Taking a Mental Health Day from School

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As teen anxiety, depression, and suicide rates continue to rise, the idea of taking a mental health day from school has become increasingly popular. School districts around the country are canceling classes to give students, as well as staff, much-needed time off from the pressures of attending in-person school during the pandemic.

There have been more than 3,000 school closures specifically for mental health needs so far this year, according to Burbio, a digital platform that aggregates school event information. That represents more than a third of all school closures in 2021; the other two-thirds were for COVID-related or staffing reasons.

In tandem with the teen mental health crisis, behavioral problems in classrooms have also gone up, exacerbating school stress. Mental health days not only give students and staff a break, they also help to reduce the stigma around mental health struggles.

What Is a Mental Health Day?

Taking a mental health day from school is a chance for teens—and staff—to reset their nervous system and get out of fight-or-flight mode. It’s a break from the everyday stress of tests, deadlines, and social pressures, in addition to the stressors brought on by the pandemic. A mental health day from school can give students the opportunity to practice stress relief exercises, rest, reflect, and recharge.

Moreover, teen mental health days help reduce the stigma around mental illness, building on the broader dialogue on this issue. Since the start of the pandemic, this conversation has continued to expand—most recently as a result of the US Surgeon General’s advisory on youth mental health.

What Not to Do on a Mental Health Day

For many teens, it can be tempting to spend the day binge-watching TV, scrolling through social media, or napping away the afternoon. However, a true mental health day is not about kicking back—or at least not just about kicking back. While some downtime is appropriate, overdoing the online activity and media consumption is likely to have a negative impact on mood.

Furthermore, the free time provided by taking a mental health day from school can increase the risk of teen drinking, drug use, or other risky behavior. Here’s where parent involvement can be helpful: Parents can help adolescents plan healthy activities aimed at alleviating stress.

Newport Academy Resource Post Mental Health taking a mental health day from school

What to Do on a Mental Health Day

There are many variations on how to take a mental health day. Here are 10 stress relief exercises to try when taking a mental health day from school.

Catch up on sleep.

Teens suffer more than any other age group from lack of sleep—due to homework, late-night cellphone use, and biological hardwiring that keeps them up later. In fact, fewer than 9 percent of teens get enough sleep. Teens can catch up on Zs the night before and the night after a mental health day. But they shouldn’t sleep away the day—it’s important to use the time to do things that truly boost happiness.

Take time to eat well.

Because they’re often rushed and overscheduled, teens are notorious for eating poorly or skipping meals altogether. That takes a toll, because good nutrition is essential for mental well-being, not just physical health. Scientists have identified specific nutrients that protect against depression. In addition, eating in a relaxed atmosphere, without time constraints, improves digestion and mood.

 Unplug.

Taking a mental health day from school is the perfect opportunity for a digital detox. Unplugging frees up time for IRL activities and also separates teens from social media, which has been shown to increase symptoms of depression and anxiety.

 Spend time in nature.

Because teens are in classrooms five days a week, their time outside is limited. Therefore, a mental health day is a great chance to spend time in nature, proven to lower the stress hormone cortisol. As a result, stress, depression, and anxiety levels go down to prevent burnout from school.

Cultivate authentic connections.

Supportive, caring relationships—with peers, parents, siblings, and other relatives—are essential to adolescent well-being. Therefore, a teen mental health day might include quality, face-to-face time with a trusted friend or family member.

Move your body.

Studies show that stress relief exercises impacts serotonin levels, bolstering well-being and reducing depressive symptoms. Hence, taking a mental health day from school should include some form of movement—such as dancing, hiking, yoga, or sports. 

Express yourself. 

Visual art, music, and journaling are beneficial activities for processing emotions and tapping into creativity. “Creative pursuits provide a way to be grounded in the moment,” says Kristin Wilson, Vice President of Clinical Outreach at Newport Academy. “In addition, creativity can give teens a feeling of mastery.”

Meditate.

Research has found that meditation is just as effective as antidepressants. And it doesn’t have to be done seated cross-legged on a cushion. Teens can take a mindful walk, paying attention to the sights, sounds, and scents around them. A slow yoga practice or breathing exercise can also support a meditative state of mind.

Help someone else.

Studies show that doing good for others makes us happier. So teens might spend time with a younger sibling, volunteer at an animal shelter, or help serve a meal at a soup kitchen while taking a mental health day from school.

Do things that spark joy.  

When teens slow down and tap into what they really need, they’re more likely to choose behaviors that support their thriving. That’s true on mental health days and every day.

 

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Psychiatr Danub. 2012 Mar;24(1):90-3.