertheless, I would be careful before jumping to the conclusion that these days off will help reduce suicide rates or do anything else rather than help students cope with the stressors of the world, manage their emotions, and take a break once in a while.
The most promising alternative to ‘mental health days’ that may have more of an impact in decreasing suicide rates is providing guidance services for everyone in schools. Many students are often overlooked or avoid speaking to counselors at school when they need it most. If schools hire more counselors or make sure the current counselors have the time and resources to build relationships with each of the students, these students will be more likely to confide in a trusted adult before making a rash decision they cannot take back.
This article was written by a member of the U4SC Staff.[Image attribute: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region]