Adults in the workforce occasionally take a mental health day as a way to avoid burnout and dedicate time to self-care. But new legislation promotes the idea of teens taking a mental health day from school. The law comes in response to research teen anxiety, depression, and suicide rates are higher than ever before.
Championed by four teenage activists, the Oregon provision excuses student absences for mental or behavioral health reasons. And it’s no coincidence that it was passed in a state where the suicide rate is 33 percent higher than the national average. As the teen mental health crisis reaches epidemic proportions across the country, this could be the start of a national trend.
What Is a Mental Health Day?
Taking a mental health day from school is a chance for teens 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. Plus, it provides time for rest, reflection, and recharging.
Moreover, teen mental health days bring awareness to the challenges that today’s adolescents face. In addition, they foster open dialogue about this issue. As a result, the concept of taking a mental health day from school has the potential to reduce stigma around mental illness.
“[Mental health days] are about recognizing that this is a real need. Kids suffer, families suffer, and the only way we can do better is by more universal recognition that these things are very normal and common, but we sweep them under the rug.”
—Chris B. Bouneff, executive director, National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) in Oregon
What a Mental Health Day Is Not
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 a mental health day 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.
What to Do on a Mental Health Day
Here are 10 activities 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.
A mental health day 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.
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 exercise impacts serotonin levels, bolstering well-being and reducing depressive symptoms. Hence, a teen mental health day should include some form of movement—such as dancing, hiking, yoga, or sports.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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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