The importance of mental health days


Earlier this month, Madalyn Parker, a Michigan-based web developer shared an email interaction with her boss in which he supported her need to take off work to focus on her mental health. While mental health issues are not new, only recently has acceptance of these issues grown. It's because of the stigma that still surrounds mental illness that this tweet was so widely discussed.

Adults, like Parker, may use their sick days to focus on mental health. However, young people aren't generally able or encouraged do so, even when they need a day off.

Childhood and adolescence are more challenging than adults may acknowledge. In addition to navigating everyday growing pains, young people are juggling friendships, schoolwork and extracurricular activities. It seems that today's youth have more to manage than kids did in years past and face even more pressure to succeed.

Related: Mental health facts by country

[See: 10 Concerns Parents Have About Their Kids' Health.]

Many children and teens struggle with mental health conditions. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 1 in 5 kids ages 13 to 18 have a mental health disorder. Often, mental health issues are minimized and young people are essentially told to "get over it" or that their struggles are just a part of life, and they're left to deal with them on their own.

Opening a discussion about mental health early on teaches young people that it's OK to feel overwhelmed and ask for help, to take care of yourself and to say that you aren't feeling your best emotionally. Addressing mental health worries means better school performance and less physical illness. Taking a mental health day can help improve focus, performance and overall mental strength. Having more candid conversations about mental health issues will also help reduce stigma and increase acceptance.

Here are some signs parents should heed that children might need to take a mental health day:

  • They are physically present but not engaged.

  • They are more emotional than usual, easy to anger or tearful.

  • They get frustrated more easily than usual.

  • They appear depressed or are isolating themselves.

  • They start avoiding school and schoolwork.

  • They aren't interested in being social or doing anything they love.

  • They are overwhelmed and need that day to focus on a project or studying for a test. Be mindful that this isn't more than a day or two. More than that may be indicative of a bigger problem. If you have concerns that a child may be dealing with a mental health condition, such as depression or an anxiety disorder, make sure they see a mental health professional.

Related: Famous faces who have battled depression

[Read: Helping Kids Cope With Anxiety.]

A mental health day needs to be about re-energizing and focusing on relaxing and regrouping. Whatever that looks like to your child should be encouraged, within reason. If your child needs to focus on that project and feels that will help her manage anxiety, let her. If he needs to sleep on and off all day, that's fine. Maybe your child wants to spend the day with you, just connecting and being around you; encourage that if you can.

The reality is, it's not just about recharging on a single mental health day. It's about developing healthy stress management skills every day. The more positive experiences your child has, the less likely he or she will be to become overwhelmed. Here are some other ways parents can help kids develop these skills and be more resilient:

  • Encourage kids to do things they love outside of school. Finding opportunities to do things they enjoy and be with friends and family will boost their spirits and equip them to better manage when they face challenges.

  • Teach them how to take care of their physical health. Parents should stress the importance of getting regular exercise, and do so themselves to lead by example. Also, work as a family to eat healthy. Food can have a negative impact on your mood, so try to incorporate positive choices. When kids don't feel well physically that will impact how they feel mentally.

  • Talk about mental health. Encourage kids to talk about their concerns. Validate that feeling anxious and sad is a typical part of life. Be available to them when they need to talk about how they are feeling.

  • Set limits so your child isn't overextended. Kids don't know how to do this themselves. If you notice that your child is doing too much, talk about how to cut back and find downtime.

  • Take time off as a family. It needn't be a huge amount of time. For example, you might make sure the house is quiet for a few hours and focus on self-care.

Related: Illnesses that seem like anxiety

It's easy to think that by allowing your child a mental health day you are treating them as fragile or coddling them. The truth is, we all need mental health days. When we are struggling to manage the day-to-day ins and outs of life, we just need to hit the pause button sometimes.

[See: 8 Things You Didn't Know About Counseling.]

If we can shift our way of thinking toward promoting self-care, we teach our young people that it's OK to stop and take a breath, and that taking care of themselves is vital. This lesson is one that can only serve them well throughout their lives.